Is a UN Security Council seat more important to Australia than playing human rights hardball at the Commonwealth?

Columnist Laurie Oakes in the (Australian) Daily Telegraph suggests that the $60 million that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government has spent hosting this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit here in Perth, Australia is really just a PR exercise to win votes at the United Nations among world’s developing countries to win a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-1014.

Delegates to this year’s Commonwealth can’t but help notice Australia’s keen interest in that election. Large placards, for example, have been erected in delegate lounges here at CHOGM that cannot be missed.

There are not, so are as I can tell, any large placards reminding delegates “Human Rights Now!” or any other such messaging from the host.

Canada, of course, has been through such a campaign recently and lost. Many attributed this loss – the first in Canadian diplomatic history – to the Harper government’s tough stand on issues surrounding human rights and the rule of law. Some in Canada took that loss as a badge of honour that the Harper government wasn’t going to trade values for votes. Others saw it as colossal failure of Canadian diplomacy.

Now, here at CHOGM, issues of human rights and the rule of law are front and centre. Commonwealth leaders have been told in no uncertain terms that, unless the organization reforms itself to insist that all its members uphold so-called Commonwealth values on democracy and human rights, then the organization will slide into irrelevance.

Commonwealth members like Malaysia and Bangladesh are accused of widespread state torture and extra-judicial killings. Sri Lanka, designated to host the next Commonwealth Summit in 2013 is on the hot seat globally for failing to investigate what the UN says is credible allegations of war crimes perpetrated by Sri Lanka’s army in 2009.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already singled out Sri Lanka for criticism here, saying he will not attend the Sri Lanka summit unless the government in that country takes these allegations seriously.

But host Prime Minister Gillard has not been so direct in any criticisms and the cynical might suggest that that is because the seat on the Security Council is more important to Australia than playing hardball with the likes of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Bangladesh and others when it comes to human rights here at the Commonwealth.

I put that suggestion to her during a press briefing this morning. Here’s what she said in response:

“The Commonwealth is an organization that works by consensus. That’s been part of it’s long-term strength. So as I chair the leaders’ retreat over the next two days we will be striving for a consensus. We have been working on reform proposals and already yesterday during the course of discussions, we adopted a major set of reform proposals about strengthening the work of the Commonwealth ministerial action group. So my priority as chair is co-ordinating the discussions we will have today as we address issues like the Eminent Persons Group to the consensus we can achieve on recommendations from the Eminent Persons Group. But I would remind people that progress has already been made during the course of the discussions.”

The progress she refers to won her the headline in this morning’s Australian “Commonwealth foreign ministers to tackle rogue states” — a reference to the adoption of recommendations by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) that, as the lede in that story says, “will give their foreign ministers power to intervene when member states deny their citizens human rights or threaten the media or judiciary.” No one seems to have pointed that Bangladesh itself is a current member of this Ministerial Action Group. Does the CMAG want to check out any of the long list of human rights abuses on Bangladesh’s rap sheet?


Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth Secretary General, standing beside Gillard at a press conference Friday, called these new powers of the MAG “a most significant achievement for the Perth CHOGM.”

Fine: Then if the Commonwealth is newly invigorated to crack down on human rights abusers, why reward Sri Lanka with the prestige of hosting the next Commonwealth summit?

Here’s Gillard and Sharma when I put that question to them:

Gillard: As Prime Minister, I’ve made it clear that we are concerned about reports and allegations of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka at the end stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka. We have said very clearly that we believe Sri Lanka needs through its truth and reconciliation process to address these claims of human rights abuses and, in particular, needs to deal very directly with the work of the UN advisory panel so we’ve made that view clear publicly and privately and I’m very happy to re-state it here now.

Sharma: I would like to say that respect for fundamental human rights is a core value of the affirmation of Commonwealth values and principles to which I referenced. We have offered support to Sri Lanka in the past and remain available to assist if the Sri Lankan government wishes. When requested by any Commonwealth government, we have considerable expertise in areas such as promoting reconciliation between communities, constitutional and legal assistance  … and advising on models of devolution and local government and we stand ready to offer our partnership.

Later, Sharma said the decision is “firm and final” that Sri Lanka will host the next summit. Not much reason, then, for Sri Lanka to take the UN seriously, is there? It’s getting the summit no matter what.

Harper, for his part, was much less effusive than Sharma or Gillard about the “Ministerial Action Group” recommendations. Canada is more interested in having the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group adopted. They would be much tougher when it comes to bringing to heel Commonwealth members who ignore the rule of law and human rights. Leaders adopted some of the EPG’s 106 recommendations today and are meeting to talk about some of the more contentious ones today. Harper’s comment on the process yesterday was brief: “I think it’ll be a step-by-step process but I’m optimistic we’ll make some progress in that regard.”

Read: REPORT OF THE Eminent Person Group.pdf

UPDATE:  On Oct 18, 2012, Australia was elected to serve a two-year term on the UNSC that will begin on Jan. 1, 2013.

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