At the Commonwealth summit, the human rights proselytisers no longer hold sway

by John Kampfner
30 October 2011

The Perth summit reveals how compromised western leaders are in their efforts to promote human rights

The death knell of the Commonwealth has been sounded for as long as there have been summits. By accident rather than design, this anachronistic gathering of 54 states may actually say more about the state of global priorities than the participants realise. And the direction of travel is grim.

At their meeting in Perth over the weekend, the leaders rejected many of the recommendations of a report by a team of the great and good, the eminent persons group (EPG), designed to move the Commonwealth’s democratic laggards towards basic norms.

In search of a lowest-common-denominator consensus, the summit accepted some less controversial ideas, such as a charter. The idea of a human rights commissioner, however, proved too much. “There have been a few blips like in any part of the world but I don’t think it demanded a commissioner,” noted Suruj Rambachan, the foreign minister of Trinidad. Under pressure from South Africa and other states, the summit even refused to publish the EPG’s report.

The former prime minister of Malaysia, who chaired the EPG, said the summit would be remembered as a failure. Malcolm Rifkind, the former UK foreign secretary, described the unwillingness to publish the report as a disgrace. This is hardly surprising, as the Commonwealth comprises a veritable who’s who of governments with dubious human rights records – from Nigeria, Cameroon and Rwanda to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Singapore.

The prospect of progress at the next gathering in two years’ time – hosted in, of all places, Sri Lanka – is even more remote. The Colombo government denounces any attempt to call it to account for human rights abuses. In front of their Commonwealth colleagues the Sri Lankans dismissed a UN-commissioned report on massacres against the Tamils as “a travesty of justice and preposterous”. The Canadians, meanwhile, are threatening to boycott the 2013 heads of government meeting in protest.

The Commonwealth’s weakness is specific to its history and its constitution. Any whiff of British lecturing is given short shrift; at the same time, all major decisions have to be taken by consensus, allowing recalcitrant countries to stop changes in their tracks. The only sanction, and one used rarely, is expulsion.

But the problem is far bigger than the institution. It is one that has been exercising policymakers for years. What is the relationship between human rights and economic development? To what degree do they represent western or universal values? In my book, Freedom for Sale, I argued that the trade-off between liberty and prosperity had become more alluring than ever. Regimes that can satisfy what I call the “private freedoms” – such as travelling and making money – can quite easily ensure that citizens leave the public space to them. Singapore is the model in microcosm; China is rolling it out on a far bigger scale, with Russia and others not far behind. Economic growth is the motor; consumerism is the anaesthetic for the brain.

This model has permeated into western chancelleries. For the Australian hosts of the Commonwealth conference, much of its economic boom has come from exporting raw materials to China. This has led to a recalibration in Australian priorities, with human rights concerns regarded in government as an inconvenient intrusion into trading relations. Only last month Julia Gillard, the prime minister, commissioned a white paper on Australia’s place in the “Asian century”. It is safe to assume this will formally inject the notion of “gradualism” into discussions about free speech and other freedoms in Asia and Oceania.

In so doing, the Australians will only be doing more overtly what the Europeans are undertaking by stealth. The more the Chinese save the flagging old economies, the more the new “reality” will be established. Watch the effect that any Chinese bailout of the euro will have on future political negotiations.

The much-vaunted Beijing consensus is now the norm across most of the developing world. This is what gives the likes of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Paul Kagame in Rwanda their political confidence. Kagame makes clear his respect for the Singapore model, the so-called “managed democracy”, otherwise known as authoritarian capitalism.

After the genocide of 1994 Kagame gradually brought about economic recovery and social stability. He regards strong education, contract law and anti-corruption drives as the true marks of progress. As for freedom of expression, he points to the hate speech that fuelled the massacres, predominantly by Hutu militias, and he sees it as a luxury at best and divisive at worst. A number of journalists and opposition figures have been killed in recent years. In the 2010 general election, with most parties banned, he received an absurd 93% of the vote.

In an interview on Sunday with Andrew Marr, Kagame brushed aside tentative questioning, dismissing criticism of his human rights record as “absolute nonsense”. In the same programme David Cameron threatened to withhold UK aid from countries that do not “adhere to proper human rights”. British economic assistance should have “more strings attached”, he said, particularly on the question of repression of homosexuality. But he conceded that countries could not change immediately, and that it would be a “journey”.

Leaving aside the many examples of hypocrisy and double standards (who can forget the prime minister trying to flog weapons to dodgy Middle Eastern regimes days before launching the Franco-British “human intervention” in Libya), this message now has even less salience than it has ever done.

The role of western governments in proselytising about human rights has been hugely compromised. In most instances nowadays it is counterproductive. African and Asian countries can simply look to China and its allies and reap the rewards of a less squeamish approach to individual liberty.

