Elaine Pearson

Last month the Philippines abstained in a vote at the United Nations General Assembly calling for accountability for government atrocities in Syria. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario defended the abstention by saying that Filipinos in Syria were “highly vulnerable” and assistance was needed from the Syrian government to get them out. Soon the Philippines will face another test of its willingness to join other governments demanding respect for human rights, and this time there are no Filipinos at risk. But will the Philippines give Sri Lanka a pass too?

Later this month a number of countries will sponsor a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council calling on the Sri Lankan government to take action to ensure justice and promote national reconciliation following the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in 2009. The Philippines should support it.

The Sri Lankan government has not kept its commitments to the people of Sri Lanka or the United Nations to take credible steps to provide justice and accountability for widespread and serious wartime abuses by all sides. More than 100,000 civilians, especially in the country’s north and east, are believed to have been killed during the 26-year war.

The final months of the conflict were particularly brutal. Government forces indiscriminately shelled and bombed areas packed with civilians lacking food, water and health care, whom the LTTE refused to allow to escape. The LTTE effectively used the population as “human shields” and fired upon families who sought to escape the fighting.

When the government failed to keep its promise to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in May 2009 to investigate allegations of wartime abuses, Ban, in June 2010, established a panel of experts to advise him. The authors of the report recently wrote: “…[W]e found credible evidence that both sides had systematically flouted the laws of war, leading to as many as 40,000 deaths—many multiples more than caused by the strife in Libya or Syria. The bulk of that total was attributable to deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate governmental attacks on civilians, through massive shelling and aerial bombardment, including on clearly marked hospitals.”

Now, instead of engaging in constructive dialogue with members of the UN Human Rights Council and welcoming international concern for the welfare of its citizens, the Sri Lankan government has embarked on aggressive diplomatic efforts to stop its resolution.

Sri Lanka’s human rights minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, addressing the council last Feb. 27, used the language of abusive regimes the world over, complaining of interference in his country’s internal affairs, ignoring that it has long recognized the universality of human rights through the many rights treaties it has ratified.

The Sri Lankan government has recited a laundry list of steps it claims to have taken. But most of these measures were set up in haste on the eve of the possible resolution and are little more than cosmetic gestures intended only to avoid international action. None addresses accountability for major human rights violations or the alleged role of senior officials.

This is not surprising, as the Sri Lankan government has a long history of failed promises to address human rights abuses. Instead of investigating credible claims, the government has consistently denied them out of hand and questioned the motives of those who make them. There is little reason to believe that these most recent gestures will be any more meaningful than previous ones.

The Sri Lankan authorities say there is no need for further investigations since the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission cleared troops of deliberately targeting civilians and largely found only abuses by the LTTE. The government’s reaction to the resolution is excessive, to say the least, particularly considering that it merely calls on the government to initiate credible and independent investigations into allegations of war crimes and to provide the Human Rights Council with an action plan on accountability.

The Philippines is a founding member of the UN Human Rights Council and has participated in this important body since its inception in 2006. As the Philippines stated in its Voluntary Pledges to the Human Rights Council, it “attaches the greatest importance to the promotion and protection of human rights.” Since the 1986 People Power Revolution, the Philippines has been a global symbol of the universality of human rights. But its foreign policy, especially at the United Nations, has rarely lived up to that standard.

By voting for the Sri Lanka resolution, the Philippine government will demonstrate to the world that its foreign policy is fully in sync with the concerns of its people for accountability and justice for all victims of human rights abuses.

Elaine Pearson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on twitter @pearsonelaine.