Commonwealth summit begins, leaders to discuss economy and human rights

Updated On: Oct 28, 2011

Leaders are beginning a Commonwealth summit in Perth, amid tight security in the Australian city.

The 54-nation organisation, mostly of former British colonies, will discuss economic growth, climate change and human rights at this year's meeting. There will also be a debate on the way the Commonwealth is organised to give it greater influence on world events.

The group of countries with current or former ties to Britain consists of both developed and developing nations, representing some 2 billion people around the globe. This year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is being attended by more than 1,400 delegates from the Commonwealth countries.

Most Commonwealth leaders are attending the two-day gathering, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. However, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pulled out without giving a reason, according to news reports.

Leaders from the Commonwealth meet once every two years, and this year's theme is "Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience" - a pertinent subject in a time of global economic turmoil.

Also high on this year's agenda is the revamping of the 62-year-old modern Commonwealth. Critics have labelled the Commonwealth an anachronistic relic of the British Empire, but it is trying to reinvent itself, placing greater emphasis on the opportunities it offers members.

Leaders at this year's CHOGM will consider the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group tasked at the previous meeting to look into ways to re-invent the Commonwealth. The group's report says the organisation is in danger of becoming irrelevant, unless it becomes more visible on the world stage and more pro-active in global affairs.

But already a number of divisive subjects have come up at this year's gathering. Controversial topics include the human rights record of Sri Lanka, which is due to host the next summit, and moves to get rid of laws in some member states which discriminate against gay men and lesbians.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II opened the summit today, amid news there would also be discussions on proposals to change the laws of succession to the British throne, to give females heirs the same status as males. The British monarchs are still recognised as the monarch and ceremonial head of state by 15 other Commonwealth countries besides the United Kingdom, and as "Head of the Commonwealth" by the entire bloc of countries.

Report: Queen Elizabeth II to open Commonwealth summit in Perth [BBC, 28 Oct 2011]

Report: PM Lee to attend Commonwealth meeting [Channel NewsAsia, 26 Oct 2011]

Meanwhile, protestors are gathering in Perth's city centre for a march to coincide with the opening of the meeting. Organisers expect over 1,000 people to attend. Members of a group called CHOGM Action Network and Occupy Perth protestors have both been granted permits by the city government to hold rallies downtown, though police have warned they will intervene if protestors are disorderly or try to camp overnight.

Protestors represent a variety of causes including anti-corporate greed, refugee rights, action on climate change and opposition to human rights abuses in some Commonwealth countries.

Report: Perth lockdown ahead of Commonwealth meeting [New Zealand Herald, 28 Oct 2011]

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has acknowledged the 54-member body must give greater expression to its commitment to democracy by finding ways to protect human rights in member nations.

"It's not enough to point to a train wreck," he said last night before the meeting, "Everybody can see that. You have to take an interest when the wagons are wobbling on the rail lines."

Mr. Sharma noted that the Eminent Persons Group appointed by the 2009 CHOGM would report today on its views about giving greater expression to the body's principles. But he gave no indication of whether the Commonwealth countries would accept the group's recommendation to appoint a commissioner for human rights and the rule of law.

The Commonwealth has been criticised for supporting human rights but in practice doing nothing against transgressions by its own members.

Report: Call to back up talk of protection of human rights with action [The Australian, 28 Oct 2011]

For instance, Sri Lanka's presence at this year's CHOGM has drawn particular international attention, especially since the country is scheduled to host the next CHOGM in 2013.

Since 2009, there have been allegations of abuses committed by government forces in Sri Lanka's final push against Tamil Tiger separatists. Critics allege that Sri Lankan troops killed tens of thousands of civilians, though Sri Lanka strongly denies any wrongdoing.

"Commonwealth countries share a commitment to basic values including democracy, freedom, peace and rule of law," said Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty in a commentary published in The West Australian newspaper. "Allowing Sri Lanka to head the Commonwealth runs contrary to these values and threatens to derail the organisation's commitment to human rights."

On Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured Sri Lankan President Mahendra Rajapakse that there were no plans to strip Sri Lanka of hosting rights to the talks. But in a bilateral meeting in Perth ahead of the summit, she and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called for United Nations probe into the claims.

Some countries have hinted they may boycott the 2013 summit in Sri Lanka over the allegations. Sri Lanka is using this year's gathering in Perth to persuade delegates to attend the next meeting.

Report: No plans to move 2013 summit from Sri Lanka: Australia [Bangkok Post, 27 Oct 2011]

Report: Sri Lanka says war crimes allegations 'propaganda' [AFP, 27 Oct 2011]

Ahead of the 2011 CHOGM, the private sector also held their own conference for prominent business leaders from Commonwealth countries. Deals worth at least Aus$10 billion (US$10.58 billion) were sealed at the Commonwealth Business Forum, according to reports.

Organisers said the conference had been an outstanding success, emphasising the growing importance of economic ties in the 54-nation grouping even as it undergoes reform to become more relevant in other areas.

Most of the deals centred on energy and mining in Africa, with Chinese interests heavily involved in the trade talks. China is not a member of the bloc of former British colonies, but it was represented at this year's forum for the first time.

Report: Commonwealth talks on $10.5 bln target: organisers [AFP, 27 Oct 2011]

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