Commonwealth leaders agree to be more proactive on human rights

PERTH, Australia,  (Reuters) – Leaders of the  Commonwealth group of mostly former British colonies today  took tentative steps to tighten up on human rights abuses by  members, but have still to address tougher measures some warn  the group must take to remain relevant.
Britain’s 85-year-old Queen Elizabeth opened the meeting of  leaders of the 54 states of the Commonwealth, home to a third of  the world’s population and five of the G20 leading economies but  struggling to make much impact on global policies.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters that  the leaders had backed an internal report calling for a more  proactive stance in defending human rights.
“That report and all of its reform proposals and  recommendations, has been adopted … It means that this meeting  has already acted to embrace reform and strengthening of the  Commonwealth,” she said.
“The purpose of these reform proposals is to enable the  Commonwealth to act when a country is veering off course in  terms of democratic values and the rule of law, rather than  waiting until a country has gone to a grossly unacceptable  stage, and leaders only having the option of suspension or  expulsion in front of them.”
The leadup to the summit has been dominated by pressure to  take a stronger line on human and political rights abuses, with  a spotlight on Sri Lanka, which will host the next Commonwealth  summit in 2013.
Sri Lanka is under international pressure to allow an  independent inquiry into accusations of war crimes during its  25-year civil war, especially in its final months in 2009.
It says will wait for the results of its own investigation  next month, calling the pressure over human rights a propaganda  war waged by the defeated Tamil Tigers.
“There does need to be truth telling,” Gillard said.
Canada, home to a large ethnic Tamil community, has said it  will boycott the 2013 Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, unless  the host country improves its human rights record.
RISKING IRRELEVANCE?
The summit still has to grapple with the contentious  “eminent persons” report which warns that without a much tougher  stand, the Commonwealth could slide into irrelevance.
A key suggestion in the confidential report, seen by  Reuters, is for the group to establish a human rights  commissioner —  which some members oppose.
“Today, Commonwealth leaders are faced with a choice —  reform the Commonwealth so that it can effectively address human  rights violations by its members, or risk becoming irrelevant,”  said Madhu Malhotra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy  Director.
Smaller countries within the group, many at risk from the  effects of global warming, are pressing for a strong statement  ahead of next month’s international summit of climate change in  the South African city of Durban.
There have also been calls on leaders to help end the  practice of child brides. Twelve of the 20 countries with the  highest rates of child brides are in the Commonwealth.
And health advocates say laws in 41 Commonwealth states  making homosexuality a crime breached human rights, hindering  the fight against HIV-AIDS. Commonwealth states represent 60  percent of the world’s HIV-AIDS population.
There was one early accord. The 16 countries that have the  Queen as their monarch agreed to end royal discrimination by  changing the rules of succession to the throne by abolishing  rules that favoured sons for the throne and barring those in  line for the throne from marrying Roman Catholics.

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