Would the Philippines be better off without the United Nations?

Philippines’ President Duterte has responded to United Nations criticism of his bloody purge of drug dealers with a quip that perhaps his country should leave the global forum. But with an ongoing battle over the South China Sea and millions of dollars of aid at risk, there could be no worse time to leave. 

By Dung Phan

In the heat of 37 degrees, Dominic Albert, a 38-year-old Filippino businessman took a sip of beer and opened a Facebook album on his smartphone. “I named it iconic photos, that includes historical war images like the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, a Viet Cong suspect that was killed, and the latest picture of a Syrian boy pulled from rubble after an airstrike,” Albert said. For a few seconds, he stopped on one picture. “This is a disaster. I know a president is also a human that can make mistakes. But what he has been doing is a disaster.”

It is a viral photo, first appearing on the front page of The Philippine Daily Inquirer in which a woman is weeping and cradling her husband; an alleged drug pusher shot dead in Duterte’s war on drugs. The Philippines has recorded In fact, about 1,800 drug-related killings have occurred since Duterte took office seven weeks ago. And the mounting death toll is unlikely to stop anytime soon; Duterte has vowed to maintain his “shoot-to-kill” order against drug dealers.

Recently, he even threatened to “separate from the United Nations (UN)” after it called for an end to the deaths. “I tell you, you are an inutile,” said Duterte, criticising the international organisation for not doing enough to address hunger, terrorism  or what is happening in Syria and Iraq. But only two days later, he told reporters in an interview that he was not serious about that threat. “You can’t take a joke?” he asked.

If someone can, it is certainly not Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay. Right after Duterte threatened to pull the Philippines out of the UN, Yasay was quick to walk those comments back. At a press briefing the next day, he justified Duterte’s comments by saying that the president was “tired, disappointed and frustrated and angry.”

Is the UN “an inutile”?

It is likely that Duterte is so occupied with his large-scale killing of drug users that he forgot the Philippines has benefitted from many UN aid and assistance programmes in recent years.

It was the UN that was among the first to reach out to the Philippines to launch an appeal for $301m to help relief efforts after Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). It was also the UN that helped fund affected communities in the 2013 Zamboanga siege. In response to Duterte’s criticism, the city government of Zamboanga made a statement to express its gratitude to the global body for its support.

Meanwhile, United Nations Children’s Fund projects feed and protect children, the International Labour Organisation campaigns on labour rights, and efforts by the United Nations Development Programme help thousands to  start and grow their own businesses. The UN currently provides thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the Philippines every year.

We have a lot to lose. If one is not a member of the UN, [then] said country will be ostracised by the international community. The UN is the most important institution in the country, which was founded after World War II. The existing world order is based on the UN,” said Jean Franco, a professor at University of the Philippines.

Lessons from history

In fact, there is no provision in the United Nations Charter for a country to voluntarily withdraw from the organisation. This aims to prevent using the threat of withdrawal as a form of political blackmail or to steer clear of obligations. However, in 1965 Indonesia’s then-President Sukarno declared that Indonesia would leave the UN to oppose the body’s decision to give Malaysia a seat on the Security Council. At that time, Indonesia was at undeclared war with Kuala Lumpur.

Indonesia then decided to create a new bloc named CONEFO which was supposed to be an alternative power centre to the UN, with a membership made up of countries like China, North Korea and North Vietnam. China was the only country who publicly supported the Indonesia’s “wise and resolute” decision, stressing that “this is a great encouragement for the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America fighting against imperialism.

The CONEFO was dissolved after only 18 months when a military coup under General Suharto took power. The Indonesian government then expressed its gratitude and pledged to cooperate fully with the UN upon its return. Now Duterte wants to recreate history; proposing to invite “China and others to form a new one.” Critics say there could be no worse time to do so.

Harry Roque, Kabayan Party-list representative, who is an expert on international law, expressed his concern saying, “It is imprudent to leave the UN when we have an ongoing conflict with China. The UN Charter prohibits the use of force which is our guarantee that China’s use of force against us will be illegal.” When it comes to crime, Duterte might think his power and authority itself can address the issues. However, such catastrophes like Super Typhoon Haiyan and Zamboanga siege prove that he needs more allies than enemies.