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The Perth Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting

By Richard Bourne

The real issue before the Commonwealth summit in Perth, Australia, is whether its 54 member governments want this body to play a more important role in the world, or whether they will be accomplices in its continuing marginalisation. Few international organisations die or get killed off: plenty just fade away.

Most unbiased students of international affairs would say that, so far in the 21st century, the Commonwealth has done too little to justify its existence. This applies right across its core claimed commitments to democracy, the rule of law and human rights, as well as to the development of its majority of poor states and poor citizens. Its reaffirmation of values in Trinidad in 2009 has passed unobserved. Its rejig of subscriptions then merely strengthened the financial hold of the UK, Canada and Australia at a time when economic power is moving across the globe, and a neo-colonial split between “developed” and “developing” is increasingly anachronistic.

The Perth summit will see the Australian government in the chair for the second time in a decade, with a report from an Eminent Persons Group chaired by the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mr Abdullah Badawi, which will be the third serious attempt to modernise the Commonwealth in 30 years. Attention will focus on its proposed Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights, and on its suggestion that there should be a Charter for the Commonwealth. Yet equally important are its proposals for raising the profile on development, for radically overhauling the information service and, implicitly, increasing the funds at the disposal of the Commonwealth.

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Already a few governments, either afraid for their own records or worried that the Commonwealth may try to live up to its rhetoric, have been grumbling about the Commissioner. Although the remit looks dangerously wide and could be sabotaged in detail, the post does have potential as an objective source of qualified advice to the Secretary-General and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG, the rules body of Foreign Ministers). The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) itself proposed a Human Rights Commission in 1991; then a Human Rights Commissioner in 1993; and worked with the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit which put forward a scheme for a qualified human rights adviser to CMAG in 2003. All bodies concerned for democracy, the rule of law and human rights will be looking closely at the remit, financing and independence of this new instrument. If properly established, it will need their help.

Although the host government is keen to see this Commissioner approved, the debate at Perth may turn on whether the Eminent Persons Group ( EPG ) is suggesting enough for development in return or may get caught in the backwash of a row about Sri Lanka’s suitability to host a summit as soon as 2013. One possible compromise might see the Commissioner required to visit Sri Lanka soon after his or her appointment.

The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation is now very tiny, and in recent years the small Commonwealth Secretariat has found it difficult to play a persistent, catalytic role in development; a strong statement from Perth could be carried forward to the G20 meeting in Cannes, and the Commonwealth could take some initiatives on managing international migration, as proposed by the Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development.

The idea for a Commonwealth Charter stems from Mr Badawi’s success in launching a Charter for ASEAN. But early indications are that it would lack the rule-making quality of the UN Charter, be hortatory and aspirational (just like the Trinidad and Tobago Affirmation of Values), and its only possible benefit would be descriptive. The EPG is suggesting that it would be put together as a result of large-scale civil society consultations in all 54 countries which, though they might have the advantage of reminding citizens of the Commonwealth’s existence, present organisational and financial challenges. The Commonwealth Foundation, which has just undergone a turbulent reorganisation, would need help to support such an exercise, and citizens would need persuasion to take part.

The EPG wishes to separate the civil society forum and its meeting with Foreign Ministers, which now take place in the week before the summit, to the year between summits. This is an idea which has been suggested before, and would break the myth that the Peoples Forum can have much last minute impact on the deliberations of the leaders. One of the problems with the short summit itself is that its agenda is crowded anyway and that, with so much other international activity, it has lost the convivial if often argumentative quality that distinguished the Commonwealth in the past.

But the crucial question remains: do its key nations want the Commonwealth to do more? It is a major disappointment to the hosts that India, so important in global economic and political evolution, will not be represented by its elderly Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. He has prioritised attendance at G20 and SAARC summits instead. This exemplifies the way in which the Commonwealth has been out-competed. Those leaders who do go to Perth will have to do more than just approve the EPG report, and perhaps look again at the way future Secretaries-General are recruited, if Commonwealth summits are to become “must go” events in future.

Back in 1999 Derek Ingram, doyen of journalistic commentators on the Commonwealth, wrote in a report for CHRI that “the Commonwealth is about human rights or it is about nothing.” Since then there have been several setbacks for those, like myself, who took heart from the 1991 Harare Declaration and the pioneering Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). Both with the Commissioner and CMAG there is a chance now for Perth to take the Commonwealth forward once more. But if it fails, in an abyss of realpolitik, much Commonwealth rhetoric will disappear forever.


Richard Bourne, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, first Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative


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