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Exclusive: Experts urge Commonwealth action on human rights

Oct 1, 2011, 4:21 a.m.

By Adrian Croft

LONDON (Reuters) - The Commonwealth must act decisively to uphold human rights among its 54 member nations or risk a slide into irrelevance, according to a report set to divide the group's leaders at their summit this month.

A confidential experts' report to Commonwealth heads of government, obtained by Reuters, called for wide-ranging reforms that it said are essential if the organization is to make a real difference to improving the lives of its people.

"As it is currently perceived, the Commonwealth is in danger of losing its relevance," the 204-page report said.

The Commonwealth includes Britain, its former colonies and some other states with a combined population of two billion people.

The report by a 10-member Eminent Persons Group was commissioned by Commonwealth leaders in 2009 and will be a key issue at their next summit in Perth, Australia, from October 28-30 when they must decide whether to accept its recommendations.

The experts' call for the Commonwealth to act more energetically to uphold human rights is sure to be divisive.

Rich Commonwealth members such a Australia, Britain and Canada want a stronger focus on human rights.

But developing countries such as Sri Lanka -- under increasing Western pressure to probe allegations of war crimes at the end of its war with Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009 -- reject outside interference.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris was quoted on the website of Sri Lanka's Daily Mirror on Friday as saying the push for a "punitive role" on human rights by a few Commonwealth countries could cause a split in the organization.

The experts' most controversial proposal is that the Commonwealth should appoint a commissioner to inform it about "persistent violations" of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in member states and how to respond to them.

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The Commonwealth, which already has the power to take sanctions against member states that fail its democracy test, suspended Fiji in 2009.

But the experts said there had been growing criticism that the organization's watchdog, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), had "only shown real interest, and responded, when there has been a coup d'etat or a military seizure of power in a member state."

CMAG should draw up specific steps, such as the violation of the opposition's rights, that would trigger its intervention with a member state to take corrective action, it said.

The proposal to create a commissioner for human rights provoked intense discussion at a meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers in New York last week, with a number of developing countries questioning whether the commissioner would have a "policeman's role," a source close to the talks said.

Canada publicly criticized Sri Lanka over its human rights record for the first time on Thursday, setting the scene for a likely confrontation at the Perth summit.

The experts also proposed that the Commonwealth should have a charter setting out what it stands for and should play a beefed-up role in observing elections in member states. Observers should arrive two months before an election, instead of two weeks before as they do now, they said.

They urged nations with laws against homosexuality to repeal them, saying they hampered the fight against AIDS.

The experts' group, chaired by former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, includes former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby and Asma Jilani Jahangir, a human rights advocate from Pakistan.

A Commonwealth spokesman said leaders had asked for options to strengthen the Commonwealth. "We believe the report gives many of these options," he said.

Britain's minister for the Commonwealth, David Howell, said in a statement he strongly supported the experts' work.

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