Commonwealth leaders refuse to publish key report's findings

PERTH, Australia - Commonwealth leaders have ignored warnings that their decaying association will die without urgent reforms and have failed to reach significant agreement on how to ensure its member nations abide by human rights principles and the rule of law.

The development came Saturday, as the leaders spent the second day of their biennial gathering - known as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) - debating the merits of a report delivered by an advisory group established two years ago.

But instead of endorsing the report, the leaders adopted a distrustful view about its contents - even deciding that it should be kept secret and not be published.

The report by a panel of "eminent persons" which includes Canadian senator Hugh Segal called for major reforms to ensure the Commonwealth - which is quickly losing its international credibility - becomes relevant and avoids a slow slide to death.
The advisory group made 106 recommendations, including the establishment of a charter of the Commonwealth and the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights to keep track of whether member nations are persistently violating human rights, and who also would recommend "remedial action."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is attending the meeting, is a strong supporter of the report, as is his British counterpart, David Cameron.

But others within the association have strongly objected and dug in their heels to ensure its major recommendations go nowhere.

Among those said to be opposing the reforms are India, Nigeria, South Africa and Sri Lanka, which is facing accusations itself of war crimes and human rights violations in the final weeks of its civil war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

On Saturday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, host of the meeting, acknowledged that some countries had blocked the proposal for a human rights commissioner.

"Australia and a number of delegations indicated that they were supportive of this proposal but there were a number of delegations concerned by it," she told reporters.

"And the Commonwealth is an organization that involves consensus in decision-making."

The leaders did agree to the creation next year of a Charter to "bring together the Commonwealth's values, principles and aspirations in one clear and powerful statement," said Gillard.

But the leaders have effectively decided to deep-six the proposal for a human rights commissioner.

That recommendation will be sent to a committee for review, a move that members of the eminent persons group had feared would mean the idea is shelved.

Even before the leaders held their closed door discussions, members of the advisory group acknowledged at a news conference Saturday that they saw a troubling development emerging.

Segal noted that his group's 205-page report concluded that the Commonwealth had to be more proactive and acknowledge that "silence is not an option" when some countries are violating the human rights of their own citizens.

"Clearly there are some people at this meeting for whom silence is the best option," said Segal. "Would silence have been a way to bring apartheid to an end?"

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the British member of the group, said it was a "disgrace" that the leaders refused to publish the report.

"The Commonwealth faces a very significant problem," he said.

"It's not a problem of hostility or antagonism. It's more of a problem of indifference. Its purpose is being questioned, its relevance is being questioned and part of that is because its commitment to enforce the values for which it stands is becoming ambiguous in the eyes of many member states.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the former prime minister of Malaysia who chaired the advisory group, warned that the leaders were in danger of making a big mistake if they left the summit without major progress.

"There is no doubt that this CHOGM is expected to deliver meaningful reforms of the Commonwealth," he said.

"If this CHOGM does not deliver such reforms, it is our duty to sound the caution to you that this CHOGM will be remembered not as the triumph it should be, but as a failure."

Even by the time this year's summit began, it had become increasingly clear that the Commonwealth is losing its relevance.

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, whose country's 1.2 billion people constitute half the population of the entire Commonwealth, chose not to attend the meeting.

Indeed, about one third of the countries chose not to send their head of government to the summit - opting instead to send a foreign affairs minister or senior diplomat.

At their last meeting in 2009, it appeared the Commonwealth leaders were aware of their own association's deterioration when they appointed the 11-member eminent persons group to propose modernization reforms.

The result was a hard-hitting report that is filled with constructive recommendations but which pulls no punches.

It says the Commonwealth has a "proud record" in past times of responding to serious violations of human rights by its member countries - including apartheid in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, the "excesses" of dictator Idi Amin in Uganda, and military coups in Nigeria, Fiji, Sierra Leone and Pakistan.

In each case, the Commonwealth intervened, through actions ranging from condemnation to sanctions, such as suspension from the organization.

But it concluded there has been a growing criticism in recent years that the Commonwealth does not take a stand, at least in public, on violations of its values by its member states, other than in the case of the unconstitutional removal of governments.

"This failure by the Commonwealth is seen as a decay that has set in to the body of the organization and one that will occasion the association's irrelevance - if not its actual demise - unless it is promptly addressed."

As the conference began on Friday, Segal met with reporters, warning that the Commonwealth is at a crossroads.

"The organization will either be seen as an instrument for modern co-operation between sovereign states with common values, or it will be seen as a vestige of history with no role to play in the future."

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