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EPG Seeks Radical Improvement in Human Rights

Article by Richard Bourne, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) of 2011, chaired by a former Prime Minister of Malaysia, is unlike its namesake of twenty-five years ago, which sought a negotiated end to South African apartheid. There is no war at present in the Commonwealth with international sanctions against any member country. It is impossible to imagine the Commonwealth organising revenge attacks on neighbouring states, as the South African regime did to abort the peacemaking efforts of that earlier team.

Nonetheless, the present Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, is reported to have told senior colleagues that the current EPG on the future of the Commonwealth is a make-or-break effort for the association.

While existential questions about its future have been asked since the 1960s, the questioning now is potentially deadly. Research for the “Commonwealth Conversation” in 2008-9 demonstrated that few believe the group is serious about its stated values. Earlier this year, the UK’s Department for International Development argued that it is failing to make an effective contribution for development (part of the democracy/development mantra essential to its propaganda) and the UK threatened to cut its subscription to the Commonwealth Foundation, while several developing states are asking what is in it for them.

Hence the current EPG, whose interim report has gone to governments and civil society for comment, is trying to chart a more useful and better known future for a Commonwealth which has few cheerleaders. What can it do for human rights? Strangely, having stated earlier that many see the Commonwealth “as irrelevant and unconvincing as a values-based organisation”, and that the Secretary-General should speak out on gross violations of these values, it does not use the expression “human rights” once. This, at a time when every other international body has no such anxiety, is a simply unacceptable timidity. Quite rightly, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and other bodies around the world have jumped on this lacuna and demanded a specific commitment; after all, it was twenty years ago in Harare that Commonwealth leaders made a pioneering statement in favour of just and accountable government, the rule of law and fundamental human rights – a statement which led to the suspension of governments.

There are four elements in the EPG draft which could have significance for human rights: the proposed Charter for the Commonwealth; a proposed Commissioner for Democracy and the Rule of Law; a strengthening of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which would be required to act on objective criteria, pre-emptively, and with the advice of the Commissioner; and an overhaul of Commonwealth institutions, specifically the Secretariat and Foundation, to make them fitter for purpose by the end of 2012.

The proposed Charter, on which the EPG Chairperson is keen, could occupy considerable time of civil society in lobbying and wordplay, without much impact on the real world. The Commonwealth is much better at hortatory statements than on substantive action or implementation. As far as governments are concerned, it is hard to see why they would want to go much beyond the Trinidad and Tobago affirmation of 2009, which rolled up a number of previous statements on values, and whose impact since then has been negligible. Although some civil society optimists see a Charter negotiation as offering opportunities similar to the Helsinki committees in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, which paved the way for the fall of Soviet-style communism, it would require much work at the national level, as well as international cooperation. It is possible that, in the context of the Arab Spring, there are new opportunities here. But it will be interesting to see whether Commonwealth leaders at the Perth summit buy this idea.

The proposed Commissioner for Democracy and the Rule of Law could, of course, play a significant role to uphold and improve human rights. But that would need to be in the remit and title. Even so, there are several questions to be resolved here. There are not many persons who are equally qualified in the areas of democracy, law and rights, and a tired politician would not be the right figure to launch an office of this kind. Might it not be better to invite the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to appoint a Commissioner for Democracy, with Commonwealth leaders responsible for appointing a Commissioner for the Rule of Law and Human Rights?

If independent of the Commonwealth Secretariat, as it should be, there is an issue of how any such office would be serviced, and financed; it would make more sense if the Human Rights Unit at the Secretariat, required to brief CMAG during the McKinnon era, as well as CHRI and other civil society groups, were to brief the Commissioner. Could the Commissioner take up egregious violations of socio-economic rights? And what would the Secretary-General and CMAG be expected to do with any advice? It is going to take considerable political effort and some thought to turn the Commissioner’s proposal into a valuable tool for the rejuvenation of the Commonwealth.

EPG has made many useful suggestions to strengthen CMAG, but it is not yet known what CMAG itself is proposing, or how the Commonwealth Heads will adjudicate if they get conflicting advice. CMAG’s own ideas should be published as soon as possible. One of the worries is that CMAG’s current membership is probably more liberal and interventionist than Commonwealth governments as a whole. A valuable recommendation from EPG is that the proposed Commissioner should advise on the eligibility of potential new member states, in terms of Commonwealth values. This appears to be a welcome reaction to the premature admission of Rwanda, against which CHRI had publicly warned.

There will be serious political debate at the Perth summit on these EPG proposals, and it is unlikely that all of them will be accepted. The Australian government is keen to see progress, and a consequential reorganisation in the intergovernmental body to make it fit for new purposes. Some ineffectual “best practice” programmes are likely to go; wiser use of information technology may reduce the “flying club” aspect to the Commonwealth; a stronger information division will move beyond the “silent virtue” that has substituted for publicity. But civil society bodies will have to work hard if the Commonwealth is to stop being a marginal, muddle-through affair, especially in the vital field of human rights.


Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an international non government organisation working for the practical realisation of human rights in the countries of the Commonwealth.


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