Commonwealth report urges repeal of anti-gay laws

A report to Commonwealth leaders says there is "overwhelming support" for its core recommendations, including a human rights commissioner and the repeal of laws against homosexuality.
Queen Elizabeth smiles next to Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (left), Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth on Friday. (Torsten Blackwood/Reuters)

A report to Commonwealth leaders says there is "overwhelming support" for its core recommendations, including a human rights commissioner and the repeal of laws against homosexuality still found in 41 of the 54 member states.

But that support does not extend to the association's leadership, says one of the report's Canadian authors, and without visible and well-publicized reforms, the future of the Commonwealth is in peril.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard opened the Commonwealth's biennial summit in Perth on Friday morning by noting 2011 marks the 80th anniversary of the original British Commonwealth — supplanted by the modern iteration in 1949.

"The world has changed and a wise institution changes too," Gillard told the assembled dignitaries, including the Queen and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at an elaborate opening ceremony.

"So as the Commonwealth journeys towards its centenary, it's time for renewal."

The organization's long-stated commitments to human rights, the rule of law and political freedoms have been sorely tested by member states, with fingers pointed most recently at Sri Lanka and Gambia.

Even Queen Elizabeth alluded directly to the reform recommendations in her speech that formally opened the summit Friday.

"I wish heads of government well in agreeing to further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow," she told the assembly.

The key report, written by an 11-person panel appointed in 2009 that includes Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, a former Australian high court judge and a former British foreign minister, does not pull its punches.

"Now these challenges threaten the value of the organization at its heart and its long-term future, and they can no longer be overlooked," says the executive summary.

Segal, in an interview at the summit site, said creating a human rights commissioner is proving deeply divisive for some member countries.

"I think it's fair to say there's not unanimity amongst Commonwealth countries on that recommendation — I think that's probably an understatement," said Segal.

'Silence is not an option'

The full report, obtained by The Canadian Press, asserts that "silence is not an option" when it comes to highlighting human rights abuses by member states.

And it explicitly says the Commonwealth's institutional reticence in publicly addressing such problems represents a "decay that has set into the body of the organization, and one that will occasion the association's irrelevance — if not actual demise — unless it is promptly addressed."

The report recommends the creation of a new "Charter of the Commonwealth" and a commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

The Harper government has already committed to pushing for the reforms, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said before arriving in Perth that the repeal of laws against homosexuality would be on the table at the summit.

While the report calls for the repeal of anti-gay laws, it frames the issue as one of disease control, stating such laws "impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic."

Sri Lanka under heavy scrutiny

Gay rights are just one aspect of the called-for reforms.

Sri Lanka has come under heavy international scrutiny for its brutal eradication of the long-standing Tamil insurgency in the island nation that culminated in a 2009 bloodbath.

Harper publicly stated last month that he would boycott the 2013 Commonwealth summit, scheduled to take place in Colombo, if Sri Lanka did not investigate and address its human rights abuses.

Paradoxically, Harper's Conservatives came to power in 2006 while espousing a hard line against the Tamil Tigers, and Harper listed the LTTE as a terrorist group once in office.

At a Commonwealth business forum Thursday in Perth, Sri Lankan President Mahendra Rajapakse insisted his government had indeed addressed a terrorist menace in taking on the LTTE.

"An end to terrorist violence was absolutely essential to move the country forward along the path of economic and social development. We suffered for 30 years," Rajapakse said.

Harper stresses human rights

Harper, who did not attend Rajapakse's speech, addressed the same business group on Thursday, drawing applause when he stressed the importance of human rights reforms.

"The ultimate measure of this institution's value going forward will remain the commitment asked of all member governments — all member governments — to the elevation of human dignity and liberty for all their citizens," said Harper.

In addition to the so-called eminent person's report, Commonwealth leaders are also studying recommendations by a ministerial action group designed to put teeth in the association's rules.

The report lays out a series of markers — "trip wires," in the words of one senior Canadian official — that would compel the Commonwealth to action.

These include:

  • Serious threats to constriction rule.
  • The suspension or prevention of the lawful functioning of parliament.
  • Postponement of national elections without constitutional "or other reasonable justifications."
  • Systematic denial of "political space," such as the detention of political leaders or restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association.