AUSTRALIA is arguing for the Commonwealth to be given greater powers to stop member nations engaging in military coups and human rights abuses, rather than persist with the present system of suspending nations only once they have transgressed.
The Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, made the call yesterday as Australia argued behind closed doors for the Commonwealth to adopt key recommendations designed to give the 54-member organisation some teeth and stop it sliding towards irrelevance.
Last night, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, raised human rights directly with the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka is the pariah of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth because of unaccounted-for human rights abuses perpetrated on the Tamils as the country’s civil war ended in 2009.
”We have consistently raised our concerns about human rights questions in the end stages of the conflict. These need to be addressed by Sri Lanka,” Ms Gillard said.
She said the country should address the abuses through its post-civil war Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, as well as through a parallel United Nations investigation.
A motion lodged in a Melbourne court on Tuesday to charge Mr Rajapaksa with war crimes was stopped by the government. Pressure is mounting to stop Sri Lanka hosting the next biennial CHOGM in 2013.
Yesterday the president of the International Commission of Jurists’ Australian chapter, John Dowd, QC, said he had been mailed photos documenting atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army in 2009.
He cited evidence of executions with people being shot through the forehead, and ”the exposure of women’s bodies, presumably after death, and it deals with other evidence showing Sri Lankan army officials and officers”.
Mr Dowd joined calls for Sri Lanka to be stripped of the 2013 CHOGM. However, Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd said this would not happen.
Mr Rudd suggested other Commonwealth nations were free to boycott the event or protest in some other way. He pointed to Canada’s threat to stay away if Sri Lanka has not shown signs of reform.
The CHOGM foreign ministers met yesterday and will meet again today to discuss the recommendations of the eminent persons group. The leaders will then debate the issue on Friday and at the weekend.
A key recommendation is the appointment of a Commonwealth commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights to monitor persistent violations of human rights and democracy.
It would advise the Commonwealth Secretary-General and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which has the authority to suspend members.
India, Sri Lanka and a host of African nations oppose appointing the watchdog and Mr Rudd conceded yesterday that it was unlikely many of the key recommendations would be adopted because of the need for a broad consensus among nations.
Mr Rudd said ”there is a danger in the Commonwealth simply being reactive rather than proactive. That is, once a military coup occurs then the one blunt instrument available to the Commonwealth is one of suspension or expulsion.
”On the pre-emptive diplomacy side, there may be other means that we can deploy, other engagements which can occur if it is identified by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.”
The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, who is also in Perth, supported Ms Gillard meeting Mr Rajapaksa. Mr Abbott will have his own meetings with world leaders starting today.