By Manuel Mogato

The UN Human Rights Council in session. (UN file photo/Elma Okic)

In the past, countries cut diplomatic ties as a prelude to war. Since the 1960s, it has been common for sovereign states to sever relations to express displeasure over a political or economic action, like in 2012 when Armenia cut ties with Hungary over the extradition of a prisoner to Azerbaijan.

On Monday night, presidential spokesman and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said the President was seriously contemplating cutting ties with the tiny and wealthy Iceland. It had initiated a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to investigate the thousands of deaths in connection with President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs policy.

Duterte’s political allies, including Sen. Imee Marcos, had suggested the same diplomatic sanction against the Nordic country, known as the world’s peaceful country. Iceland has no standing army although it is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and sends paramilitary units for UN peacekeeping missions abroad.

The Philippines has every right to cut diplomatic relations with Iceland, which was established 20 years ago with both countries setting up honorary consulates in their respective capitals. The two countries have no embassies with each other. Iceland’s mission in Tokyo has accreditation with the Philippines and the Filipino ambassador in Norway has jurisdiction in Reykjavik.

President Duterte has to weigh carefully the costs of cutting ties with Iceland. The two countries have very little bilateral engagements, but there could be economic, social and people-to-people relations that might be affected by a decision based on a knee-jerk reaction.

There are a few thousand Filipinos in Iceland, but they comprise the largest Asian migrants in the fertile volcanic island, contrary to the belief of many people who think the country is covered by ice or snow, hence the country’s name.

Iceland relies heavily on renewable energy and has been helping set up geothermal power plants in tiny Biliran island in the central Philippines, and engages the country together with other Nordic countries Norway and Denmark in the fishing, maritime, mining and renewable energy sectors. Norway has been the Philippines’ reliable partner in building peace, brokering talks with Maoist-led National Democratic Front.

Iceland is a part of the European Economic Area as well as the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), which the Philippines has been interested in entering into an agreement with as early as in 2012 during the Asia-Europe meeting in Laos.

Trade relations between Manila and Reykjavik have remained insignificant. A country that is not a military power, like the United States, United Kingdom, and France, does not interest the Philippines, perhaps a good reason for cutting ties since there is little benefit that could derived from close diplomatic relations.

However, diplomacy should not be measured by cost-benefit relationship alone. The image of a country as a responsible, civilized member of the international community should also be considered. Powerful countries, which carry a big stick, normally punish weaker and smaller countries with diplomatic sanctions. There are times when these states urge like-minded countries to impose similar punishments, turning the sanctioned country into a pariah state.

The Philippines is far from a country like the United States, United Kingdom or even China, which could choose to exert pressure to get what it wants or to send strong messages of displeasure. Of course, diplomatic sanctions, including cutting diplomatic ties, are less serious than going to war. But it goes beyond condemnation, which the Philippines has done through statements from the Office of the President.

It would not look good for the image of the Philippines if it would go to the extent of severing ties with Iceland over a non-binding UNHRC resolution it can actually ignore. The UNHRC has issued so many resolutions condemning human rights situations in many countries, like Burundi, Egypt, Cambodia, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and even China.

These countries did not resort to cutting ties. It is more prudent for the Philippines to show the world, the international community, that it upholds and respects human rights. Rather than behave like a pariah state, the Philippines must take responsibility and act as an honorable member of the community of nations.