© 2012 Human Rights Watch

Last June, the Philippine delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council was an embarrassing no-show during an important vote on human rights abuses in Syria. Last week, the delegates stayed in their seats only to vote against a council resolution promoting human rights in Sri Lanka. Maybe they should have stayed home, too.

It’s hard to understand why the Philippines opposes the increasing international support for wartime accountability in Sri Lanka. That country’s 26-year-long armed conflict involved countless abuses by both government forces and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE pioneered the modern use of suicide bombers and widely deployed child soldiers. Both sides committed numerous abductions and killings. The final months of the war were particularly horrific: Government forces indiscriminately shelled hundreds of thousands of civilians that the LTTE had prevented from fleeing to safety. According to a UN panel of experts, up to 40,000 civilians died.

Shortly after the war ended in May 2009 with the LTTE’s defeat, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that his administration would investigate the reported abuses. The Human Rights Council promptly praised the Sri Lankan government victory and condemned LTTE atrocities, but ignored the army’s war crimes.

Since then the Rajapaksa administration has taken no meaningful steps to provide accountability for wartime abuses. A few commissions have been created to give the appearance of action, but they have just been used as stalling tactics or to give the security forces a clean bill of health. Yet the evidence of government abuses has kept piling up: cell phone videos of soldiers shooting prisoners; new details on the summary execution of LTTE political officers; photos of the LTTE leader’s 12-year-old son eating a snack in captivity one minute, a bullet-ridden corpse the next. Human Rights Watch documented several dozen cases of alleged LTTE supporters—men and women—who were raped and otherwise tortured in government detention, a practice that has continued since the war.

The Human Rights Council resolution simply calls for Sri Lanka to conduct an independent investigation of alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the final months of that country’s armed conflict. It builds on a resolution a year ago by calling upon Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of its own commission to provide justice for those harmed by abuses by government forces and the LTTE.

Only 12 council members bought the Sri Lankan government’s public-relations package of distortions and contortions, while 25 voted for the resolution. Governments with poor rights records voted no. The democracies that recognize the importance of accountability for a rights-respecting political system voted yes. The Philippine government has been winning international praise for enacting pro-rights legislation, including criminalizing enforced disappearances, providing reparations for martial law victims, and promoting reproductive rights. So it is baffling—and disturbing—that a democracy led by a president who himself was a victim of human rights abuse would side with Sri Lanka’s increasingly authoritarian government.

It’s little surprise that most of the countries voting against the Sri Lanka resolution were from Asia. Sri Lankan diplomats evidently played the “Asian solidarity” card to get their “no” votes and abstentions. One would have hoped that President Aquino’s administration would be beyond this transparently superficial approach to foreign affairs and would instead address these issues in a serious way.

Perhaps the Philippines had strong reasons for voting against the Human Rights Council resolution—but we’ll never know. Unlike Indonesia and Thailand, which at least gave lip service to the importance of accountability, the Philippines made no statement. Maybe the Aquino administration believes that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is fine. Or that the world should not care to see justice done. Or, as during last year’s vote on Syria, the Philippine delegation just had more important things to do.

The Philippines could have made it clear that “Asian solidarity” means supporting the human rights of all Asians, including ordinary Sri Lankans who have been the victims of abuses—and not the anti-human rights agendas of repressive governments. Votes like this do a great disservice to the Philippines’ international reputation as a democracy born out of a populist human rights movement. Had it supported the resolution, the Philippines would have been endorsing values it believes in, even if it struggles to achieve them at home. And it could have put forward a claim to being a human rights leader among Asian countries.
Maybe next year.

James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch, has written on human rights in Asia for nearly three decades.