ANALYSIS: Commonwealth grounded over human rights

Shark attacks and the grounding of Qantas are purely coincidental disasters to the Commonwealth summit. But, considering what's going on inside, you have to wonder what else can go wrong.

Of course, the recent attacks by man-eating great white sharks near Perth have nothing to do with CHOGM — the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Nor does the toxic kangaroo kebab which cost the unfortunate Carl Vallée, a member of Prime Minister Harper's staff, a much-needed night's sleep.

And the lockout which has grounded the entire Qantas fleet just as Australia tries to show itself to the world? Totally unconnected! These are purely coincidental disasters.

But, considering what's going on inside the summit, you have to wonder what else can go wrong.

The whole point of the Commonwealth, since its founding in 1949, was to promote good old British values of fair play. Its best defenders say that if the Commonwealth isn't about democracy, human rights and the rule of law, it's about nothing.

And that, in a nutshell, was what the so-called Eminent Persons Group concluded when tasked to say how the Commonwealth can become more relevant and less of an imperial relic. Cricket, gin and tonic and photo-ops with the Queen? If that's all the Commonwealth is about, the Eminents wondered, who needs it?

But, in response to the Eminent Persons' demand that the Commonwealth shape up, the summiteers have hemmed and hawed and kicked the can down the road. They will establish "indicators" to measure abuses. They will study the issue some more.

As for a Human Rights Commissioner, poking his nose into domestic affairs?

"Such a commissioner . . . could be intrusive. Our understanding is that the Commonwealth is not a such an organisation . . . and not approving this measure is democracy at work in the Commonwealth," Sri Lanka presidential spokesman Bandula Jayasekara told Reuters.

Tensions over human rights

Being "intrusive," of course, was a feature of the proposal — not a bug. But Sri Lanka, which stands accused of war crimes in its crushing 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tigers, wants no such intrusions — and Sri Lanka is the host of the next Commonwealth summit. Prime Minister Harper has threatened not to attend if Sri Lanka does not conduct a transparent inquiry into the 2009 bloodbath.

There, in another nutshell, is the continuing divide which threatens the Commonwealth. If Sri Lanka sweeps the corpses under the rug, and we hold our noses and show up for the Sri Lankan summit two years from now, what are the Commonwealth's ideals worth?

The Chairman of the Eminent Persons Group, the former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, expressed his frustration at the seeming indifference with which his proposals were met, saying real reform is "urgent" and "imperative."

"If this CHOGM does not deliver such reforms," he said, "it is our duty to sound the caution to you that this CHOGM will be remembered not as the triumph it should be, but as a failure."

Canada's representative on the Eminent Persons Group, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, was equally blunt.

"Clearly there are some people at this meeting for whom silence is the best option," Senator Segal said.

"Would silence have been a way to bring apartheid to an end?"

This does not sound like a success in the making.

Nor did it start well. The leader of half the entire Commonwealth's population, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, was a no-show. Even the Prime Minister of the mother country, David Cameron, arrived late and left early. Stephen Harper planned to leave early, then stayed on, frustrated by the slow pace of the discussions.

But what's the rush? 17 delegations to the summit have tickets home on Qantas, so they're not going anywhere. That's completely unconnected to the summit, of course — but the symbolism is hard to ignore.

The Commonwealth seems to be . . . grounded.