Australia's reluctance to back international efforts to investigate Sri Lankan war crimes reveals that it has a long way to go to become a principled and robust voice on human rights in our region.
This week the United Nations Human Rights Council will vote on a resolution to establish an inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009.
If established, the inquiry would be a critical step towards justice for the estimated 40,000 Sri Lankan civilians who died during the final phase of the war as well as those who were forcibly disappeared, abducted, tortured and sexually abused. The inquiry would also be a landmark step towards peace and reconciliation between the Tamil people and the Sinhala majority.
In Geneva, diplomats from many of Australia's key allies such as the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada are working hard to garner support for the resolution and ensure that an independent international inquiry is established.
Unsurprisingly, Sri Lanka opposes the resolution; its forces stand accused of the majority of deaths. The Sri Lankan government has failed to conduct any proper investigation into war crimes through domestic courts and according to the UN rights chief, there is no political will to do so. Indeed, since the war Sri Lanka has further politicised the judiciary, eroding the integrity of institutions that might have otherwise provided accountability.
Sri Lanka is supported in its opposition to the resolution by China, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and Burma - states that routinely oppose international intervention to protect human rights.
Australia could be a constructive player in this critical moment for human rights in our region. The Coalition's statement on foreign policy claims leadership on regional human rights abuses as a key part of its platform. But if the Sri Lanka resolution passes on Wednesday, Australia cannot claim any credit.
Since the US announced its plan to sponsor the resolution, Australia has remained conspicuously silent, refusing to commit any support or to take the opportunity to co-sponsor and show true leadership on regional human rights issues. Australia attends negotiation meetings on the draft text of the resolution, but says nothing.
The Foreign Minister's official line is that Australia is waiting to see a final text of the resolution before deciding whether to support it. In reality, it's just stalling. At the two negotiation meetings held to date, many states have commented on the draft resolution in order to improve and amend it.
The real reason Australia is silent lies in our Government's obsession with "stopping the boats". Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made it clear that Australia won't "lecture" Sri Lanka on human rights.
He says Australia needs to maintain the best relationship to ensure Sri Lanka will continue to cooperate by taking back people arriving by boat.
The Human Rights Law Centre's recent report, "Can't stay, can't flee", documents just how dangerously close Australia and Sri Lanka's cooperation on boats has become.
Despite widespread reports of ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, Australia is working with Sri Lankan authorities to block asylum seekers' escape. Australia provides intelligence, patrol boats and other financial resources to the Sri Lanka navy and police to intercept boats. Sri Lankan authorities claim to have blocked 4500 Sri Lankans attempting to leave.
Australia has also forcibly returned more than 1100 Sri Lankans since October 2012 creating grave risks that we have returned many people to the very authorities they're fleeing from.
Despite evidence that the majority of Sri Lankan boat arrivals are genuine refugees, Australia bases its treatment of Sri Lankans on the politically expedient assumption that they're economic migrants. The Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, has been clear in his preference to return all Sri Lankans.
Australia is obliged to protect asylum seekers under the Refugee Convention and other human rights treaties. Instead, Australia is wilfully blind to the persecution from which Sri Lankans still flee.
Instead of pursuing a one-eyed obsession with stopping boats, Australia should work to improve the human rights situation on the ground in Sri Lanka and address the root causes of why people leave. Perversely, in Geneva Australia is doing nothing of the sort.
The Human Rights Council resolution is an important step towards accountability for past abuses. Without accountability, there cannot be reconciliation and peace. Without reconciliation and peace, Sri Lankans will continue to flee to find safety and security.
As Tony Abbott kowtows to the Sri Lankan agenda, he fails to improve the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans but does plenty to damage Australia's reputation as a good global citizen.
On Wednesday the Human Rights Council will debate the Sri Lanka resolution. It is the final opportunity for Australia to publicly support the multilateral efforts at justice for some of the most heinous war crimes this century. Australia must decide if it wants to be a mere bystander, or worse an obstructionist, or if it actually does want to show some leadership in addressing one of the most pressing human rights issues in our region.
Emily Howie is the director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre.
This article was first published on The Drum website.