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The Commonwealth: Will wise Heads previal?


 Perth, Australia


A visitor to Perth in Australia during the week ending 30th October would be forgiven in believing that the City revolves around the 54-nation Commonwealth.

The entire city is festooned with banners highlighting “CHOGM 2011” as Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers and hundreds of representatives from every Commonwealth country have gathered here for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) with several important side events.

Among the side events are a Commonwealth Business Forum which, on this occasion brought together businesspeople from many Commonwealth countries, and a People’s Forum – a meeting of many of the 90 civil society organisations that exist under the Commonwealth banner.

Perth has certainly been a great host and its people have reacted well to the disruption of their lives with closed-off streets, restricted areas and armed police along the main routes from hotels to the impressive Perth Convention Centre where the CHOGM is taking place, and for which Queen Elizabeth 11 came as Head of the Commonwealth.

Pedestrians are pleased to be helpful to Commonwealth delegates seeking direction on the streets, and vehicular traffic – even buses – have been ready to stop to allow visiting Commonwealth pedestrians to take precedence on the streets.

While there is no doubt that Perth has successfully hosted the Commonwealth meeting and all the activities associated with it, judgement of the success of the actual Heads of Government Conference will have to await the end of what Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma said he believed would be a 'landmark event' that would raise the bar for future such gatherings.

The Conference has before it two seminal documents: a report from an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) which sets out a road map of urgent reform for the association if it is to remain relevant to its time and its people now and in the future; and another report from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) which is the body charged with ensuring that Commonwealth member governments behave in a manner consistent with Commonwealth values and principles related to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. CMAG, too, is recommending reform of itself to make it more effective.

The EPG has submitted a 200 page report to the Commonwealth leaders with 106 recommendations. The Report entitled. “A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform is the centrepiece of the Conference and it warns that the Commonwealth is in danger of losing its relevance unless significant changes are made.

The report speaks directly to Heads of Government, and declares: “Now is the time for the Perth CHOGM to authorise the urgent reform this report recommends and to mandate a concrete implementation plan”. Among those reforms is the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights that would investigate and verify claims of violations by governments of Commonwealth values set out in several declarations between 1971 and 2009.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Royal Commonwealth Society united to call on leaders to back the EPG reforms. So, too, has the Commonwealth Civil Society, which, in a statement issued at the People’s Forum, called on Heads of Government to “build on the recommendation from the EPG to convene a Commonwealth Ministers of Foreign Trade Meeting and mandate the Commonwealth Secretariat to convene a joint meeting with Commonwealth Ministers of Finance to develop a joint approach to engagement in international trade and finance processes underpinned by consultation with civil society and a rights based approach to economic development”.

The Civil Society statement was issued by more than 250 civil society representatives from every region of the Commonwealth. In an encounter with Commonwealth Foreign Ministers on the eve of CHOGM, the Civil Society leaders criticised a decision not to publish the EPG report ahead of the Commonwealth Summit even though the EPG had requested that it be released to allow for the “broadest consultation and responses”.

Prior to the meeting several governments had indicated their objection to the creation of the post of Commissioner, believing that it would be “intrusive” and “punitive”. Among the governments that indicated this unease publicly were India and Sri Lanka. The latter country has been fingered by human rights groups, the UN Secretary-General, and even some Commonwealth governments over human rights abuses.

The EPG has argued that countries accused of violating Commonwealth values should embrace the Commissioner and utilise the expertise of the office to remedy situations quickly and in their own interest. The Group has said that “a country that works with the Commissioner would be in a good position to ward off criticism and demonstrate in a credible way that it is working to maintain Commonwealth values”. It has also been pointed out that false or exaggerated allegations against a government could be exposed and dismissed by the Commissioner who would work as a link between the Commonwealth Secretary-General and CMAG.

However, some governments have maintained opposition to the creation of the post, even though it is obvious that it is a missing link between CMAG, which has censorial powers, and the Secretary-General who must try his best, by diplomatic means, to ensure that governments rectify violations quickly.

Having received over 330 written submissions from organisations all over the Commonwealth that point to the need for the Commonwealth to act in defence of the values for which it says its stands, or lose it moral authority and global influence, the EPG report stresses that the creation of the post by whatever appropriate name - Commissioner or Special Representative – will be a litmus test for the Commonwealth’s future.

By focussing on this one issue over which fears are expressed, some governments have stopped discussion and acceptance of the EPG’s 105 other recommendations which include urgent action on the harmful effects of global warming; securing a voice for small and vulnerable countries in the world’s decision-making bodies; improving inter-Commonwealth trade and investment; job creation; providing funds for youth entrepreneurial schemes; ending discrimination against women; and improving knowledge of the Commonwealth.

Hopefully wise heads will prevail at the Commonwealth Summit.

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