Commonwealth civil society and government meet: Not entirely friendly
Foreign Ministers from Commonwealth countries met representatives of civil society on Thursday. Chaired by Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, it was a mostly good natured meeting with civil society representatives making the case for rights for disabled people, indigenous communities and funding for HIV/AIDS. But the meeting got more tense over the sticking points at this CHOGM – human rights in general and gay rights in particular. And some ministers had harsh words for civil society generally.
It was Samoa who started it, with the Prime Minister (he doubles up) arguing that some civil society organisations are only interested in foreign travel. But the Foreign Minister of Malawi was more forthright. He complained about civil society organisations who think they are above the elected government, take money from foreign sources and who get involved in political issues – a point he somewhat undermined by giving human rights as an example of the sort of contraband that civil society should stay away from. Both the Samoan and Malawian representatives claimed that there were ‘too many’ CSOs – which is why, presumably, the government of Malawi allowed security forces to fire on their demonstrations earlier this year, a move which the Malawi TUC representative in Perth described as part of a slide towards becoming a new Zimbabwe.
The Foreign Minister of Uganda, meanwhile, bemoaned the attacks on his government (not just from civil society, but from other governments) for anti-gay prejudice. He claimed that Uganda guaranteed rights for LGBT communities. It was ‘promotion’ of gay sex that was illegal – a view which some British Conservatives used to avow, as Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act put into law before repeal.
One opponent of that repeal, however, was forthright at the meeting in his defence of gay rights – British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who also won a lot of support from civil society over his stand on human rights generally. He said that human rights principles were not just a matter for individual countries, but for the Commonwealth as a whole. He urged support not just for the Eminent Persons Group’s controversial recommendations on a Commonwealth Charter and an independent Commissioner for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, but also for the publication of the report – and consultation with civil society – before CHOGM decided on its recommendations. He declared that freedom of information, freedom of assembly and freedom of association were central to the Commonwealth.