AMBASSADOR Rosario Manalo, senior diplomat and educator, has won fierce debates to place women’s rights on the global agenda at the height of the cold war era.
But one battle breaks the heart of this veteran diplomat who is known for her stern, brilliant engagement in international and regional diplomacy: it was missing the final moments with her mother, who died in Brussels in 1985.
Manalo was part of the Philippine delegation to the United Nations Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, when she received the sad news.
Tears fell as the feisty diplomat recalled this unforgettable event in her life as a diplomat.
“It was 3 a.m., and the plane was landing in Nairobi airport,” she said. “I received a message that my mother had already passed away. I wanted to go back to Brussels and be with my mother because I’m her only daughter.”
At that time, she was with two Filipinas who are considered icons in the political arena: former Senators Helena Benitez and Leticia Ramos-Shahani.
She tried to convince Benitez to let her return to Brussels so that she could bury her mother.
But the words of her mentor moved her: “Do you think your mother would be happy to see you fail as a diplomat? She would love to see you here and represent the country than be with her,” Manalo quoted the senator.
She said those words made her realize that at that very moment, “I have been committed to diplomacy.”
Manalo had already represented the Philippines in past gatherings of the World Conference on Women, first in Mexico City in 1975, and in Copenhagen in 1980, both organized by the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She said both meetings failed because there was no clear direction, no objectives and ambitions.
She considered the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi as the landmark meeting where, for the first time, world leaders recognized “women’s rights as human rights.”
With pain in her heart, Manalo pursued her role as part of the Philippine delegation to the UN Nairobi Conference. She even chaired a panel where she quashed attempts by leaders of Allied and Axis powers to take out issues on women and focus on cold war issues, such as arms control and apartheid.
During the floor debates, she was surprised that a representative of Albania, Russia’s ally, stood up and expressed support to the historic Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women. She said the document was a political instrument in the process of democratization. It also outlined measures for achieving gender equality at the national level and for promoting women’s participation in peace and development efforts.
“The panel members gave me a standing ovation, and I was crying because I knew then my mother was guiding me,” Manalo said.
The successes in the Nairobi meeting gave flesh to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which became a significant turning point for the global agenda for gender equality.
Manalo has since then represented the Philippines in various international bodies and served as chairman of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 1984 to 1986. She became the Philippine expert to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and eventually chaired the UN committee on the monitoring and implementation of Cedaw.
Cedaw is the core treaty of women’s rights that forms the basis of achieving equality between women and men through ensuring women’s access to and equal opportunities in political and public life. The treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 guarantees women’s right to vote and to stand for election, as well as equal opportunities in education, health and employment.
The ambassador also gave the Philippines its voice in international trade negotiations by creating the Office of the Undersecretary for the International and Economic Relations (OUIER) at the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1997.
The head of OUIER leads the Philippine negotiating team in global and regional trade bodies, like the World Trade Organization, and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, as well as bilateral and multilateral trade systems to ensure that the country’s interest is protected.
And what seems to be a sense of déjà vu in her life as a diplomat, she was appointed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to represent the Philippines in the High Level Task Force for the drafting of the charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) from January to July 2007.
As elected chairman of the High Level Task Force on the Asean charter, she pushed for the adoption of the landmark Chapter XIV, which creates the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights that addresses rights abuses committed to nationals of the 10 Asean member-states.
Manalo recalled that as a young diplomat, then senior diplomat and political figure Narciso Ramos, father of former President Fidel V. Ramos, appointed her to be part of the group that worked for the formation of the Asean on August 8, 1967.
Asean originated from the Association of Southeast Asia, with the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia as member-countries. Since the founding of Asean, five more countries have become members: Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
She said Asean was, indeed, an effort of Southeast Asian leaders to counter the creeping Chinese communism.
Manalo also admits that Asean has since then became a “talk shop” because issues agreed upon were not legally binding.
“These are new states beginning to learn lessons of respective leaders and [commonly] charting our own destinies,” she said.
She added that Asean declarations were, indeed, not made to be legally binding, “but instruments to measure sincerity.”
But the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 was the game changer, she said. Asean then needed to move forward as there were no longer ideological battles but new challenges to face, such as transnational crimes, security concerns, climate change and other environmental risks.
The successful adoption of the Asean charter in November 2007 and the establishment of the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights gave birth to a globally respectable Asean that is ready to address issues and concerns of its combined more than 600 million population.
Manalo’s diplomatic laurels are enormous. She was posted as ambassador to the Nordic states, as well as to France, Belgium, Portugal and Unesco in Paris. However, she has fond memories of representing the Philippines at the time when the European Union was just evolving, from 1979 to 1987.
Colleagues know the ambassador as a deeply engaging, tough and brilliant diplomat that even the most senior officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) avoid debates with her.
She now serves as a policy consultant at the DFA and dean of the School of Diplomacy at the Philippine Women’s University in Manila, which was founded by her mentor, Helena Benitez, who is turning 100 in June this year.
However, behind the face of an iron lady, there is the heart of a loving daughter. Manalo’s more than four decades stint as a diplomat did not just make her mother proud, but the Philippines as a whole.