The Commonwealth's One Per Cent


As the leaders of the Commonwealth of Nations leave Perth following the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), it’s time to take stock of the buzzword-filled communiques.

The theme for CHOGM 2011 was "Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience". According to Julia Gillard, leaders would discuss issues such as global economic challenges, food security, and the impact of climate change. This would allow them to present a united voice when advocating at other global events such as the G20, the UN Climate Change conference in Durban, and the Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Jenerio.

But has the meeting amounted to anything more than what has been described as post-colonial tea club?

Indeed, the gap between the ideals espoused in CHOGM’s Harare Declaration and the practical realities in Commonwealth countries is large indeed.

Of the 54 member states of the Commonwealth: 39 still outlaw homosexuality, only three have women heads of state (not counting those for whom Queen Elizabeth II is monarch), one is accused of committing crimes against humanity upon its own citizens in this very century, and many are developing states that have a long way to go in terms of economic, social and democratic ideals. Fiji remains suspended from the Commonwealth.

In one of the few concrete outcomes of last week’s meeting, the 16 "realm" nations that have the Queen as head of state agreed with UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to allow the eldest female heir to the throne to become monarch, and to lift the ban on an heir marrying a Catholic. Gillard lauded the announcement, saying she was "absolutely delighted that this moment in history is happening here in Perth" and that she was pleased "there would no longer be a discrimination against women in the way in which the line of succession works".

The decision will reduce discrimination against a very limited class of girls and allow them to inherit an age-old hereditary position of leadership — but it hardly meets the calls for relevancy from the Commonwealth People’s Forum and even the Secretariat.

In its Civil Society Statement, the Commonwealth People’s Forum noted:

"The disconnect between the Commonwealth’s high level goals and ideals agreed at the intergovernmental level and the lack of follow through at the national level severely hampers effective action and the ability of the Commonwealth to be a meaningful vehicle for change."

This type of toothless tiger criticism is often leveled at intergovernmental organisations. It is difficult to ignore in this case when calls for relevance and action have been accepted by all concerned but yet again do not lead to results.

The Commonwealth’s Eminent Person’s Group, chaired by Michael Kirby, had produced an extensive and comprehensive report for leaders sub-titled ‘Time for Urgent Reform’. The report’s 106 recommendations urged, among other things, the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights and the abolition of discrimination against gay and lesbian people. Neither of these key issues were resolved, with the latter not even raised in the final communique.

On the latter, the Eminent Person’s Group report noted that removing discriminatory laws and practices can greatly assist in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which affects many Commonwealth nations. Over the weekend, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma repeated observations that laws relating to the criminalisation of homosexuality are colonial legacies that need to be addressed at the domestic level by the nations concerned.

On the proposal for an independent Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights, CHOGM agreed to examine the issue after further investigation. It was decided that the proposed strengthening of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, agreed on by leaders on Friday, would cover the field. The Eminent Person’s Group had indicated that an independent position would have a greater ability to address human rights abuses than the collective of Ministers, who would be subject to adverse political pressure.

With the next CHOGM due to be held in Colombo in 2013, questions about alleged human rights abuses and possible war crimes in the final days of the civil war in Sri Lanka were also deferred.

Several civil society organisations including the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre had called on leaders to address whether this was appropriate. As Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Peiris dismissed a UN panel’s report into the allegations as propaganda, both Secretary General Sharma and Prime Minister Gillard indicated that the Commonwealth would wait for the findings of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. The BBC has since reported that these findings will not be published.

The general consensus from observers is that little more than agreement for further discussions emerged after the weekend’s banquets with the Queen and the leaders’ retreats in Perth’s beautiful Kings Park Botanical Gardens.

The Commonwealth’s "one per cent" have enjoyed the best hospitality Western Australia has to offer — even if Western Australians’ civil liberties have to be ignored for a few days to make that happen.

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