Commonwealth seeks to avoid slide into irrelevance

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 26, 2011 3:34 AM
Commonwealth seeks to avoid slide into irrelevance

By Michael Perry

PERTH, Australia (Reuters) - A proposal to appoint a Commonwealth human rights commissioner to steer a more proactive rights agenda looks set to test a summit this week as the 54 member nations try to make more of a mark in world affairs.

Sri Lanka, at war with Tamil Tiger rebels for a quarter of a century, rejects outside interference in its human rights affairs, which are set to divide the summit starting on Friday.

U.N. and human rights groups call for an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes during in the closing stages of the war which ended in 2009.

A confidential Commonwealth "eminent persons'" report to the leaders recommends reforms to avoid a slide into irrelevance, including that the group act more decisively to uphold human rights.

"Australia's position has always been in support of an enhanced engagement on democracy and human rights, which is contained in that recommendation," Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said on Wednesday.

"But I believe we have to be very realistic about the timetable," said Rudd, hinting at divisions at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Local media said India and South Africa opposed the appointment of an independent human rights commissioner.

The Commonwealth includes Britain and many of its former colonies. Rich members such as Australia, Britain and Canada want a stronger focus on human rights. Canada has criticized Sri Lanka over its rights record and has threatened to boycott the Commonwealth summit in 2013 in Colombo.

Sri Lanka is due to hand down a human rights report in November, but rights groups believe it will be flawed because they say there is no effective witness protection scheme.

CALLS FOR ACTION, NOT WORDS

"If the Commonwealth doesn't stand up, robustly and toughly for democracy and human rights, it might as well pack up," said Peter Kellner, chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society.

Plan International Australia and the society called on Commonwealth leaders to act to end the practice of child brides, saying around 10 million girls under 18 were forced into marriages each year. They said 12 out of 20 countries with the highest rates of child brides are in the Commonwealth.

"At this conference we are calling on the Commonwealth to act on the many high and often abstract statements about human rights and dignity and to turn it into specific action," said Ian Wishart, Plan International Australia's chief executive.

The Commonwealth Trade Union Group said there was widespread abuse of workers' rights in the Commonwealth, naming Fiji and Swaziland the worst cases and citing incidents of arrests, beatings and deaths of workers.

"Workers rights are human rights. Without them people cannot defend their economic and political freedoms," said Ged Kearney, president of Australia's peak trade union body.

Health advocates said laws in 41 Commonwealth states making homosexuality a crime breached human rights and hindered the fight against HIV-AIDS. Many of the laws were first enacted in colonial times.

"This a kind of sexual apartheid," said former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby, a member of the Commonwealth eminent persons group, which has recommended the repeal of laws against homosexuality

Commonwealth states are home to 30 percent of the world's population, but represent 60 percent of the world's HIV-AIDS population, with more than 40 million infected people.

(Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Nick Macfie)