Commonwealth defends relevance, faces human rights finger-pointing

PERTH, Australia,  (Reuters) – Commonwealth leaders today defended their moves to toughen support for human rights,  rejecting criticism the group was becoming irrelevant and had  failed at their three-day summit to hold member Sri Lanka  accountable for alleged abuses.
But several leaders of the 54 mostly former British  colonies, meeting in the remote Australian city of Perth,  supported less than half recommended reforms put forward by an  eminent persons group.
A key proposal to set up a commissioner for human rights was  opposed by several leaders, including South Africa, India and  Sri Lanka.
“With these discussions and the significant reforms we have  agreed, I believe we’ve made a major contribution towards  ensuring the Commonwealth is an institution that is  well-positioned for the future,” Australian Prime Minister Julia  Gillard told reporters on the final day of the summit.
But critics said those measures fell short, and focused on  the leaders’ inaction over Sri Lanka which will be host of the  next summit in 2013. Canada has already threatened to boycott  that meeting unless Sri Lanka improves its human rights record.
“It is an absolute disgrace that Commonwealth leaders have  agreed to hold their next meeting in Sri Lanka in spite of its  appalling human rights record,” Amnesty International’s national  director Claire Mallinson said.
Sri Lanka was defiant and told critics to reserve judgment  until it releases an internal report on alleged atrocities in  the final stages of the 25-year-long civil war which ended in  2009.
“Sri Lanka has nothing to fear and is happy to face any  audience anywhere in the world,” G.L. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s  Minister of Foreign Affairs told a news conference.
In its final communique, the Commonwealth committed to  helping small island states, which make up more than half of its  membership, cope with the effects of climate change and said  there was a need to work towards legally binding measures like  the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Many small island nations fear being wiped off the map by  global warming and were pressing for a strong statement ahead of  the international summit on climate change in South Africa next  month.
“Climate change issues are not something that is happening  in the future. It is happening now and we must deal with it  now,” Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the small island nation  of Maldives said. He applauded Australia’s recent carbon tax as  a model for other nations.
The Commonwealth failed to take action on two other issues  on its agenda– child brides and HIV-AIDS. Twelve of the 20  countries with the highest rates of child brides are in the  Commonwealth. Sixty percent of the world’s HIV-AIDS population  live in the Commonwealth and health advocates say laws in 41  Commonwealth states making homosexuality illegal have hindered  the fight against the disease.

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