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Limited progress made on Commonwealth human rights reforms

”A new human rights commissioner — the lynchpin of the reform report — is no longer needed in the form recommended, said Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth’s secretary general.  That’s because a ministerial management group has been given new powers to enforce human rights abuses.”

Bruce Cheadle
Commonwealth leaders have agreed to develop “one clear, powerful statement” of values for the 54 member countries — but enforcing those values is another matter.

A summit that was described as an urgent “moment of truth” for the relevancy of the grouping of former British colonies wrapped up in good-humoured ambiguity Sunday.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard touted the decision to develop a new Charter and new rules for a ministerial management body as “major decisions” and “significant reforms.”

But the promised Charter can’t paper over the group’s failure to act on more crucial reforms for tackling human rights and democratic abuses by member states.

A priority appeal for a new Commonwealth human rights commissioner to investigate and publicize abuses was among the key reforms that were side-lined for further examination. The repeal of laws against homosexuality in a majority of Commonwealth countries met the same fate.

A reform panel appointed by the Commonwealth in 2009 submitted a report for the Perth summit that flatly asserted the association has lost its relevance and is in a state of decay due to member countries running amok without censure.

But two thirds of the 106 urgently recommended reforms were punted to study groups for further examination — “kicked into the long grass” in the words of one reform panel member.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed frustration at the slow, bureaucratic pace of reform, but nonetheless refused to sound off on an organization he says “remains relevant and effective.”

“Realistically I don’t think you can expect to drop 106 recommendations on leaders with a few weeks notice and expect all of them are going to be accepted in the space of a weekend,” Mr. Harper said at a post-summit news conference, before embarking on the long, 30-hour flight home to Canada.

Nonetheless, Harper’s patience for the Commonwealth’s worst offenders appeared limited

Canadian officials said Harper walked out of the summit when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the host of the next biennial Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Colombo in 2013, was invited to speak to the assembled leaders Sunday.

Harper had said coming into the 2011 meeting that he would boycott Sri Lanka’s meeting if human rights abuses linked to the bloody end of the Tamil insurgency there were not investigated.

Harper spoke directly to Mr. Rajapaksa about the issues this weekend and said the president’s tone was “reassuring.”

“However I remain skeptical of some of the reassurances and we’ll be working, obviously, between now and the next Commonwealth to ensure that our concerns are genuinely addressed.”

Harper added that if they are not, he’ll boycott the next summit.

It was just one of many jarring notes on the summit’s final day, when words of progress and reform were belied by the dirty details.

A new human rights commissioner — the lynchpin of the reform report — is no longer needed in the form recommended, said Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth’s secretary general.

That’s because a ministerial management group has been given new powers to enforce human rights abuses.

When it was pointed out at the closing summit news conference that the management group includes Bangladesh — a country named as one the world’s worst offenders by Human Rights Watch — Mr. Sharma turned defensive.

“I do not feel that it is fair to isolate one country and start discussing what the issues may be,” Mr. Sharma said.

But the Commonwealth’s reticence about naming and shaming human rights offenders was at the heart of the panel report.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, Canada’s representative on the 11-member panel, had asked the leaders this weekend not to bury the problems.

Even the Queen, in a surprisingly direct speech to open the summit, tacitly implored members to endorse the panel report, urging “further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow.”

In the end, there was nothing bold about the outcome.

Mr. Harper was left to rationalize what he could of a trip around the globe that offered only marginal progress.

“We are not under the illusion that things are perfect.”

Without naming the United Nations, the Francophonie or any other international grouping to which Canada belongs, Mr. Harper shrugged off the compromises that come with the summit territory.

He suggested the pursuit of human rights and rule of law is a never-ending work in progress.

“While the Commonwealth has not been perfect in pushing those objectives, in fact it is one of the more effective instruments around the world in pushing those objectives,” said the prime minister.

“I think it remains useful in that regard.”

As the Canadian delegation beat a hasty retreat from the summit, Mr. Harper faced a final frustration.

His departure home to Canada was delayed at the airport — by the Sri Lankan delegation ahead.
 The Globe and Mail


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