PERTH, Australia - Commonwealth leaders agreed to better monitoring of existing rules on human rights issues Friday, but are balking at more fundamental reforms that have been called critical to the association's survival.
Talks will continue Saturday at the biennial summit of the 54-member organization, however the creation of a new Commonwealth commissioner of human rights appears to be in trouble.
"I think it's fair to say there's not unanimity amongst Commonwealth countries on that recommendation — I think that's probably an understatement," said Senator Hugh Segal, the Canadian representative on a panel commissioned to recommend reforms.
The 11-member panel submitted a 205-page report to the summit that cited "overwhelming support" from Commonwealth organizations for its 14 core recommendations — including the commissioner model and the repeal of laws against homosexuality still found in 41 of the 54 member states.
The report also highlighted concerns over the forced marriages of girls and young women in some Commonwealth countries.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press, says the Commonwealth's institutional reticence in publicly addressing such problems represents a "decay that has set into the body of the organization, and one that will occasion the association's irrelevance — if not actual demise — unless it is promptly addressed."
By the end of the summit's first day, a complementary report on the bureaucratic handling of existing complaints had been adopted by the leaders, but there was no talk of progress on the more fundamental fronts.
"Look, I think it will be a step-by-step process," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a brief scrum with reporters before heading off to a summit dinner hosted by the Queen.
"But I'm optimistic here that we'll make some progress in that regard. I think it's necessary to modernize the Commonwealth, make it more effective in some areas."
It was, quite literally, the least Harper could say and does not bode well for the remaining two days of talks.
What was adopted was a second report by a ministerial group that sets out a series of benchmarks — "trip wires" in the words of one Canadian official — for addressing bad behaviour.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard lauded the agreement, saying the changes will make the ministerial group "more proactive and preventative and less reactive in addressing serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values."
But it's dry, uninspiring stuff for an organization whose members represent more the two billion people from India to Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
Heading into the biennial summit in Perth, Peter Kellner, the chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society wrote that "the institution is sleep-walking towards irrelevance."
Segal made the same point in speaking with reporters Friday.
He noted that Commonwealth countries have the worst HIV/AIDS numbers in the world, and also have a disproportionate number of member states where homosexuality is illegal.
"Those two facts are connected. Our report deals with that," said Segal.
The Conservative senator pointed out that even with the Queen in attendance and formally opening the summit Friday, many countries sent senior ministers to Perth instead of national leaders.
"If an organization no longer appears to be defending its core values, if it's not actually on the ground (doing) what it says to be in its philosophical premise, people will say, 'why am I going? Who has the time?'"
Harper spent an awkward hour Friday morning seated adjacent to Sri Lankan President Mahendra Rajapakse for the summit's opening ceremonies, and the pair were also cheek-by-jowl for the leaders' "family photo."
Sri Lanka has come under heavy international scrutiny for its eradication of the long-standing Tamil insurgency in the island nation that culminated in a 2009 bloodbath.
Harper publicly stated last month that he would boycott the 2013 Commonwealth summit, scheduled to take place in Colombo, if Sri Lanka did not investigate and address its human rights abuses.
The prime minister had little more to add Friday, offering only that "I did on occasion have an opportunity to speak very briefly with (Rajapakse) and I think our perspective in terms of the next meeting is very well known."
Even the Queen alluded directly to the reform recommendations in her speech that formally opened the summit.
"I wish heads of government well in agreeing to further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow," she told the assembly.
The monarch reminded the Commonwealth leaders that the summit's theme is "women as agents of change."
To that end, one significant development did occur late in the summit's first day when 16 "realms" who still have the Queen as head of state — including Canada — agreed to change the rules of succession to the throne.
Daughters will no longer be discriminated against in favour of sons when it comes to inheriting the throne, the leaders agreed.
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