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The Commonwealth at its turning point: The EPG and CHOGM 2011


Malcolm Fraser, Co-Chair of the first Commonwealth EPG and former Prime Minister of Australia with Ronald Sanders, Member and Rapporteur of the Second Commonwealth EPG


The report of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on urgent reform of the Commonwealth dominated the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth. It is now a seminal document in the Commonwealth’s history, and will remain the focus of attention for much needed change in the Commonwealth over the next few months. The fact that some of the recommendations became matters of controversy between governments in no way diminishes the significance of the Report; if anything, the controversy has served to heighten its importance.
The report is entitled, “A commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform”.  Implicit in the report’s title is that the Commonwealth is an association not only of governments but also of peoples. The EPG’s report reflects the views and aspirations of more than 90 civil society and professional organisations from all over the Commonwealth set out in 330 written submissions to the Group. Now that the Report has codified these views and aspirations, it will become the benchmark for judging the effectiveness and worth of the Commonwealth as a values-based organisation concerned equally with development and democracy.
Members of the EPG knew that some of its recommendations would cause concern for some governments. That was why the EPG requested that the Report be released well ahead of CHOGM. It was hoped that early discussion would have created better understanding of the recommendations and the arguments that informed them. Understanding of the Report also suffered from no provision for the EPG to interface with key governments before CHOGM. And, at CHOGM itself, except for one brief period in which EPG Chairman, Tun Abdullah Badawi, was invited to present the Report formally, no exchange between Heads of Government and the EPG took place. 
In what can best be described as a squandered opportunity, Foreign Ministers discussed the Report in their pre-CHOGM meeting with EPG members in the room, and never once sought any explanations from the Group. The EPG recommendations were broken into three segments: the Charter; the Commissioner for Democracy the Rule of Law and Human Rights; and all other recommendations. An inordinate amount of time was spent debating the first two matters, and no time at all was accorded to the remaining 104 recommendations.
Fortunately, Heads of Government handled the report differently. In their exchanges – particularly at the Retreat – Heads of Government addressed the Report as a whole and required Foreign Ministers to reconvene immediately to consider the recommendations that they had arbitrarily set aside for review at one of their meetings next year.    
It is significant that all of the EPG’s recommendations on strengthening CMAG were accepted as being in line with CMAG’s own recommendations for reform of itself.   In this regard, the EPG recommendation for a Commissioner forced the further empowerment of CMAG to address issues of violations of Commonwealth values that, other than the unconstitutional overthrow of a government, it has overlooked since its creation. Greater scrutiny will now be placed on CMAG to see if it carries-out its new mandate.
Additionally, the Secretary-General and CMAG have been “tasked to further evaluate relevant options” relating to the EPG’s proposal for a Commissioner and to report back to Foreign Ministers at their September 2012 meeting in New York”. In this connection, all is not yet lost. The appointment of a Commissioner (or any other name that the post is given) remains a missing but vital link in the capacity of both CMAG and the Secretary-General to evaluate conditions in a country objectively and to take remedial action before any violations become serious or persistent warranting punitive action by CMAG or Heads of Government. In the pre-CHOGM Foreign Ministers meeting, the Chairman of CMAG, the Foreign Minister of Ghana, in a robust intervention said as much.  In the next few months, he will have the chance to put that case again.
The idea of a Charter of the Commonwealth has been accepted in the way that the EPG recommended. Crucial to the recommendation is that any Charter should be the subject of public consultation in every Commonwealth country with the involvement of civil society. If the Charter were to be simply a collection of existing Commonwealth values and principles into a single document, it would have added no real value. The value that it should now add is the involvement of the people in whose name governments will sign it. Of course, like the existing declarations, the Charter will have no legal obligations but, at least, people who participate in the public consultations will have a say in the values by which they will measure their governments and civil society organisations and hold them accountable. 
Significantly Heads of Government also adopted “without reservation” another 30 recommendations, and further adopted 12 more subject to consideration of financial implications. Additionally, a Task Force of Ministers will be appointed to provide detailed advice on 43 other recommendations to Foreign Ministers at their September 2012 meeting in New York, as a basis for further decision by Heads. Clearly, and happily, Heads have decided to remain involved.
The EPG was well aware that, given the present financial austerity gripping every Commonwealth country, some recommendations could be implemented immediately and others would have to be deferred. What is extremely important is that, in the process of the Ministerial Task Force’s work, the 43 recommendations should not be abandoned. Helpfully, the Secretariat has identified them and they have been posted on its website. Monitoring them will now be relatively easy. Among the 43 recommendations that will be considered next year are: broadening elections observations to make them more effective; steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede the effective response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic; and action at national levels to end social victimisation of women that leads to crimes against them and their economic disempowerment. This is not a pan-Commonwealth decision. This is a case of the Commonwealth being constrained by the most intractable in its midst. More progressive governments will continue to press for change, and so too will the people of all Commonwealth countries particularly those where governments cling to oppressive laws and practices.
Among the 11 recommendations “deemed inappropriate for adoption” is that Foreign Ministers should hold dedicated and pre-planned meetings with representatives of CSOs and professional organisations in the years between CHOGMsto agree on recommendations for joint programmes and projects which would be submitted to the next CHOGM for endorsement and implementation.  Hopefully, the rejection of this recommendation will be revisited for its goes to the heart of a serious dialogue between governments and civil society, and would go a far way to acknowledging that the Commonwealth is as much for people as it for governments.
Everything in the EPG report has not been adopted, but wise Heads prevailed sufficiently to embrace the bulk of the recommendations. And, the rest will not go away. The Commonwealth has reached its turning point.

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