Yet there is room for considerable optimism, and it lies in bottom-up movements, fuelled by new communications tools such as in Tunisia and Egypt. Ultimately, it is only through grassroots pressure that real improvement will come about.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 9:04 pm

    Commonwealth in name only but realistically there’s nothing in common in terms of levels of wealth and values amongst its 54 members. To try use human rights as “lowest-common-denominator” for acceptance of common values amongst these 54 member countries is a triumph of hope over logic & reality! And to argue further that without human rights being monitored by Julia Gillard’s idea of human rights commissioner implies that Commonwealth will be irrelevant forgets the reality that if the countries that favour human rights were to push for it, the Commonwealth will quicker be irrelevant either from being disbanded or being pushed out of the Commonwealth since its members by overwhelming numerical majority are non white and different from “white” western advocates (eg Australia, Canada & UK having cultural historical ties with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and common bonds of English, common law and common western philosophical tradition from ideas of Rawls, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Francis Hutcheson Thomas Paine etc). Human rights as common value system for Commonwealth is a non starter.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 9:39 pm

    Besides there are 3 big obstacles to these “western governments proselytising about human rights”, the first as Kampfner admitted “is specific to its history and its constitution”. This is group the common link of which is that they are ex-colonies of Britain & her dominion Australia & Canada. The Colonial masters have by colonial policies of divide and rule bequeathed a legacy to its ex colonies incompatible to the flourishing of human rights in these societies. Leaving in a hurry after World War 2 without human rights growing root in the value system of these societies what’s moral right of these white countries to preach? Take the case of their colonial divide and rule in Ceylon, under colonial rule, Tamils were favoured, because of their higher rate of English-language skills, they had easier access to higher education than did the majority of Sinhalese. With independence the Singalese went overboard to rectify the imbalance, marginalizing the Tamils leading to Civil War!

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 9:42 pm

    Wasn’t colonial divide rule responsible for present rivalry/conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots? Or here Malays & Non Malays when under colonial rule Malays were encouraged to be agro-rural based, Chinese in mines and commerce, Indians in Plantation and Civil service which give reason to TDM to go overboard in the opposite direction after independence???…. We are said to be violating human rights by ISA, prosecuting sodomy, Canning in Prison etc but from whom did we learn this and acquire this law & legacy? Its Colonial Britain! The political elites of ex colonies just learn its trick of divide and rule and stay in power. Its like a irresponsible father who did not show good example or bothered with his children and left home and later come back to lecture them why there are kurang ajar and not having proper values!

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 9:57 pm

    The second reason is difference in values. Human Rights have heir base in the secularization of Judeo-Christian ethics. The equality of Man that includes Woman immediately conflicts with Islamic permissibility in allowing a man up to 4 wives! The non discrimination of men on race/religion & by extension gender conflicts with Islamic differentiation between faithfuls and kafirs; the acknowledgment of Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights by these western societies conflict with Islamic disapproval & criminalization of homosexual sex (or sodomy) as liwat. Many commonwealth members are Muslim countries. How can they accept Julia Gillard’s idea of human rights commissioner to monitor their human rights record when like here we prosecute even Opposition Head for Liwat whilst Gilllard appointed Lesbian Penny Wong as Minister of Finance?

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 10:12 pm

    The 3rd obstacle is perception (esp by Islamic countries) that the West is using human rights as a political ideology to extend their spheres of influence in other areas for Anglo-Saxon geopolitical & economic advantage. Using human rights as excuse they have under US’s leadership and a UN deferent to it, to pass resolutions to extend their military adventurism to Afghanistan Iraq Libya etc. Problem is high faluting morality is mismatched against actions for example water boarding torture outsourced in Guantanamo Bay, the using o smart bombs in Iraq under excuse of WMD that was never found after Saddam got hung!! The hypocrisy & duplicity only provides the likes of Dr Mahathir and SM Lee Kuan Yew to say that we have our own set of Eastern Values. Besides the pull of money as the author said were LKY could micromanage S’pore to prosperity in spite of violation human rights in Western terms – and China could become an economic house promising to overtake the US in spite of being communist and not adhering to human rights. Though I believe in Human Rights these 23 obstacles make it absurd in practical terms for white countries to try to forge a consensus, with every one of the 54 member agreeing, to human rights being common platform!

  6. #6 by waterfrontcoolie on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 10:41 pm

    Most if not all Western Writers love to see all Asia practise the Indian style of democracy with the 200 million untouchables being left at the bottom of the heap. They will cry and proclaim that such thing should not happen in the 21st century while having their wiskey in 5 star hotel. Writing with imaginationhas been their forth ibcluding well written and spoken deliberation over their world-wide CNN, BBC, CNBC and what not? In spite of all their clamour for freedom to speak, they would prefer the less fortunate to remain where they are! This democracy in their eye; that is after they have gathered all the wealth from the world through any means possible; Now let us practise DEMOCRACY!

  7. #7 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 10:47 pm

    So what is happening at the UN then, especially at its Human Rights Council?

    Much work has been done there especially after the appointment of a prominent Human Rights Adviser John Ruggie (Harvard University) in 2005. He has recommended the ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for onward transmission to all UN members.

    This framework involves the participation, involvement and responsibility of all parties – governments, companies, institutions, groups and even the individual. Every party has responsibilities towards respecting, implementing, upholding and defending Human Rights and to take the appropriate actions.

