EDITORIAL – Commonwealth struggling to be relevant
PRIME MINISTER Freundel Stuart and his delegation returned home quietly last week after attending the biannual Commonwealth meeting in Australia, largely ignored by the Press. It was his first meeting and understandably he would have attended.
The Commonwealth has in large measure outlived its usefulness as the colonial ties that bind us have been diffused under the concepts of independence and sovereignty.
Representatives of 54 countries, mostly heads of government, attended the conference and high on the agenda was a report by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), established to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, strengthen its Secretariat, and transform its approach to human rights. The group’s recommendations were unanimous.
From the sparse reports emanating from the conference, it seems the leaders generally ignored the report’s key recommendation, which concerned the establishment of a Human Rights Commissioner to oversee and report on the actions of member governments.
It is no secret that the human rights of some Commonwealth countries need improvement in many areas. Unfortunately, some African governments regarded the report as targeting developing countries, though the recommendations were applicable to certain developed countries which have also violated basic human rights protections.
The second major issue for the meeting concerned the civil war in Sri Lanka and whether both the government and the Tamils had committed war crimes in the conflict’s final years. This topic was virtually ignored and hardly debated.
Indeed, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently spoke strongly against the lack of action in Sri Lanka, and indicated that if the next Commonwealth meeting was held there, as currently planned, he would not attend.
Nothing of substance really emerged from the meeting and in any event the issues could have been dealt with at the United Nations level. The consensus is that the Commonwealth may have lost a unique opportunity to make a human rights difference.
According to Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister of Australia, the Commonwealth’s people deserve much better than what their leaders delivered at the Australia summit and need a different temper and more coherent and effective leadership, as envisaged by the EPG’s report.
Sadly, the Commonwealth as a vital global body is struggling to remain relevant. Perhaps Mr Fraser is right: the body needs leaders prepared to act on the basis of conviction and steadfastness of purpose, rather than evading and shirking their responsibilities when divisive issues arise.
It is therefore not surprising that many people would question whether attendance at its meeting is worth the cost, or indeed necessary.