After the Perth CHOGM: tea-party or fair cooperation?

The Dying Commonwealth

By Jooneed Jeeroburkhan

Two weeks ago, when the PM showed up, unexpectedly, at the study in committee of the Supplementary Appropriations Bill, it seemed he had opted to skip the Commonwealth Summit in Perth, having at last awakened to the futility and irrelevance of this relic of colonialism, as we move into the second decade of the 21st Century.

To be sure, other explanations popped up, foremost being his concern for his razor-thin majority and for the survival of his government, at a time when his absence from the country could hearten our Trinity of Mischief — the Father, the Son and the Unholy Ghost – to try and pull another fast one.

But that was to underestimate the PM’s lust for travel and his unrepentant infatuation with things British. So, one day later than expected, having made sure that the situation at home was under control, he took off for the capital of Western Australia, which lies 8500 Km East of Mauritius across the Indian Ocean – just 8 hours of flight time away.

By most accounts, the Perth CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) was an utter failure. Consensus, the golden rule at these meetings, eluded the 54-member States on such bombastic issues as basic values, human rights and the rule of Law, aimed at saving the “decaying association”, as Reuters put it.

Perth failed to deliver

“This CHOGM is expected to deliver meaningful reforms of the Commonwealth,” had said Abdullah Badawi, the former PM of Malaysia, who chaired an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) entrusted in 2009 with the task of drawing a blue-print to modernize the organization. “If this CHOGM does not deliver such reforms, it will be remembered as a failure,” he had warned.

The Perth CHOGM did not deliver. The EPG’s 205-page report, and its central recommendation that a Commissioner for Human Rights be created, were sent to a committee for review – and were in effect shelved. Just as the 2009 CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago shelved a Human Rights report which recommended against the admission of Rwanda because it “does not satisfy the test of Commonwealth values.” And Rwanda was admitted!

“The only real outcome this meeting could come up with was a new charter of principles — not legally binding, of course,” quipped The West Australian, even as Australian PM Julia Gillard, hostess of the summit, claimed: “But we achieved and agreed on a lot,” adding: “And even where we were not able to reach agreement, the discussions themselves were productive.”

The plain truth is agreement at the Commonwealth is impossible, except when the consensus is about “agreeing to disagree”. The “international human rights mechanisms are (seen) as a weapon in the hands of powerful countries to lord it over less powerful ones, through economic sanctions or other means,” wrote The Hindu, which denounced “the flagrant double standards in the way rights issues are raised.”

Brutal and self-serving hypocrisy

“Australia and the UK, in the forefront of the Commonwealth human rights campaign, are content to ignore alleged violations in China or India, where their own (economic) interests are involved. Canada is outraged by violations (in) Sri Lanka, but is quiet about the appalling toll of civilian deaths in US drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” it went on, adding: “Another eye-opener has been the western handling of the Arab Spring in Libya on the one hand, and in Bahrain on the other.”

“Double standards” was 20th Century diplomatic balderdash. It now translates into “brutal and self-serving hypocrisy”. The UK is just being sued for the mass murder, internment and torture of Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. And it has yet to answer for its crimes against the people of Chagos and against Mauritius in the 1960s – to say nothing of the mass murders and war crimes committed in the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan from the US mega-base in Diego Garcia. If our PM raised this burning Human Rights issue in Perth, it never got reported.

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the offsprings of Queen Victoria, who make up the “White Commonwealth”, are struggling with skeletons in their own cupboards, namely the massive crimes of colonialism against their First Nations, who continue to sink into subhuman conditions of survival and have to fight every inch of the way just to reassert their rights under Treaties signed by Britain. Apologies have been forthcoming lately, but in a piecemeal and purely symbolic and melodramatic fashion, without substance.

Reforming the British monarchy

This “White Commonwealth”, which is now (rightly, but belatedly) pointing the finger at Sri Lanka, host of the next CHOGM in 2013, for war crimes against its Tamil minority in the war against the LTTE, blacklisted the latter as a “terrorist organization” and backed Sri Lanka’s military campaign as part of George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” – while contributing to the rendition of suspects for water-boarding and other forms of torture in secret gulags.

The only “winners” at the Perth CHOGM were the monarchists of the “White Commonwealth” who persuaded the 12 other “realms” of the Global South, Antigua, St Kitts and Tuvalu among them, to cooperate with the Cameron government in allowing first-born women to ascend the throne. This paves the way for the grand Diamond Jubilee party planned for Elizabeth II next year!

Armed with his first majority after five years of minority rule, Canadian PM Stephen Harper has already embarked on an aggressive campaign to upgrade the profile of the monarchy: the word “royal” has been restored to the names of the Canadian Air Force and Navy, and pictures of the Queen have been placed prominently in federal buildings, riling the Québécois.

It seems the Cameron reform also aims at removing the obstacle of marriage to a Roman Catholic on the way to the throne. No mention though of marriage to a non Christian, and not a peep about this out of 40-plus Commonwealth countries which have non-Christian majorities or numerous non-Christian minorities.

“Nigerians are saying… Commonwealth leaders were wasting time amending the succession line to the British throne when women cannot occupy the thrones of Sultan of Sokoto, Asantehene of Ashanti or King of the Zulus,” wrote one Nigerian in the Daily Trust newspaper!

The conspicuous absence of Manmohan Singh

The other winner was the city of Perth, whose last brush with world glory dates back to the 1962 Commonwealth Games. Hundreds of millions have been invested in new and renovated infrastructure for the 2011 CHOGM, an amount not yet known publicly but which the State and the city hope will result in a big boost for the tourism industry.

Otherwise, the growing irrelevance of the Commonwealth was highlighted by the fact, reported by Reuters, that “about one third of (member) countries chose not to send their heads of government to the Summit — opting instead to send a foreign affairs minister or senior diplomat.” One conspicuous absence was that of Indian PM Manmohan Singh, whose country’s 1.2-billion people make up half the population of the entire Commonwealth.

The Hindu stressed: “This is not to give a clean bill of health to the Indian record: in some places, such as Jammu & Kashmir, in the North-East, and in areas hit by the Maoist insurgency, the shocking and repeated instances of rights violations by security forces are a blot on the country’s democratic credentials.” But, it added, “outside intervention cannot be the answer. Aside from enabling external actors with unclean hands to assume control of governance, it often ends up discrediting local efforts to improve the situation.”

“Another nail in a tired coffin”?

Mauritius has 1.2-million people, which is one-thousandth that of India. Did the Mauritian PM have to go to Perth? To firm up his credentials as host of the 2015 CHOGM, maybe. But beware the costs! And further failures, as the decline of the West will carry the “White Commonwealth” in its downward spiral and bring to the fore burning issues of global trade and economic equity, biological and social ecology, technology transfer and sustainable growth and development.

One wishes the Mauritian PM would have raised such issues at Perth to really help the Commonwealth abandon its obsolete “social club” and “tea party” ways, and adjust by example to the new emerging world order. For a Commonwealth (and also a Francophonie, for that matter) that just expresses a historical accident (countries colonized by the same master) has no future.

“The organization will either be seen as an instrument for modern co-operation between sovereign states with common values, or it will be seen as a vestige of history with no role to play in the future,” said Hugh Segal, Canadian senator and member of the EPG.

“The optimism is admirable,” wrote The West Australian. But, “as the sun sets on another CHOGM, Perth will be remembered as the place the Commonwealth put another nail in its tired coffin.”

* Published in print edition on 4 November 2011

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