    Aren’t the Commonwealth countries, 1Malaysia included, members of the UN?

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 11:24 pm

    Commonwealth countries are members of UN which subscribes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However procedurally member countries must ratify and sign the various specific ancillary treaties -CCPR, CERD, CAT, CEDAW and CRPD- which member countries must specifically endorse ratify and adopt. (Malaysia has endorsed for eg CEDAW on women’s rights). And even if they ratify and adopt, breach attracts only reputational costs. UN has no enforcement means except in serious cases of genocide, crimes against humanity (killings & mass rape against civilians by military as in Bosnia/Crotian war) when Security Council resolved action being taken. So first problem is member countries selectively interpret what’s human rights and their violation that count! If one considers the whole range of human rights not only in UNHR but also the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) probably no member country is 100% abiding. Even the US argues breaches the covenant against torture in Guantanamo Bay.

  9. #9 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 11:38 pm

    One of the reasons for selective lip service and no strict adherence by members countries is that they view that think that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is an Anglo-American democratic liberalism thingy foisted upon them through the US-Western controlled UN about which they didn’t have much of a say…The UDHR was adopted in 1948. Promoters were victorious allied powers of 1945, and their allies, with a few others. They did not then even approximate the present membership of the UN! Then large swathes of world, most notably, Africa, were still colonized and the colonial western powers ‘represented’ them to adopt the UDHR. Flash forward to present, they feel that Western powers at best use Human Rights to foist their values to rest of the world and at worst use human rights as rallying excuse to legitimise any western military action. In attacking regimes that violate human rights the attackers/protectors/champions of human rights also violate human rights by their war machine that kill and maim the innocent in collateral damage. This diminishes the moral standing of whose who advocate it – at least in the eyes of those who often in breach of human rights as well! So the latter on’t really feel a compunction to observe and brand the advocates as hypocites.

  10. #10 by monsterball on Tuesday, 1 November 2011 - 11:50 pm

    There is nothing common amongst all the countries.
    Their wealth differs.
    Their cultures….mentalities…behaviors are so far apart.
    It is a gathering of selfish and calculative politicians….who never treated each other with respect and as equals…like sports people.
    Human Rights matters have exposed who they are.
    They are telling each other to mind their own business….and talk of other matters…and not about Human Rights.
    An example is how Malaysian government criticizes others on being unfair and unjust to their citizens….while our Govt. is doing exactly the things they criticized others.

  11. #11 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - 12:45 am

    In the UN, each country, big or small, powerful or weak, has an equal voice except for the Security Council (on security matters).

    So if any country feels left out, sidelined etc, they can actively participate (as they are entitled to) in all other matters. After all, the not so powerful countries have the majority voice and vote. Just look at what they did at UNESCO a couple of days ago when they voted to admit the Palestinian Authority and thumped their noses at the western powers.

    The UNDHR was made in 1948 but much changes have taken place since then especially over the last two decades.

    The UNHRC do assess and advise each country as to its Human Rights record. The UNHRC does have wide representation from many countries although admittedly, the Western powers do have a louder voice but this is because the lesser countries do not participate actively due to their own poor Human Rights record. So they must bear some of the blame and point their fingers at themselves.

  12. #12 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - 12:53 am

    This moderation thingy is getting on my nerves. It is very irritating when the filter standard is set too high.

    The blog owner must be a very uncomfortable, nervous and insecure person who must check everything three or four times and also get legal advice before release.

    This just got to be the most controlled blog I ever come across. But it is his blog and he has his rules.

  13. #13 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - 1:09 am

    I mean what is the point when a posting comes out only a day later if at all? Things would have moved on there there would no longer be any continuity or interest left?

    Boy it is cold today. I guess I should start preparing dinner. See you all some time.

  14. #14 by k1980 on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - 7:55 am

    Still waiting after 40 years for Commonwealth “leaders” to protest the NEP in bolehsia

  15. #15 by monsterball on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - 1:09 pm

    Poor sheriff…I get moderated so much too and left if for few days and come back when I am in the mood and ready to smile over all bad news.
    Yes…this is the most moderated blog I come across…but some are worst…the ban you totally.

  16. #16 by monsterball on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - 1:20 pm

    Does he have so much time to read every comment to decide which can be approved and which cannot?
    I just got one moderated at current post!!!

  17. #17 by monsterball on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 - 6:57 pm

    Human Rights is a very wide subject.
    Gangsters collecting protection money from workers in the name of protecting their rights..try hard to make bosses frighten.
    So call…honorable guys forming Unions play politics.
    One day a Govt out door worker…cleaning longkangs was disturbing a young girl.
    I approached and slapped him and three ladies said…..”Uncle don’t do that. Please support Human Rights”
    I replied…”What about Individual Rights?”
    No answer and they walked away.
    Humans have been divided…used…cheated…brainwashed by UMNO b thieves and robbers… for decades…and they want to talk about Human Rights?

You must be logged in to post a comment.