Sun, sea and summitry

Presidents and prime ministers from 54 countries gather in Perth in late October for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Reform and resilience will top the bill, writes Elissa Jobson 

According to the official CHOGM website, Perth is “blessed with more hours of sunshine than any other Australian city” – a yearly average of 3,211 to be precise. But, with what looks to be a full and challenging programme, it’s seems unlikely that the leaders attending the biennial Commonwealth summit will have much opportunity to enjoy the city’s clement weather. 

A formal agenda is not issued before the meeting, leaving CHOGM watchers to speculate on what the topics up for discussion might be. One item guaranteed to make the cut is the findings of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG). In its final report, the Group, mandated by Commonwealth heads at their 2009 summit to examine “options for reform”, addressed criticism that the Commonwealth doesn’t take a firm enough stand against members who persistently infringe the association’s principles. It has called for an increase in the authority of the Secretary-General to speak out on such matters and for the appointment of a dedicated Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. 

Reform of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), set up in 1995 to deal with violations of the Commonwealth’s political values, will once again be a focus for the heads. And, with the EPG’s report recommending the strengthening of CMAG and the Secretariat’s roles in this area, it could be that progress will be made this time round. 

Climate change was a key issue at 2009’s meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, falling as it did on the eve of the UN conference in Copenhagen. The urgent call issued by Commonwealth leaders in Port of Spain for financial and technological assistance to help developing countries mitigate the effects of global warming, has not borne much fruit. It is likely, therefore, that low-lying island states, such as the Maldives and Kiribati, which will suffer greatly as a result of rising sea levels, will press for further commitments. 

In Perth, Kamalesh Sharma of India, who is now 70, is expected to be re-elected for a second four-year term as secretary general, although there have been suggestions that he may opt to serve only half a term. 

The choice of venue for the next CHOGM is likely to cause considerable friction. In 2009, buoyed by the cessation of the decades-long civil conflict in Sri Lanka, heads agreed, after some dispute, to hold their 2013 summit in Colombo. But the Sri Lankan government’s controversial prosecution of the peace has led many to question whether the country should be given the honour of playing host to the Commonwealth’s highest-level meeting. These doubts can only have been bolstered by a recent Amnesty International report criticising internal investigations into wartime atrocities. Mauritius is currently lined up to follow Colombo in 2015 and could, perhaps, be moved forward. 

Meeting under the theme ‘Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience’ – as cryptic and vague as the themes of previous Commonwealth summits – it is probable that the continuing global financial crisis, food security, resource management and sustainable development will all be up for discussion in Perth. As will Zimbabwe, which walked out of the Commonwealth in 2003 following its suspension. This time, there is a possibility that this errant former member will be discussed more formally at the leaders’ Retreat rather than in hushed tones in CHOGM corridors. 

An application for Commonwealth membership from South Sudan, African’s newest nation state, will also be considered and in all likelihood approved. And we can expect that the Arab Spring and the continued attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East and North Africa will be a hot topic – no doubt some of the leaders due round the table are not sleeping quite as easily as they once did. Let’s hope the sea air in Perth will soothe their spirits.


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