POLITICS
10/28/2011 08:19 EDT | Updated 12/28/2011 05:12 EST

Commonwealth Must Deal With Human Rights In Member States In Order To Stay Relevant, Experts Say

AP

Will the Commonwealth 54-member nations chose to make their club relevant? Or will its diverse membership take a pass on the difficult subject of human rights and launch the 60-year old institution into a crisis of legitimacy?

Those are the questions facing the Commonwealth's heads of government as they gather Friday, in Perth, Australia, for three days of meetings.

"The case for reinvigorating the Commonwealth is abundantly clear," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday after a foreign ministers meeting.

The leaders in Perth are tasked with discussing controversial recommendations from two reports to beef up the organization's ability to intervene and call out human rights violations in member states.

Hague said Britain wholeheartedly supports the recommendations from the Eminent Persons Group whose report called for the creation of a Commissioner of Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law.

But, unsurprisingly, many of the Commonwealth's smaller nations, including many African nations, whose countries still discriminate against gays, sentence people to death, or like Sri Lanka, face war crimes accusations from the U.N., are refusing to support the contentious parts of the report.

If the countries can't agree to blow the whistle on themselves by supporting a common set of values, many are asking what the organization's purpose might be.

"We think if (progress) does not begin there is a risk of the Commonwealth sliding into irrelevance," Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, a member of the Eminent Persons Group told HuffPost.

"The leaders will start asking themselves why they are spending time going to meetings if it's not an organization that fights for things people care about," Segal said. The Commonwealth is not a trade organization, it is not a military organization, there is little holding this disparate group of countries together other than common values, he added.

After riding high on successes such as helping stop apartheid in South Africa, the Commonwealth, Segal argues, has been "low-balling it" in the 21st century.

"The problem, quite frankly ... is when you don't register in people's lives as a force for good, people ask what is this all about, what is the value? Why are we still doing this?"

Human rights experts and former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told The Huffington Post a relevant Commonwealth is a Commonwealth that has the guts to have an honest conversation about the human rights failings of its members.

"I have no idea," Ignatieff said, "whether they have the guts to do that."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, himself said Thursday, this is crunch time for the institution.

"The ultimate measure of this institution's value going forward will remain the commitment asked of member governments to the elevation of human dignity and liberty for all their citizens," Harper said. "In the next few days, it is my strong hope that the Commonwealth shall reaffirm, and reinvigorate, this great purpose."

The Eminent Persons Group was charged with looking at issues such as making the organization more relevant, coherent, focused, efficient and purposeful, Segal said.

He had hoped the report would be released to the public before the leaders meet and many leaked copies have surfaced. But the chair of the last meeting, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, has refused to release the report, saying it was only fair to let the leaders themselves see it first.

The leaders, of course, have already seen the report and that has prompted fears the Commonwealth will water down the recommendations.

NDP leadership contender Paul Dewar, the party's former foreign affairs critic, called this weekend "a test" for the Commonwealth, but cautioned that if member states were given an "all or nothing equation, it could, one could argue, set things back it there was not an acceptance of the whole package."

The leaders will decide Saturday whether to release the report publicly.

Like Huffington Post Canada's Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj's reporter page on Facebook and follow her onTwitter for all the latest news from Parliament Hill.

althia.raj@huffingtonpost.com

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