Commonwealth fails to pass the reforms test

October 30th, 2011 - 5:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Perth, Oct 30 (IANS) Although it has armed itself with greater powers of preventive diplomacy, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) here failed to agree on a bulk of the proposals aimed at reforming an organisation whose very relevance has come into question.

Ignoring critics who contended the three-day biennial event that concluded Sunday would be seen as a failure unless the reform proposals were accepted, Commonwealth Seretary-General Kamalesh Sharma declared it an “exceptional CHOGM”.

He held up as “an important reform” the acceptance of a report by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) that gives it wide-ranging authority to intervene effectively to prevent situations as the one that developed in Fiji, which was suspended after an elected government was overthrown in a coup.

The CMAG report lays down the situations under which the Commonwealth can intervene if democracy, the rule of law or human rights are threatened in any member-state.

However, members of an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) have decried the 54-nation grouping’s inability to set up a human rights monitor, as suggested in a voluminous report they prepared, saying the summit would be remembered as a failure.

The EPG report, which was considered by the leaders over two days, has made 106 recommendations aimed at reforming the Commonwealth, only a third of which have been accepted. A bulk of the rest have been put up for further discussion, while several have been rejected outright.

The contentious recommendation on setting up a Commissioner for Human Rights has been put aside for further consultation after several member-states, including India and Sri Lanka, objected to what is perceived as its “punitive” powers.

As the Commonwealth works by consensus, any one country can block a proposal.

Indian officials have argued that the commissioner’s role would include functions already undertaken by the UN, and that the Commonwealth Secretariat does not have the funds to set up the institution.

Many members also fear the commissioner would be “censorious”, being mandated to unilaterally speak out on human rights. At present, the Commonwealth secretary-general can only condemn abuses after seeking the approval of foreign ministers of member-states.

The Commonwealth leadership has, however, agreed to an EPG proposal to create a Charter of the Commonwealth that is not legally binding on member-states. Australian Prime Minister and Commonwealth Chair Julia Gillard said the charter would be discussed and drafted by September 2012.

A joint communique issued at the conclusion of CHOGM has held up the charter and the CMAG reforms as the major gains of the summit, apart from what has been called the Perth Declaration on Food Security.

There were other significant initiatives during the summit, including one on the eradication of polio, another on problems of small states, and ‘Women as Agents of Change’. The outcomes on these counts, as well as climate change, figure prominently in the communique.

Another EPG recommendation urging Commonwealth nations to decriminalise homosexuality has also been set aside for further discussion.

Sharma, who was reappointed as secretary-general for another four years, said issues such as homosexuality were up to individual nations to legislate on, and urged them to harmonise their domestic laws with Commonwealth values.

“I’ve made it absolutely clear that some of the domestic legislation in many of our countries, which is for the best part inherited from colonial times, is no longer consistent with the values which our member-states have subscribed to,” he said.

Australian Prime Minister and new Commonwealth chair Julia Gillard said she would take Commonwealth issues to the G20 summit in Cannes next week — especially the need to end trade protectionism and give an impetus to the stalled Doha round of multilateral trade talks.

Vice President Hamid Ansari, head of the Indian delegation at CHOGM 2011, Sunday attended the Retreat where Commonwealth leaders informally interact with each other.

He had what is described in diplomatese as a “pull aside” with Gillard. On her request, a bilateral meeting between the was called off because of “domestic exigencies”.

The Australian prime minister is in the midst of a full-blown crisis caused by the complete grounding of Qantas Airways, and the mood in the country was grim Sunday as news filtered in about the killing of three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Ansari returns home Monday.

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