Mark Kennedy

Commonwealth leaders are sitting on a groundbreaking report prepared by their own advisory group that has concluded the 54-nation organization will lose international relevancy and moral authority unless it institutes key reforms.

The warning comes from the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, an 11-person panel – which includes Canadian Senator Hugh Segal – appointed by Commonwealth leaders at their last meeting in 2009.

The group was tasked with raising the profile and influence of the Commonwealth. After a major review that included public consultation, the advisory group submitted its final report, entitled A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, about a month ago.

There are 106 recommendations in the report, and its direction is clear from a statement the group issued in the spring. They are proposing a Charter of the Commonwealth, and the appointment of a commissioner for democracy and the rule of law who would keep track of whether
member nations are persistently violating “core values” in areas such as human rights.

Moreover, the group advocates more initiatives to battle HIV/AIDS, a stronger collective interest in the debt challenges faced by developing countries, a firm plan on climate change and measures to ensure women are treated fairly and equally.

“The Commonwealth is in danger of becoming irrelevant and unconvincing as a values-based association,” the advisory group said in a statement last March. Earlier this fall, the group submitted its final report to Commonwealth leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and requested that it be publicly released before they hold their biennial meeting Oct. 28-30 in Perth, Australia.

But some countries have opposed that request – Canada is not said to be among those that object to releasing the report now – and as a result, because the Commonwealthoperates by consensus, the document is remaining secret for now.

Hugh Segal

That has perturbed all of the advisory group’s members such as Segal, who spoke to Postmedia News Wednesday, and Sir Ronald Sanders, who delivered an impassioned speech Wednesday in London.

Segal wants the report released now to help generate strong public debate in advance of the leaders’ summit. He notes that the last time the Commonwealth established a similar Eminent Persons Group was in 1986, when that report – issued four months before a leaders’ meeting – dealt with apartheid and was credited with being a catalyst that forced South Africa to end its segregationist practices.

This time, said Segal, the new report is needed to kick-start crucial reforms “The world which the Commonwealth now serves is way different than what it was 40 or 50 years ago,” he said. “Wealth is changing hands remarkably quickly. The largest democracy in the Commonwealth is
now India. The change in the way in which people live their lives has been remarkable. The challenges of poverty and development are overwhelming.”

Segal said the organization can play a substantial role if its goals and principles are “clear” instead of being perceived as an international body that works behind the scenes.

“In the end, there’s no treaty or contract. It’s a voluntary association of 54 countries and 2.4 billion people. You’ve got to keep working at it to get it right. If you become complacent about it, it will atrophy and die.”

Sir Ronald Sanders - Caribbean Diplomat

On Wednesday, Sanders – a former high commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda to Britain – said he and other members of the advisory group
believe the upcoming leaders’ meeting will be a “defining occasion” for the Commonwealth.

“As a result of the decisions made there, the Commonwealth will either go forward, reinvigorated and resolute as a values-based organization intent on making a difference to its people and the wider international community, or it will limp along as a much devalued grouping to a future of disregard, deterioration and disappearance.”

Sanders said the advisory group received 330 written submissions from throughout the Commonwealth, including governments, trade unions political parties and civil society groups.

He said that after 13 months of work, all the panel members remain convinced of the Commonwealth‘s potential “as an instrument for good.”

But that will take reform, he cautioned. “If the Commonwealth continues with its business as usual, it will lose its moral authority and international respect, providing little benefit to its member states, particularly the small ones.”

For instance, Sanders said that in recent years a few Commonwealth countries (which he didn’t identify) have “strayed away from the collective values of the association.” Apart from instances of unconstitutional coups of governments, he said, the Commonwealth has not spoken out or taken action “to bring errant countries into compliance.”

“This absence of action – and the silence of the Commonwealth collectively – has severely hurt the Commonwealth‘s credibility. It has resulted in the accusation that the organization is hypocritical. It is an accusation that heads of government must themselves prove to be wrong.

“If they fail to do so, the Commonwealth might limp along for a while longer, but it will surely lose its influence within its own membership and in the wider international community in which it has played an important role in the past.”

By Mark Kennedy – PostMedia News