Rod Severino and Philippine independence

When former ASEAN secretary-general, foreign affairs undersecretary, and Ambassaror Rodolfo Severino Jr passed to eternal life on April 19, 2019, I knew when I would write and publish my tribute to him. There is no other day than Philippine Independence Day to celebrate the life, accomplishments of a diplomat who was described, by Ambassador Tommy Koh, the great statesman and diplomat from Singapore, “as a gentleman, a peace-maker and a man of goodwill.” Tomorrow, June 12, we celebrate the 121st anniversary of the Philippine declaration of independence in Kawt, Cavite. That day is also the anniversary of our Department of Foreign Affairs, with Apolinario Mabini as its first head.

Without a foregn policy and a vigorous diplomatic service, the Philippines does not deserve to be called an independent nation. Rode Severino and his fellow diplomats from all generations worked very hard and continue to work hard to ensure this.

We have had great diplomats in this country. Carlos P. Romulo, who became President of the General Assembly,  for sure is a legend. Narciso Ramos, father of President Fidel V. Ramos, was a founding father of the ASEAN. His daughter the late Leticia Shahani, who later become senator of the Republic, was as visionary as the father. And in more recent  times, I have worked with excellent career diplomats like Foreign Affairs Domingo Siazon, Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, and several younger but just as brilliant ambassadors and foreign service officers. But I think that all of them would acknowledge that Rod Severino had qualities that made him unique and deserving the accolade given to him by several coleagues – “the quintessential diplomat’.

University of the Philippines Professor  and international relations scholar Aileen San Pedro Baviera,  who worked on Philippine-China relations with Ambassador Severino in the 1990s described very well these qualities: “He may not have been perfect, just as no human being is. But he was to me an inspiration and a source of learning for what Philippine diplomacy should be like, now and in the future. Always be prepared. Know what results you need to get. Be ready to think out of the box. Deepen your understanding of and with those closest to you. Not only the governments, but the peoples, need to connect to each other. Think before you speak. Say no more than is needed. Then think some more before you act.”

Above all, his writings reflected this thinking and reflective diplomat, who had a strategic and visionary mind:

In 2010, in his Where in the world is the Philippines?, he asked the right questions:

“Where in the world is the Philippines?, In other words, where does the Philippines have jurisdiction? Of what kind? Where does that jurisdiction end? Because the Philippines is an archipelago, that is, a nation of many islands, these questions apply importantly to the country’s maritime regime. In contemporary terms, what is the extent of the Philippines’ territorial sea? Its exclusive economic zone (EEZ)? Its contiguous zone? Its continental shelf? From where does or should the Philippines measure its territorial sea, contiguous zone and exclusive economic zone? What is the character of the large expanses of sea between some islands of the Philippines? What is the nature of the Philippine claim to the Kalayaan Island Group? What about the Philippine claim to Sabah?

For most countries, questions similar to these and the answers to them are fairly straightforward. They have long been settled, and other countries have accepted, or at least acknowledged, those answers. However, in the Philippine case, many of the questions remain unanswered. Fierce, often arcane debates go on within the government, in the academic community, and, of course, with other, especially neighbouring, countries. Once in a while, the controversies erupt into public view . . .”

In 2006, he argued for the importance of the ASEAN Regional Forum:

“The ASEAN Regional Forum was founded as a venue and mechanism for ministerial-level consultation and dialogue among states in East Asia and others with interests in it on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific. The only region-wide security forum for the Asia-Pacific, the ARF was established in the early 1990s in the light of and in response to the new regional security environment that had developed at the time. This new environment had emerged from the end of the Cold War, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the removal of United States forces from their bases in the Philippines, the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Cam Ranh Bay, the opening up of China and the accompanying surge in China’s economy, military power and political influence, and Japan’s policy foray into regional security multilateralism from an almost total dependence on the Japan-United States security treaty  . . .

The ARF is neither a military alliance nor a defence pact. It has no adversary, actual or potential, against which to devise military plans, conduct military exercises, or direct weapon systems. Indeed, all possible adversaries in the Asia-Pacific are inside the ARF fold; that is the whole point of the forum.”

Later in 2009, in his book Southeast Asia in Search of an ASEAN Community, he defended and elaborated on the principle of non-interference in the ASEAN:

“Perhaps, the most prominent issue raised by the media, some politicians and other public commentators against the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been its policy and practice of not interfering in its members’ internal affairs. Some have even called it a “doctrine”, something ideological and, therefore, to be adhered to at all cost and under all circumstances. The frequent implication is that the “doctrine”, policy or practice is peculiar to ASEAN, as if the association had invented it. Sometimes, the criticism amounts to heckling or jeering . . .

The “doctrine” of non-interference or, more precisely, the policy and practice of states committing themselves to refrain from interfering in one another’s internal affairs has been around for a long time, long before ASEAN was born — or conceived. It has, in fact, been the underpinning of the entire system of inter-state relations since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. After four years of negotiations, that voluminous treaty put an end to the Eighty Years’ War between the Dutch and the Spanish.”

In the same book, Ambassador Severino assert that ASEAN’s supreme achievement is that it has provided a setting for the peaceful management of disputes among its members:

“The constant interaction and sense of common purpose among the ASEAN members have built mutual confidence and dissipated some of the mutual suspicion that is a legacy of past differences and an outgrowth of current disagreements. A growing sense of community and networks of personal contacts have not only prevented conflict as a solution for disputes but have also fostered cooperation for certain common goals.”

I first saw Ambassador Severino when he would visit his son Howie in Cervini Hall, the dorm of Ateneo de Manila, in the 1970s. I was awed already then, as he was power personified. Twenty years later, we worked together as fellow Undersecretaries but obviously I never saw myself as his peer. He was a statesman already then and he guided me in my first exposure to international negotiations. He clearly understood what we we were facing in climate change and the biodiversity crisis and was consistently supportive of radical approaches to deal with our challenges. He certainly would encourage us today to continue to engage in the multilateral forums where these issues are being decided today with such high stakes for the country.

Ambassador Severino was a patriot in the strongest way and a global citizen also in the fullest sense. For sure, he lived up to the ideals of Apolinario Mabini and his own family legacy in the Philippine revolution. One wished for more Rod Severinos in this country and world. We need him for our continuing and more complete independencs.

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