Parliamentarian - March 2012
In 2009, the Commonwealth Heads of Governments met in Port-of-Spain for their regular bi-annual meeting. On the agenda was the discussion of how to move the Commonwealth forward, how to make the organization more relevant and how to have it adapt to the 21st century. It was at this meeting that the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was mandated by CHOGM "to undertake an examination of options for reform". Heads did so because, as was stated in the Affirmation issued in 2009, they were "resolved to make the Commonwealth an even stronger and more effective international organization as (they) look ahead to the rest of the 21st Century". The challenge recognized in that moment was that the Commonwealth was in serious danger of losing all relevance.
As the Canadian member of the Eminent Persons Group, I signed and vigorously supported all 106 recommendations submitted to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government 2011 meeting in Perth last October. Over 18 months and five meetings, this 10 member group studied more than 300 submissions, heard from dozens of witnesses together and in our own countries, debated, discussed and sometimes argued the way forward for the Commonwealth. We were from different faiths, backgrounds, generations, races, professions, geographies and cultures. But in the end, every word of "A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform" was agreed to unanimously. The diversity around the table spoke to the diversity of the Commonwealth itself and each and every recommendation was thought out and included because we believed it would make the Commonwealth a more relevant organization for the 21st century. The fear of irrelevance discussed in 2009 in Port-of-Spain was central to the deliberations and debates of the EPG. What we sought was the renewed capacity for the organization to be influential in the global community. Which is why, in the 'Concluding Remarks' of our Report, the EPG stated: Now is the time for the Perth CHOGM to authorise the urgent reform this report recommends… There may not be another chance to renew, reinvigorate and revitalise the Commonwealth to make it relevant to its times and people in the future".
Around the world, incivility, poverty, genocidal risk, forced marriage, oppression or discrimination are still too much with us. While many Commonwealth countries do better on these fronts than others and have made great strides, there remains work to be done. If we are, as a non-military, voluntary association of 54 states embracing 2.1 billion human beings in the world, to be true to the spirit and purport of Commonwealth core values, we must be true to that spirit and be a constructive, cooperative, tolerant and engaged force for good in the world. Beyond some of the excellent work on apartheid, democracy promotion, protection of rights and small states, development and education, there remains much to be done. That is the task ahead and the challenge leaders in Perth took positive steps to address. But much work is left on those 55 recommendations that were either approved in principle pending detailed costing and those requiring further study as determined at the Perth meeting.
The UN, as a deliberative body, is where one goes when the dead 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. And because of the P5 Veto, the Security Council is often impotent and unable to engage. The Commonwealth has the largest reach, remit and geography in the world and its main and central purpose is to prevent, wherever possible, bad things from happening. As an international and intergovernmental organization of sovereign states in voluntary association this remit is unique and compelling. The reason Canada and 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, 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.
The most compelling prospects for the Commonwealth are about a dynamic meaning for the values of civility that underline the Commonwealth experience. That civility embraces, as Commonwealth leaders have proclaimed on many occasions, the rule of law, democracy, human rights and economic opportunities for all Commonwealth citizens. Long ago, before it was a fashionable axiom of international development, the Commonwealth proclaimed that development required democracy to hold governments accountable and democracy required development if people were to have the chance to build lives and societies of civility and opportunity.
A constructively preventive role among sovereign fellow members of a voluntary association with 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. Canada's own Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has sought and received a reference from the Senate to conduct consultations in Canada starting this month. Senator Reynall Andreychuck, the Committee Chair, herself a former High Commissioner for Canada in Kenya is to be congratulated for this initiative. Such public consultation would also serve to renew and invigorate interest in, and commitment to, the Commonwealth. It would source the values and aspirations in the will of the peoples of the Commonwealth – something that has not happened with any previous declaration.
