Following nearly three months of maneuvering and clarifications, the Philippine government has finally made a positive response regarding the case of the Taiwanese fishing boat Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28, which came under fire from a Philippine Coast Guard vessel on May 9, resulting in the death of crewman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成). Philippine authorities have now admitted that coast guard personnel committed an error, and they have issued a formal apology to the victim’s family.
Can the two sides now open a new chapter in their relations? What lessons can Taiwan and the Philippines learn from this incident?
First, Taiwanese society has reached a common understanding that the sacredness of human life is a key concept of human rights. Although articles about human rights have not been written into the Constitution, and the Control Yuan’s Human Rights Protection Committee has not fulfilled its intended function, the Hung case has showed that today’s social movements include human rights among their demands and that these ideals are widely accepted.
Human rights clauses are clearly included in the Philippine Constitution. The Philippines has established a Commission on Human Rights, and it is a signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. However, the Philippine government and society have clearly not implemented the regulations laid out in the various human rights clauses. That is why Philippine Coast Guard personnel could show such a blatant lack of regard for human life by shooting more than 100 bullets at an unarmed fishing boat, killing one of the people on board.
Second, what lies behind the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 case is the problem of Taiwan and the Philippines having territorial or economic waters that have not been clearly delineated. The Philippines is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so it is duty-bound to abide by the convention. Taiwan is not a signatory of the UNCLOS, so it is not obligated to abide by the convention.
Taiwan is willing to negotiate with the Philippines to resolve the problem of the two sides’ overlapping waters in accordance with the regulations laid out in the UNCLOS. However, the Philippines has for many years been unwilling to negotiate because it has no diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Although the two sides signed an agreement on sea lane passage, combined with a memorandum on agriculture and fisheries cooperation in 1991, this accord was later annulled because it was found to conflict with Philippine law.
The Philippines ought to clearly understand that, according to the regulations laid out in the UNCLOS, an archipelagic sovereign state is obliged to designate sea lanes for vessels from any nation to pass through. It is also obliged to respect neighboring countries’ traditional fishing rights in those waters. So it was not really necessary for Taiwan to sign the 1991 agreement. Nevertheless, Taiwan was willing to sign an agreement on these issues to uphold friendly relations between the two countries.
For many years, Taiwanese fishing boats have not dared to approach the seas around the northern Philippines, and this has caused Taiwan to lose fishing rights in waters between the two countries for no good reason. Even the right of innocent passage has been difficult to maintain. The cause of these troubles is that Philippines Coast Guard vessels have taken action to forcibly expel Taiwanese fishing boats, even shooting at them and their crewmembers.