CHOGM:Heated debate on human rights issue

Perth: Commonwealth member states were today engaged in a heated debate on the issue of setting up a human rights commissioner for the 54-nation body, with a majority of them favouring "further examination" of the suggestion.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), thrown open amid tight security by Queen Elizabeth II with a call for "positive and enduring results, agreed to add muscle to its ministerial action group to deal with the member nations veering towards violation of human rights.

However, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma made it clear that he cannot pre-judge the outcome of the CHOGM which is set to discuss the report of the 11-member Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which suggested a human rights monitor for the grouping as one of its 106 recommendations to improve the organisation.

"The EPG report will be discussed by the leaders at their retreat tomorrow. We cannot pre-judge its outcome," was the refrain of Sharma and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who briefed the media on today`s deliberations.

All the 30 recommendations to strengthen the role of the organisation made by the Commonwealth Ministers Action Group (CMAG) have been accepted, Gillard said. She said the decision to strengthen the CMAG by empowering it to engage member nations moving towards serious violation of human rights was motivated by the undemocratic overthrow of the Fijian government in a coup in 2006. Fiji has been suspended from the Commonwealth since 2009.

"The recommendations now adopted by leaders provide for a set of objective criteria as triggers for CMAG involvement," Gillard said.

Replying to questions, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai did not agree to a suggestion that the strengthening of the CMAG was a compromise for not setting up a human rights commissioner for the grouping.

"There was lively discussion on the subject …There was consensus at the Foreign Minister`s level that the proposal needed further study," Mathai said, referring to the EPG recommendation on human rights commissioner.

A section of the leaders pointed out that UN rapporteurs were already monitoring the human rights situation and an additional mechanism was not required, officials said.

They added that attention was also drawn to the limited availability of funds at the disposal of the Commonwealth, to which some members suggested that funds for programmes that have outlived their utility could be set aside for the human rights commissioner.

"The whole tenor of the discussions finally did reveal that there were a lot of areas which need clarifications. How this will fit in, whether we can afford it, whether decisions taken in the past on budget can just be overturned by one decision," Mathai said.

At the same time, another Indian official pointed out that CMAG recommendations carried weight as it was an inter- governmental body, while the EPG was civil society grouping.

"While the views of the CMAG are views of the governments, the EPG recommendations are views of academics and former public servants," Dilip Sinha, Additional Secretary (international organisations) in the MEA, said.

Sinha said the recommendations of the EPG will have to be adopted by the CHOGM.

The Commonwealth also stood by Sri Lanka as questions were raised on it hosting the next summit following allegations of war crimes during the fight against LTTE.

"There was no proposal to change the hosting of CHOGM 2013," Sharma said replying to a question whether Canada had made any such proposal. "Decision was made in Port of Spain in 2009 to hold the next CHOGM in Perth, the 2013 meeting in Colombo and 2015 in Mauritius. This decision is firm and final."