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Stephen Harper's Australian Trip: What To Expect From Meeting Of Commonwealth Leaders In Perth

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STEPHEN HARPER
Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to Perth, Australia Tuesday for a biennial meeting with Commonwealth leaders and a likely audience with the Queen, here are a few things to watch out for. | Getty Images

Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to Perth, Australia Tuesday for a biennial meeting with Commonwealth leaders and a likely audience with the Queen, here are a few things to watch out for:

1. Will Commonwealth countries accept a new human rights watchdog to guard over them and criticize any abuses?

Leaders of the 54-member group will be asked to sign off later this week on whether to publicly release two contentious reports on how to deal with potential human rights abuses in member states.

The first is a report by the 11-member Eminent Persons Group, which includes Canadian Conservative Senator Hugh Segal. The report contains 106 recommendations relating to reforming of the Commonwealth and its institutions, such as developing a Commonwealth Charter and creating a Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights.

The second report is by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, nine foreign ministers who recommended beefing up ministerial-level measures to address serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values, such as the unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The reforms would help the group "be more active than it has in the past," a senior Canadian official said.

The Government of Canada proudly stands behind the two reform-minded reports and supports the timely implementation of their recommendations, Andrew MacDougall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman told reporters Monday.

Harper's participation in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is an opportunity for Canada to underscore "the important role that the Commonwealth plays in supporting democracy, good government, human rights and the rule of law, right across the globe," MacDougall said.

"Canada, the U.K. and Australia are quite advanced in the rule of law, human rights, etc. But there are other countries in the Commonwealth who will need our help to strengthen their systems to become countries that … fully respect the rule of law," he said.

Some countries, such as India, have reportedly already said they won't back the Eminent Persons Group's recommendation to establish a new watchdog for human rights.

The Times of India reports India is working the diplomatic levers to make the case that the Commonwealth is extending its mandate and that this measure is unnecessary since the United Nations' Human Rights Council already monitors human rights abuses.

If the Commonwealth leaders decide to keep the report under wraps, civil society groups might wonder what the point of the organization is if it cannot shame and name members into better practices.

2. How will some Commonwealth countries react to requests to repeal homophobic laws from their books?

The Eminent Persons Group's report also urges the 41 Commonwealth countries with laws that criminalize gay and lesbian activity to repeal their laws. Many countries with anti-gay laws on the books, such as Malawi and Uganda, are very religious. But according to Michael Kirby, a former High Court Judge and Australia's representative on the panel, the group has framed the problem as a public health policy issue, suggesting the outdated laws encourage the spread of of HIV.

Canada will raise the issue of gays, and the persecution of homosexuals and other human rights abuses at the meeting, MacDougall said.

3. Who is prepared to boycott, or talk of boycotting the next Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka, which is facing allegations its military committed war crimes during the final stages of a lengthy civil war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009, is also scheduled to host the next meeting of Commonwealth leaders in 2013.

A UN advisory panel said there was "credible evidence" that both sides were guilty of war crimes during the conflict.

But Sri Lanka denies the charges and is refusing to allow an independent probe.

Yet after talking about the need for stronger human rights support and tougher stances against abusers, can the Commonwealth leaders really attend a future meeting in Columbo, Sri Lanka?

So far, Canada says no.

Harper was clear last month, MacDougall said, when he told reporters that "if he did not see significant progress and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, that he would not be attending."

"We do expect that there will be some discussion at the leaders’ level, at the meeting, on this front," MacDougall said.

Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Tuesday that like-minded countries would continue to urge Sri Lanka to address the seriousness of the allegations.

4. Changing the rules of succession: Giving girls a quicker route to the throne

The United Kingdom is proposing changing the Act of Settlement, which governs the succession rules to the throne, to treat women and men equally. If the 16 Commonwealth countries with Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State agree, the law that gives male heirs precedence over their older sisters would be scrapped. This means if Prince William and his wife Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have a daughter and later a son, the new rules would allow their eldest daughter the first crack at the throne.

The Government of Canada said it had no indication that there would be any opposition to the move. "Nothing I have heard, indicates that this would be a problem," MacDougall said.

The issue is expected to be discussed on the sidelines of the conference.

5. The financial crisis and encouraging sustainable growth and economy in Commonwealth countries.

Officials say this topic will obviously come up during the two days of talks. The leaders are also expected to discuss food security, climate change and natural resource management.

Harper flies to Australia on Tuesday and addresses the Commonwealth Business Forum on Thursday before attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting from Oct. 28 to 30 with Mrs. Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who was part of the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group.

MacDougall said he "fully" expects Harper will meet the Queen as well as meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Harper will return to Canada early next week before jetting off to Cannes, France, to attend the G20 leaders meeting on November 3 and 4.

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