Commonwealth leaders refuse to publish EPG report

by Matthew Franklin,
chief political correspondent,
The Australian
October 29, 2011

MEMBERS of an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) advising the Commonwealth have attacked the 54-nation body for refusing to publish its report recommending ways to make the organisation more relevant.

UK representative Sir Malcolm Rifkind today said it was a “a disgrace” the report had not been released to promote debate about Commonwealth reform, while Canada’s Hugh Segal said it was apparent some nations believed silence was the best option in dealing with serious issues like human rights violations among the group’s members.

Today’s unanimous criticism by the seven-member EPG has turned the three-day CHOGM meeting on its head after Commonwealth leaders last night declared they had acted to secure the Commonwealth’s ongoing relevance.

At yesterday’s session, leaders lifted the powers of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, made up of foreign ministers of member nations, to intervene when member nations were slipping away from the observance of basic democratic principles.

But this morning, revealing leaders had not authorised the publication of their report, the EPG, including former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby, renewed its call for the appointment of an independent Commonwealth commissioner for human rights on the rule of law to bring attention to democratic and human rights abuses.

EPG members also complained Commonwealth leaders had responded to only two of their 116 recommendations and appeared to have so far taken no action on important issues such as the spread of HIV-Aids among Commonwealth members and climate change.

The CHOGM in Port of Spain two years ago appointed the seven-member panel to propose ways to renew the Commonwealth amid claims it had become too timid and had eroded since its glory days in the 1980s, when its leadership helped defeat the South African system of apartheid.

The report recommends a range of actions, including the elimination of wasteful Commonwealth spending programs, the creation of a Commonwealth charter and action on debt issues facing small nations.

A statement form the EPG chairman and former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said: “The reform arrangements of CMAG, as the chairman of CMAG has indicated, will not fill the gap.”

“After very careful study over 16 months the EPG is convinced that there is an urgent need for bold initiatives to reform and strengthen the Commonwealth as a beneficial force for the future.

“If 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.”

During a media conference, Sir Malcolm said he believed increasing the power of the Commonwealth to deal with human rights violations was fundamental and there was a tendency for the CMAG to “look the other way and take no action” on human rights abuses or misbehaviour by members states.

The panel, he said, was concerned its report had not been published.

“The Commonwealth is not a private club of the governments or the secretariat,” Sir Malcolm said.

“It belongs to the people of the Commonwealth.”

Sir Ronald Sanders, representing small Commonwealth states, said he feared the substantial recommendations of the group would be “kicked into the high grass” for consideration by foreign ministers next year.

The Caribbean former diplomat said CHOGM should also be discussing the fact small nations which did nothing to cause the global financial crisis were unable to obtain bank financing for big infrastructure projects because banks had changed their lending practices in response to excesses in large nations.

Sir Ronald also warned the need for action on climate change was urgent and large Commonwealth nations needed to understand not acting could see them facing the need to accommodate climate change refugees.

Mr Kirby said last night’s announcements about stronger powers for CMAG seemed to have created the expectation among some nations there was no need to consider the appointment of a commissioner for human rights.

But he said while politicians could handle most of the world’s problems, they were sometimes unable to deal with sensitive issues, such as the fact HIV-AIDS levels were twice as high in commonwealth nations as non-commonwealth nations.

“If you leave matters entirely to politicians, sensitive matters will sometimes not be addressed,” Mr Kirby said, arguing an independent commissioner could intervene in such cases to press for action when politicians would not act.

Canada’s Senator Segal, asked about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, said he would not comment on individual members nations but noted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had made clear he would not attend the next CHOGM if, as was planned, it was held in Sir Lanka.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 29 October 2011 - 2:48 pm

    ///it was apparent some nations believed silence was the best option in dealing with serious issues like human rights violations among the group’s members.///

    Such mindset is unhealthy as errant political parties may rely on repression of human rights to create hegemonic power.

  2. #2 by HJ Angus on Sunday, 30 October 2011 - 1:08 am

    Commonwealth nations have some members who deny their citizens basic human rights…so allowing reforms will cramp their style.

  3. #3 by waterfrontcoolie on Sunday, 30 October 2011 - 5:40 pm

    Commonwealth as an organization is a waste of time and money! With the exception of Australia and Canada whatever achievenments recorded under this organization is sub-par; you could win the gold at Commonwealth Game but would more likely to be knocked out of the asian games not to say the Olympics. Even as an economic unit, its members do not gain any leverage! It is there because the British as nothing to cling on for a so-called universal forum. Besides a handful of progressive nations, whose achievements are based on their own efforts, within the Commonwealth what;s there to gather for? It would do Malaysia plenty of good to concentrate on Asean and the Community intereste in ASean +3!

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