The Commonwealth’s Missed Opportunity

MELBOURNE – Last weekend, representatives of 54 countries, mostly heads of government, attended the bi-annual Commonwealth Meeting. High on the agenda was a report by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), established to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, strengthen its Secretariat, and transform its approach to human rights. The group included  former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Malay Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Mozamibique’s former first lady (and wife of Nelson Mandela) Graça Machel, among others. The group’s recommendations were unanimous. 

But the Commonwealth’s assembled leaders ignored the report’s key recommendation, which concerned the establishment of a Human Rights Commissioner to oversee and report on the actions of member governments. The human-rights performance of Commonwealth countries, both developed and developing, needs improvement in many areas. Unfortunately, some African governments regarded the report as targeting developing countries, though the recommendations would have been just as relevant to certain developed countries that, especially since the terrorist attacks of 2001, have violated basic human-rights protections.

The record of the Commonwealth countries in regard to ethnic minorities can also be substantially improved. In too many countries, minorities, especially indigenous groups, are treated heavy-handedly. Similarly, as refugee flows have altered direction over the last 15 or 20 years, treatment of refugees – enshrined since 1951 in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – needs to be re-examined.

Many Commonwealth countries live on the edge of these particular problems. Some have large refugee camps within their borders. Others receive entire families fleeing persecution and terror in their own countries. More light needs to be shed on this problem.