Commonwealth leader summit ends in Australia

AP News
Posted: Oct 30, 2011 6:47 AM
Commonwealth leader summit ends in Australia

Commonwealth nation leaders insisted Sunday that they had made sweeping progress at their biennial summit, despite failing to agree on a key human rights reform recommended by a group that questioned the forum's very relevance.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had pushed for the appointment of a human rights watchdog during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting _ or CHOGM _ said the forum had still made progress by strengthening the role the Commonwealth can play when dealing with nations accused of human rights abuses.

"This will provide for an earlier and more constructive engagement by the Commonwealth and the Secretary General where countries are veering from the path of democracy," Gillard told reporters in the Western Australia city of Perth, where the three-day meeting of 53 Commonwealth nation leaders came to a close on Sunday.

A report by the forum's Eminent Persons Group, which was set up during the last summit to help raise the Commonwealth's profile, had recommended the leaders appoint a human rights commissioner. The forum has been hit with repeated questions of its effectiveness in preventing human rights abuses, particularly in Sri Lanka, which is slated to host the next summit.

Sri Lanka been under intense pressure from human rights groups and countries including the U.S. to investigate allegations of possible war crimes during the final months of its 26-year war with Tamil Tiger separatists, which ended in 2009.

Gillard said Australia supported appointing a human rights watchdog, but several other countries had raised concerns. The prime minister said a group of Commonwealth foreign ministers would examine the proposal further and report their findings to the leaders at a later date.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have raised the prospect of some nations boycotting the Sri Lanka summit in 2013.

Harper has said he will not attend because of concerns over Sri Lanka's human rights record, while Cameron acknowledged he had discussed the issue and also has reservations.

"The message I have given is _ the Tamil Tigers have been defeated, you're in government, you have an opportunity to show magnanimity and also to show a process of reconciliation and demonstrate to the rest of the world that you don't have things to hide. It is very important that pressure is applied," Cameron told BBC television on Sunday.

"I think they should be aware of the fact that they are holding this Commonwealth summit in 2013 and it is up to them to show further progress so they can welcome the maximum number of countries."

The forum did give one of its internal groups more power to intervene earlier when Commonwealth nations are accused of human rights abuses or undemocratic behavior. Previously, the forum was restricted to either suspending or expelling such countries from the bloc.

The Eminent Persons Group was also highly critical of the effectiveness of the forum itself, saying it risked sliding into irrelevancy.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma insisted the summit had been productive, citing among the forum's successes the adoption of a measure that will coordinate global emergency relief efforts to deal with food supply crises.

"I had stated that this will be a landmark CHOGM, and it is indeed proven to be one," Sharma said. "This CHOGM will be remembered as a CHOGM of reform, renewal and resilience."

Leaders did make several noteworthy decisions during the summit, including agreeing to lift a ban on monarchs marrying Roman Catholics. The forum also changed royal succession rules to allow the British monarch's first-born child _ whether a girl or a boy _ to ascend the throne, reversing centuries of tradition.

Leaders also agreed to increase efforts to eradicate polio. Leaders of Britain, Canada, Australia and Nigeria, along with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, pledged tens of millions of dollars in extra funding toward the World Health Organization's campaign to wipe out the disabling disease from the four countries where it remains endemic _ India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.