PERTH, Australia (Reuters) - A proposal to appoint a Commonwealth human rights commissioner to steer a more proactive rights agenda looks set to test a leaders’ summit this week, with host Australia backing the plan but India and South Africa reported to oppose it.
Sri Lanka also rejects outside interference in its human rights issues, which are set to divide the summit starting on Friday. U.N. and human rights groups call for an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes during its war with Tamil Tiger rebels which ended in 2009.
A confidential Commonwealth report to the leaders recommends reforms to avoid a slide into irrelevance, including that the group act more decisively to uphold human rights among its 54 member nations.
“Australia’s position has always been in support of an enhanced engagement on democracy and human rights, which is contained in that recommendation,” Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said on Wednesday.
“But I believe we have to be very realistic about the timetable,” said Rudd, hinting at divisions at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Local media said India and South Africa were opposing the appointment of an independent human rights commissioner.
The Commonwealth’s 54 nations includes Britain and many of its former colonies. Rich members, such as Australia, Britain and Canada want a stronger focus on human rights. Canada has criticized Sri Lanka over its rights record and has threatened to boycott the leaders’ summit in 2013 in Colombo.
Sri Lanka is due to hand down a human rights report in November, but rights groups believe it will be flawed because they say there is no effective witness protection scheme.
“We have offered our support to Sri Lanka in the past and remain available to assist if the Sri Lankan government wish us,” said Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma.
“If the Commonwealth doesn’t stand up, robustly and toughly for democracy and human rights, it might as well pack up,” said Peter Kellner, chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
Plan International Australia and the Society called on the Commonwealth leaders to act to end the practice of child brides, saying around 10 million girls under 18 were forced into marriages each year. They said 12 out of 20 countries with the highest rates of child brides are in the Commonwealth
“At this conference we are calling on the Commonwealth to act on the many high and often abstract statements about human rights and dignity and to turn it into specific action,” said Ian Wishart, Plan International Australia’s chief executive.
The Commonwealth Trade Union Group said there was widespread abuse of workers’ rights in the Commonwealth, naming Fiji and Swaziland the worst cases and citing incidents of arrests, beatings and deaths of workers.
“Workers rights are human rights. Without them people cannot defend their economic and political freedoms,” said Ged Kearney, president of Australia’s peak trade union body.
“We are calling on CHOGM today...to actually fix these violations, to call on these countries to amend the situation.”
The Commonwealth, which already has the power to adopt sanctions against member states that fail its democracy test, suspended Fiji in 2009 after a military coup.
But a report by a 10-member Eminent Persons Group, commissioned by Commonwealth leaders in 2009, recommends the organization become proactive in its support of human rights.
The report said there was growing criticism that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), only responded when there has been a coup or a military seizure of power.
CMAG should draw up steps, such as the violation of the opposition’s rights, that would trigger intervention, it said.
“Pre-emptive diplomacy is alive in those discussions within CMAG...,” said Rudd. “There is potency to the argument that there is a danger in the Commonwealth being simply reactive rather than proactive.”
“Once a military coup occurs, then the one blunt instrument available to the Commonwealth is one of suspension or expulsion. On the pre-emptive diplomacy side there may be other means that we can deploy.”
Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Ron Popeski