A missed opportunity?

Elissa Jobson

The failure of Commonwealth heads of government to take a bold stand and appoint a Human Rights Commissioner was viewed as a copout – and a disappointment – by many. 

The twin motifs of the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) were resilience (the officially designated theme) and reform, as anticipated in the long-awaited recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), mandated by leaders at the 2009 Summit to examine ways in which the credibility and effectiveness of the Commonwealth could be restored. The former was determinedly on display, as the association once again defied the usual predictions of its imminent demise. However, the chance to enact meaningful reform was fudged, leaving many frustrated and disappointed. “This CHOGM has been a wasted opportunity to accelerate reform of the Commonwealth,” said Jerald Joseph, a member of the Commonwealth Foundation’s Civil Society Advisory Committee. “The promised actions are far from certain to lead to a stronger Commonwealth voice on human rights and development.”

Before the meeting proper began on 30 October, simmering tensions surrounding the release – or rather the failure to release – the EPG’s report threatened to boil over. At preconference meetings, those members of the EPG who had travelled to Perth seemed to be in a bellicose mood. The decision, taken by heads of government themselves, not to make the report publicly available in advance of the Summit had infuriated members of the EPG and civil society alike, as had the news that the Group would not be given adequate time to discuss their findings in detail with leaders.

Three crucial issues were at stake: the EPG’s recommendations for a Commonwealth Charter, for the strengthening of the mandate of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and for the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights; the last of these being the most contentious. Positions on the desirability, or otherwise, of a Commissioner had polarised ahead of CHOGM, with Britain, Canada and Australia – the ‘old’ Commonwealth – voicing clear support on one side and the ‘newer’ members, led by Sri Lanka backed by a phalanx of African states, in the opposing camp.

At the end of the first day of deliberations, in order to cushion the blow that the expected rejection of the Commissioner would deal, Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced the decision to adopt in full a report prepared by CMAG itself, entitled ‘Strengthening the Role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’. In essence, the Group now has the power to engage with those member states deemed to be persistently violating Commonwealth principles at an earlier stage in their delinquency than was previously allowed – for example, if parliament is unlawfully suspended or elections unjustifiably postponed. However, as the report itself has not yet been published, it is impossible to say for certain what these reforms entail and how deep they go.

The leaders also agreed to adopt a ‘Charter of the Commonwealth’, the text of which will be finalised at a meeting of foreign ministers in September this year, following consultations at the national level. As for the idea of a Commissioner, it has not been killed off quickly and cleanly, and is likely to die a long and very public death. Leaders raised concern over the potential overlap between the roles of the Commissioner, CMAG and the Secretary General’s good offices function and have asked for its precise mandate to be evaluated further, skilfully avoiding an open showdown in Perth.

The controversy surrounding the EPG’s report threatened to drown out some of the more worthy – if less dramatic – initiatives to come out of CHOGM. A case in point being the Perth Declaration on Food Security Principles, which, recognising that half of the world’s 1 billion hungry people reside in Commonwealth countries, calls for “coordinated and timely” responses to emergency relief efforts, as well as the implementation of longer-term measures to increase agricultural productivity and resilience.

The forecasted row over Sri Lanka’s hosting of the next CHOGM turned out to be nothing more than a storm in a teacup. The issue was not discussed formally at the meeting and the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper – who had announced before departing for Perth that he would boycott any meeting held in Colombo if human rights abuses were not investigated – seemed to be the only leader voicing strong concern over the choice of venue for 2013. Harper had direct talks with the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who made comforting, but unconvincing, promises. “I remain sceptical of some of the reassurances,” said Harper. “We’ll be working, obviously, between now and the next Commonwealth [Summit] to ensure that our concerns are genuinely addressed.”

The Commonwealth, as an institution, has a long memory, so the fallout from the EPG’s report is likely to run and run – at least until September 2012, and in all probability until the next CHOGM in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “This is an issue that will not go away,” said Ronald Sanders a prominent member of the Group. “Civil society and other Commonwealth organisations are going to continue to raise the EPG’s report and its recommendation as a seminal document which must be paid very close and serious attention.”

About the author:

Elissa Jobson is the Editor of Global: the international briefing


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