Illustration: Matt Davidson

Illustration: Matt Davidson

Back in the days when George W. Bush would cheer on his mate John "Man of Steel" Howard, the chief aide to Australia's foreign minister kept a private list. He jotted down every instance where Australia had broken ranks with the US, a way of defending the regular charge the Howard government blindly followed in Washington's footsteps.

Right at the top of this list was the 1998 decision to sign the Rome Statute. This treaty marked the foundation of the International Criminal Court, a way of bringing to justice perpetrators of the worst crimes – systematic murder and rape, extermination or enslavement. Then foreign minister Alexander Downer saw the establishment of the court as a prime "human rights objective" for Australia.

The US abhorred the court's creation. But Australia was comfortable. Britain, France and Germany joined too. The Rome Statute made clear the court would always defer to national jurisdiction, and step in only when a country showed "unwillingness or inability" to "genuinely" investigate or prosecute. A kangaroo court would no longer cut it, in other words. Sovereignty could no longer be invoked as a shield from justice.

Downer convinced a few wavering conservatives in the Coalition party room that the court posed no threat at home, with important help from a backbencher named Julie Bishop.

Australia was on the side of protecting the vulnerable, even at the cost of breaking with its great and powerful friend. It was the right decision.

Fast forward to the present and Australia has again parted ways with Washington. But this time America is the champion of rights. Australia has chosen to stand aloof from investigations into what the UN describes as serious concerns about "extrajudicial killings, torture" and other alleged crimes. It's a worrying reversal – and Julie Bishop is now Foreign Minister.

At issue is Sri Lanka, racked until 2009 by civil war. The victory of government forces over the separatist Tamil Tigers is beyond doubt. Colombo has happily boasted its economic record in the years since and saw off a threatened boycott of the Commonwealth meeting it hosted in November.

But relations with the Tamil minority in the country are still uneasy, at best. Security services are regularly accused of intimidation – torture too. Sri Lanka's government did hold an inquiry into the conflict, but sceptics see this as an exercise in victor's justice. And Colombo is simply intemperate when confronted by allegations of continuing abuse.

All this led to a push for an international investigation into claims of human rights violations. The US played a leading role, urging the UN to act. Britain, Germany and France all chimed in with support. Not so Australia.

America got its way and the UN will take a fresh look at the years of conflict and abuse by "both parties" – the Tigers were no angels. The most telling line in a resolution adopted in Geneva last month is that Sri Lanka's "national mechanisms have consistently failed to establish the truth and to achieve justice".

It's revealing how differently Bishop and US counterpart John Kerry responded. Kerry gushed: "The time to pursue lasting peace and prosperity is now; justice and accountability cannot wait."

Bishop grimaced: "I am not convinced that the resolution's call for a separate, internationally led investigation, without the co-operation of the Sri Lankan government, is the best way forward at this time."

Leave aside that the resolution did in fact call for Sri Lanka's co-operation in the investigation, most assume Australia's opposition is caught up with stopping the boats. Plenty of Tamils have fled seeking asylum, with Australia making plain they are unwelcome. Sending them home again rests on the assumption Sri Lanka is safe.

But it's not just on Sri Lanka where Australia has appeared to dodge raising human rights violations. Last week, the US said it was "deeply concerned by the humanitarian crisis in Burma's Rakhine state," with mob violence rife and visits by outsiders restricted.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison went to Burma – or Myanmar, as it is sometimes known – in February, yet returned with a very different take. Certainly there are refugees in the country but "the message about our policies is getting through loud and clear," he said. "I mean, in a remote camp in Rakhine state in Myanmar people knew all about what the Australian government was doing and stopping the boats."

And what of the rights of those under threat? No public statement has been issued by Australia, so I asked the Foreign Affairs Department about the US position and got a firm answer.

Yes, the Australian ambassador has also expressed "deep concerns about the violence" targeting international aid staff and told the local authorities security must be restored "so they can continue to provide vital humanitarian assistance to people in need".

A good time for Australia to go all the way with the USA.

Daniel Flitton is a Fairfax Media senior writer.