Insulting Iceland

On the initiative of Iceland, a country that most Filipinos have not heard much about, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the other day passed a resolution calling on Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, to prepare a “comprehensive written report on the human rights situation in the Philippines.” The resolution also urges the Philippine government to “prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable in accordance with international norms and standards on due process and the rule of law.”

Of the 47 member countries in the Geneva-based UNHRC, 18 voted in favor of Iceland’s resolution, 14 voted against and 15 others abstained. It is rare for resolutions of this nature to get a majority vote, and, even more, a unanimous approval. A lot of lobbying takes place in these proceedings. And, if the country that is the subject of a resolution happens to be a member of the council, as the Philippines is, one can expect its representative to do everything to kill the resolution.

Clearly, it takes some measure of integrity and commitment to universal values for one country to call for a review of the human rights situation of another, especially if the latter is a significant trading partner and/or ally.

So, what is it about Iceland that has kept it focused on the importance of upholding human rights standards in countries as distant from its view as the Philippines? It is not the first time that this tiny Nordic nation of less than half a million people has called attention to the human rights crisis in the country under President Duterte’s watch. It raised the same alarm in 2017 and in 2018. Iceland has never been known to be hostile to our people. Though we don’t have embassies in each other’s country, we do have diplomatic as well as trade relations. About 2,000 Filipinos live there. More than half of them have acquired Icelandic citizenship.

There are parallelisms in our respective histories. Iceland was once a possession of Norway. Then it became part of Denmark. Achieving its independence in the early part of the 20th century, it became a republic in 1944. Dotted with live volcanoes, Iceland is one of the world’s largest producers of geothermal power.

That’s where the similarities end. Fishing being the traditional livelihood of its people, Iceland did everything to develop this industry and make it competitive. Over the years, it diversified its economy to include biotechnology and services like tourism. Today it is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and the most equal in income distribution. Iceland is also known as the country with the strongest democratic institutions.

Obviously, Icelanders don’t “just go about eating ice,” as Mr. Duterte ignorantly mocked them the other day in another rambling speech before employees of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. He accused them of not “understand[ing] the social, economic, political problems of the Philippines.” Maybe they don’t.

But, most of us who live in this country cannot claim full knowledge of these problems, either. These are complex matters, and the solutions they require are equally complex. One thing is sure though: No country has ever solved its drug problem by merely killing drug addicts and small-time drug peddlers. It seems more logical to focus one’s efforts at stopping the supply of illicit drugs by going after the big-time cartels that bring in these drugs, and the local syndicates that facilitate their entry into our ports.

Why doesn’t the Duterte administration share its understanding of these problems with the rest of the world?  Why should we feel that our sovereignty is diminished when the international community, of which we are a part, raises valid questions about the propriety or correctness of our government’s appreciation and handling of these issues? This kind of “intervention,” if we can call it that, is surely more benign than China’s blatant seizure of shoals and fishing grounds we claim as ours.

Rather than treat those who voted in favor of Iceland’s resolution as enemies who disrespect our country, shouldn’t we ask why they have risked facing those sanctions by which our government threatens them for calling for a review of the human rights situation in the Philippines? Must we really draw comfort from the fact that some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world today sided with us in our rejection of the resolution?

I think that knowing which countries rejected Iceland’s resolution says a lot about the company the Duterte administration keeps, and where the Philippines stands today in the world with regard to human rights. The following countries sided with the Philippines: Angola, Bahrain, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Hungary, India, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. And here are the countries that voted for a comprehensive review of the human rights situation in the Philippines: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, Iceland, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Uruguay.

The question that has been asked is: Who are our real friends and who are our real enemies? It is natural for the Duterte administration to represent the vote on this resolution as supplying the answer to this question.

But I think the question worth asking is: Which of these countries today may be regarded as functioning democracies in the sense of being sensitive to public pressure? Or, to put it another way, which of these countries could be trusted to take their own citizens’ views into account when their ambassadors have to vote on issues that concern humanity in general? The answer, I think, is not so difficult to divine.