Democracy, Human Rights and the Commonwealth: The Art of the Possible
Royal Commonwealth Society, Ottawa Branch
Sheraton Hotel, Ottawa
February 10, 2012
Au Canada, l'esprit du commonwealth etait et reste toujours dans le chemin d'avancer les opportunites pour nos concitoyens mondiales qui se situent dans nos pays confreres du commonwealth. De Columbo a Chypre, du Caraibe a l'Inde, du Malasie a Tanzanie, les efforts Canadiennes, et du gouvernments federals et provinciales, et des citoyens et citoyennes privees, et des orgaizations benevoles etait toujour presents au vie de nos confreres du commonwealth. Technical assistance, whether through peacekeeping in Cyprus for three decades, through agricultural or educational or governance assistance in Africa and the Caribbean, through public sector reform and educational and health advice in Malta, Canada has been there. Noone in this room needs any reminding of the great work of John Diefenbaker and Jawaharlal Nehru on the departure of an Apartheid South Africa from the Commonwealth, or the consistent support of the front line states arrayed against apartheid by Prime Ministers Trudeau and Mulroney. Canada is no fair-weather friend, weekend patriot or chocolate soldier on the promise, values and principles of the Commonwealth. Never has been and never will be.
There are many stated reasons for this you have all heard. But let me give you one reason that is not just about history, not about our high regard, respect for and loyalty to our Head of State, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the Head of the Commonwealth.
That reason? The Commonwealth as a non-treaty, voluntary association of states, has the largest reach, remit and geography in the world with the main and central purpose of preventing wherever possible, bad things from happening. Our tools are usually non-military: education, governance, technical assistan, electoral observers, development and human rights help.
The UN, as a deliberative body, is where one goes when the bodies are already piled like cordwood in the morgue or the streets, or when one country's tanks have rolled over the border into the sovereign territory of another. Think Iraq and Syria in the latter case and today's tragedy in Syria in the former. And because of the P5 Veto, the Security Council is often impotent and unable to engage.
It is through humanitarian programmes and initiatives like the Governance and Institutional Development Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat that runs the "Commonwealth Services Abroad Programme", sending volunteers into emergency situations; or the Economic Affairs Division of the Secretariat that undertakes research and provides technical assistance on risk preparedness and disaster management for small states; the Commonwealth also works through a sweep of many measures to keep states from failing, helps governments through technical and discrete assistance, helps civil society groups engage and embrace progress, provide technical assistance to enrich and strength the effective and competent sovereignty of its members. At our best, the Commonwealth is a Multi-national Prophylactic Alliance, governed not by treaty nor contract, but by a common will to make life better, safer, more opportunity-filled, more equitable and optimistic for all our 2.1 billion people.
The reason Canada and so many other countries were so enthusiastic about the Eminent Persons Group Report submitted under the distinguished Chairmanship of Tun Abdullah Badawi, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, to the CHOGM meeting in Perth last October, is because its recommendations were about, and only about, strengthening the real ability on the ground in 54 member countries and in the Secretariat at Marlborough Palace, to do this job well in the future – to address the changes necessary to do so, strengthen the operations essential to this goal and afford the Secretary General the tools he needs to do the job .
I was delighted to see Kamelash Sharma renewed for another four years. He reflects the dignity and literacy at the heart of the Indian diplomatic corps, immense experience as an Ambassador to the UN and High Commissioner to London and the civility and equanimity we would all want in a Secretary General of the Commonwealth. I consider him a friend and very much in the mold of a true global public servant. He is discharging India's turn at bat with eloquence, wisdom and a discourse of poetic civility and diplomatic savvy. We are fortunate to have him.
The Canadian government is so supportive of the EPG recommendations that would enhance youth engagement, protect women's rights more effectively, afford the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group more leeway to intervene and engage when rights are violated consistently, democracy is crushed, the rule of law denied, or press freedom and journalists attacked. Only engaging when and if there is a military coup, which was the rule CMAG used to follow, is a bar too low if the Commonwealth is to be able to prevent the bad things that lead to a coup from happening to begin with.
A constructively preventive role among our sovereign fellow members who share our Commonwealth values and traditions has never mattered more. The proposed Commonwealth Charter, which would encapsulate all the brave declarations made by CHOGM meetings in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, the 1991 Harare Declaration and the 2003 Commonwealth [Latimer House] Principles on the Three Branches of Government), has now been sent to the member states for consultation and discussion. I want to express my own appreciation to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade here in Canada for seeking and receiving a reference from the Senate to conduct these consultations in Canada starting this month. Senator Reynell Andreychuck, the Committee Chair, herself a former High Commissioner for Canada in Kenya and a prominent Commonwealth Parliamentarian and Percy Downe, Senator from Prince Edward Island, who is the Vice-Chair are to be congratulated for this initiative for which I am very grateful indeed. The draft example submitted by the EPG and written by Mr. Justice Michael Kirby of Australia one of our EPG colleagues, was simply an example of what the Charter might contain. The actual Charter, which I hope might be proclaimed in Her Majesty's Jubilee Year, will be the product of Commonwealth wide consultations. While not legally binding, it will set out the many important principles that unite us all, Asians, Caribbeans, North Americans, Africans, Europeans, of every colour, faith, race, age, political affiliation, language and culture in one common commitment to the civility and development opportunity that democracy, rule of law, human rights actually energize. And this field of energy cannot leave out those who are poor, or from a racial or religious minority or are female or homosexual. There is no religious creed in the world that says people who are ill with HIV/Aids or any other public virus and whose life can be saved, should be allowed to die when the medicine and care exists that can save them. There is no Commonwealth tradition or principle that says the opposition parties can be arrested or elections can be unilaterally postponed or the rule of law can be subsumed in violence or repression. That is not who were are in the Commonwealth, that does not reflect our values and principles and it is in the defence of those principles and the poverty eradication and development only possible when those same principles are present, that Canada believes the Secretariat should be more actively and fearlessly engaged. That is what the Eminent Persons Group's recommendations are all about.
Going along to get along is how hypocrisy overcomes principle, how the misuse of power destroys rights and freedom. That cannot be the modus Vivendi of the Commonwealth and its Secretariat.
Tonight's dinner, and the proceeds we have all contributed to the Oxfam Pastoral Women's Council in Tanzania, reinforces the common bond of engagement, decency and compassion that underlines the voluntary association of free peoples and nations that is the Commonwealth of Nations.
In this magnificent Diamond Jubilee year, we can re-engage, re-commit and reinforce the civility and decency at the core of the Commonwealth message.
Nos valeurs, nos principes, nos aspirations restent toujours avec la liberte, les droits humaines, la democracie, l'independence judiciare qui souligne la fondation de la commonwealth et son avenire. Egalite d'opportunite pour tout nos citoyens et citoyennes du Commonwealth demandra de nous tous une fidelite farouche aux principes et valeur de base.
And it is to that future to which we must dedicate ourselves now more than ever and to the renewal of our Commonwealth – essential to make that future possible and for which it is my distinct privilege to serve as Canada's Special Envoy.
Thank you all very much.