Perth: The mood turned distinctly sour at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on Saturday, with civil society members decrying the grouping's inability to set up a human rights monitor and declaring that the summit would be remembered as a failure.
Members of the Eminent People's Group (EPG) which made the contentious recommendation on setting up a Commissioner for Human Rights, defended its report at a press conference on the sidelines of the three-day biennial summit, and clarified that the commissioner would not be a "policeman" with "punitive" powers, as feared by some member-states.
EPG Chair Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, former prime minister of Malaysia, warned that "if this CHOGM does not deliver such reforms, it is our duty to sound the caution to you that this CHOGM will be remembered not as a triumph it should be, but as a failure".
The EPG report has made 106 recommendations, two of the most contentious of which were discussed by leaders at their Retreat Saturday -- the creation of a rights commissioner and a Charter of the Commonwealth.
Officials indicated that the creation a Commissioner of Human Rights was actively opposed by South Africa and Namibia, although Indian and Sri Lankan opposition to the move is also well known. As the Commonwealth works by consensus, any one country can block a proposal.
Indian officials have argued that the commissioner's role would include functions already undertaken by the UN, and that the Commonwealth Secretariat does not have the funds to set up the institution.
The real fear, apparently, is that the commissioner would be "censorious" and would be mandated to unilaterally speak out on human rights. At present, the Commonwealth secretary-general can only condemn abuses after seeking the approval of foreign ministers of member-states.
The Commonwealth leadership has, however, agreed to create a Charter of the Commonwealth, something New Delhi is not averse to as long as it is not a legally binding document.
Badawi and his team clarified Saturday that the charter - a document that will aggregate the 54-nation groupings' stated values, various declarations and principles of association- "would have no greater legal weight than the existing declarations".
Australian Prime Minister and Commonwealth Chair Julia Gillard, said the charter would be discussed and drafted by September 2012.
Gillard, who is battling local media and opposition criticism of CHOGM as irrelevant and a failure, has held up the acceptance of the charter as a major achievement, and insisted that the last has not been heard on the EPG's recommendations, even as she admitted opposition to them.
She also held up as an achievement Friday's adoption of a report by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) that gives it wide-ranging authority to intervene effectively to prevent situations as the one that developed in Fiji, which was suspended after an elected government was overthrown in a coup.
The CMAG report lays down the situations under which the Commonwealth can intervene if democracy, the rule of law or human rights are threatened in any member-state.
Those opposing the EPG report, a civil society initiative, contend that the powers now vested with CMAG were more than adequate and the Commonwealth did not need a separate rights monitor.
Vice President Hamid Ansari, standing in for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is heading the Indian delegation at CHOGM 2011.
First Published: Saturday, October 29, 2011, 20:49