On Oct. 28-30, representatives of 54 countries, mostly heads of government, attended the bi-annual Commonwealth Meeting. High on the agenda was a report by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), established to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, strengthen its Secretariat, and transform its approach to human rights.

The group included former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Malay Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Mozamibique’s former first lady (and wife of Nelson Mandela) Graça Machel, among others. The group’s recommendations were unanimous.

But the Commonwealth’s assembled leaders ignored the report’s key recommendation, which concerned the establishment of a Human Rights Commissioner to oversee and report on the actions of member governments. The human-rights performance of Commonwealth countries, both developed and developing, needs improvement in many areas.

Unfortunately, some African governments regarded the report as targeting developing countries, though the recommendations would have been just as relevant to certain developed countries that, especially since the terrorist attacks of 2001, have violated basic human-rights protections.

The record of the Commonwealth countries in regard to ethnic minorities can also be substantially improved. In too many countries, minorities, especially indigenous groups, are treated heavy-handedly. Similarly, as refugee flows have altered direction over the last 15 or 20 years, treatment of refugees — enshrined since 1951 in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees — needs to be re-examined.

Many Commonwealth countries live on the edge of these particular problems. Some have large refugee camps within their borders. Others receive entire families fleeing persecution and terror in their own countries. More light needs to be shed on this problem.

The standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights need reinvigorating. Openness, transparency, and better knowledge of conditions in particular countries would do much to raise the level of debate — and thus to ensure greater progress. In too many countries, there is an incipient reversion to racism.

The second major issue for the meeting concerned the civil war in Sri Lanka and whether both the government and the Tamils had committed war crimes in the conflict’s final years. The question, however, was virtually ignored.

A U.N. Human Rights Commission report suggests that there is substantial evidence of major war crimes by both the government and the Tamil Tigers, especially in the last 2-3 years of the conflict. A separate and entirely independent report by the International Crisis Group came to much the same conclusion.

Indeed, there is now sufficient evidence to justify a full international inquiry into the actions of both sides, potentially leading to indictments before the International Criminal Court. But the Commonwealth leaders suggested that the matter should be managed bilaterally, rather than by the organization as a whole.

This failure to debate what happened in Sri Lanka may have consequences for the Commonwealth down the line. Indeed, several weeks ago, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke strongly against the lack of action in Sri Lanka, and indicated that if the next Commonwealth meeting is held there, as currently planned, he will not attend. He may not be the only leader to take such a stand when the time comes.

Human rights should be a matter on which the Commonwealth stands united, with firmness, resolution, and determination. The Commonwealth should be at the forefront of the continuing struggle to promote accountability for violations whenever and wherever they occur. That opportunity has been lost.

The advancement of human rights has taken many different forms. For example, Admiral Lord Michael Boyce, chief of the Defense Staff of the British Armed Services at the start of the Iraq war, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would not order troops to invade unless he was assured unequivocally that the war was legal under British and international law. Unfortunately, the British government’s response was extraordinarily deficient, and did not in any sense constitute a valid legal opinion.

The Commonwealth has taken substantive action in the past, especially in relation to Apartheid-era South Africa. Most members of the Commonwealth have signed on to the International Criminal Court, perhaps the most important institutional change in the international legal architecture since the establishment of the U.N. itself.

The Commonwealth’s people deserve much better than what their leaders delivered at the Australia summit. If the Commonwealth is to become the vital international body that its national leaders wish it to be, it needs a different temper and more coherent and effective leadership, as envisaged by the Eminent Persons Group’s report. It needs the human rights commissioner. Most of all, it needs national leaders who are prepared to act on conviction and steadfastness of purpose, rather than evading and shirking their responsibilities when divisive issues arise.

Malcolm Fraser was three times prime minister of Australia. © 2011 Project Syndicate

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.