Queen lines up with her people

| October 31, 2011

Queen Elizabeth II

THE Queen has made a rare and pointed public appeal for Commonwealth leaders to think of their people, as a key proposal designed to reinforce human rights and other basic values in member nations appeared headed for defeat.
Opening the three-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth yesterday, the Queen singled out the report by the eminent persons group, which recommended the creation of a Commonwealth commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It is being considered by the 54 leaders.
”I wish heads of government well in agreeing further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow,” the Queen said. ”We should not forget that this is an association not only of governments but also of peoples.”
Her words were interpreted as an unusually pointed and direct message to the nations that oppose the creation of the commissioner.
Sources familiar with backroom negotiations preceding the official opening said the recommendation to establish a human rights watchdog was dead even before the leaders discussed it. Another recommendation, for the nations to draft a charter of values, was also meeting stiff resistance and was a 50-50 chance of achieving consensus before the meeting wound up tomorrow.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, indicated late yesterday that the    Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillardcommissioner was unlikely to be established. She touted as a victory a compromise to strengthen the powers of the Commonwealth ministerial action group.

It consists of the foreign ministers of nine member states and was established in 1995 to deal with persistent or serious human rights violations by Commonwealth states.

Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard

Ms Gillard said: ”The purpose of these reform proposals is to enable the Commonwealth to act when a country is veering off course in terms of democratic values and the rule of law, rather than waiting until a country has gone to a grossly unacceptable stage and leaders only having options of suspension or expulsion in front of them.
”This meeting has already acted to embrace reform and strengthening of the Commonwealth.” But the eminent persons group had argued in a scathing report that the commissioner was needed as well. ”The Commonwealth is in danger of becoming irrelevant and unconvincing as a values-based association,” the group said.

Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain are pushing for the establishment of the commissioner. The opposition is led by India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and other African nations. They have argued that the new body would be too intrusive and have questioned how it would work with existing organisations. Any recommendation needs a consensus to be adopted, meaning just one nation can block a proposal.
The eminent persons group, which includes the former High Court judge Michael Kirby, made 106 recommendations. The group was put together after the last CHOGM in 2009 following growing criticism that the Commonwealth was becoming irrelevant by failing to uphold basic values of democracy and human rights in member nations.
Mr Kirby said: “The Commonwealth will survive this week, if countries don’t agree on the commissioner, but it will be a seriously weakened body.”
In her speech Ms Gillard pointed out that the Commonwealth was bound by values, not commerce or trade, and these values of peace, democracy, racial equality, the rule of law and social and economic progress should be ”freely embraced and consensually expressed”.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, said it was better to identify and head off rogue behaviour rather than wait until countries had transgressed and then suspend them from the Commonwealth. Fiji, which has been suspended because of the military coup in 2006, will be discussed by leaders this weekend.
Other recommendations by the eminent persons group include a call for the 41 Commonwealth nations that treat homosexuality as a crime to scrap these laws. It says they are an abuse of human rights and make treating HIV/AIDS more difficult.

By Phillip Coorey

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Category: Commonwealth Political Insights

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