For Canada and many of our Commonwealth colleagues, human rights are neither divisible nor geographically eligible for dilution. The right to be a Muslim in Canada is inviolate, as should be the right to be Christian in Pakistan, or Jewish in South Africa or agnostic in Barbados. The right of people who are infected with HIV/AIDS in Commonwealth Africa to rapid and life-saving treatment cannot be tenuous because of dated laws that criminalize homosexuality – thereby creating huge risks to self-identification for those who need treatment. Some have suggested that human rights and the idea of a Commissioner is a new form of old style imperialism. Let me suggest that still enforcing anti-homosexual laws, that in many Commonwealth countries are themselves ancient colonial remnants of other centuries, is a kind of retroactive imperialism of the worst kind. I know of no religious text anywhere in the world that says people whose illness and death could be prevented by timely treatment should be allowed to die. That is not a Commonwealth value, a Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh or Christian value. Nor should the Commonwealth, as a values-based, free association of sovereign states, by silence or inaction, allow human beings to die unnecessarily. That stance would be neither diplomatic nor pragmatic. It would be cruel and inhumane if not insensitive and cowardly. Every country sets its own laws and makes it own choices. The Commonwealth cannot legislate, nor should it. But it can advocate, promote and advance a view and policy goal against forced marriage, against racism and oppression and against destructive homophobia.
Canada was delighted when Heads approved the EPG recommendation number 18 that proclaimed critical declarations made at previous CHOGM meetings on democracy, human rights, development and trade as "fundamental Commonwealth values" upon which the Secretary General should be free to speak out without prior consultation. That recommendation was the subject of much discussion at the EPG meeting in Kuala Lumpur in February, 2011. The press release after the Malaysian deliberations was entitled "Silence is not an Option" for good reason.
The most contentious of all EPG Recommendations was no doubt the proposal for a Commissioner of Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. CMAG, which has a rotating membership and chair, and no "permanent five", is really the body that decides on sanctions, other options and good offices assistance to Commonwealth member states in a way that respects the sovereignty of all member states, while protecting the core values of rule of law, democracy and human rights. CMAG's role, along with the Secretary General, in deploying the proposed Commissioner or High Representative would not be diminished by the proposed new officer in any way. Nor is the role diminished of the Commonwealth Committee of the Whole, or the de facto Board of Directors, made up of High Commissioners in London, in sorting through operational budget decisions based on advice from the Secretary General and his or her staff. There is a way forward on this proposal and it is important that we do not let exaggerated fears about this new official, or unjustified angst about a more engaged Secretariat, block that road.
There were far more than merely the 2 recommendations (Charter & Commissioner) that took up so much discussion time in Perth. Many of the 104 remaining recommendations were addressed specifically to and for the small and less economically wealthy members of the Commonwealth. These included:
Reform of the Commonwealth institutions;
Critical development issues such as the overwhelming debt of small states and how to deal with it;
Reform of the criteria of the international financial institutions for "graduating" middle income developing countries from concessionary financing;
The threats of Climate Change to the existence of small island states; and
The creation of strategic partnerships to make the Commonwealth effective in delivering benefits to its people.
For those EPG recommendations approved in Perth, we need implementation plans that are granular, detailed and moving ahead as soon as possible. For those 12 in the costing mode, we need numbers that are reasonable and agreed-to by the Task Force established for that purpose and scheduled to meet this spring. And for the 43 where more detail is required, we must guard against the long grass of pusillanimous dithering, surely the greatest existential threat the Commonwealth faces. Too many of our Commonwealth brothers and sisters live in poverty, too much trade opportunity is lost, too many rights and freedoms are, in some Commonwealth countries, undefended.
CHOGM 2011 was a watershed moment for the future of the Commonwealth. I know Prime Minister Harper worked very hard toward the approval of important EPG recommendations. The determination of our Foreign Minister, John Baird, to broach a focused discussion on human rights should be seen as a clear statement of Canada's deep commitment to religious freedom, human rights and the rule of law.
Commonwealth values, the protection and support for human rights, democracy and rule of law; the voluntary consensus-based association of 54 nations encompassing 2.1 billion people; and the equal voices of the populace and powerful as well as the small and economically struggling nations is an example for the world and should be embraced as such. On human rights, the rule of law and democracy the Commonwealth is, can and should continue to be a compelling force for good. This is no time for it to stand down or stand aside. It is time, in an informed and collegial way, to take the Perth recommendations and forge ahead, in a mutually respectful way and in our common spirit, toward the next vital steps.
In the EPG Executive Summary, members stated the following: "In an era of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of the Commonwealth - as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development – is unparalleled. For that potential to be achieved giving economic, social and political benefit to its 2.1 billion citizens, urgent reform is imperative for the Commonwealth."
Those words were true when the report was completed in July, 2011. They are still very true and relevant today.
Senator Hugh Segal, CM
Canada's Special Envoy for Commonwealth Renewal