From the TUC

CHOGM: why South Africa may not back Australia and the UK over human rights

28 Oct 2011, by in International

Report from Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2011

I have to admit that British Foreign Secretary William Hague made an excellent speech to the Commonwealth People’s Forum on Thursday night, and has been pushing a progressive line on human rights all week, as have Australian hosts Julia Gillard (PM) and Kevin Rudd (Foreign Sec). Civil society organisations here in Perth, WA – like the strong Commonwealth Trade Union Group delegation – have backed them in calling for a Commonwealth Charter of Values, and an independent Commonwealth Commissioner for human rights, rule of law and democracy. These are key recommendations from the report of the Eminent Persons Group set up by the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, which was submitted to Foreign Ministers and Heads of Government this week.

But it looks likely that over the weekend the proposals will be watered down, with the Indian and South African governments reported as leading the opposition. Why would the Head of Government with possibly the most human rights-friendly constitution in the G20, Jacob Zuma, be opposed to these eminently reasonable demands? In a master stroke of irony, it is because the debate has been kept behind closed doors in a cosy government club, rather than involving the people who would be the main beneficiaries?

Talking to officials, it seems that the Australian government have been stereotypically blunt in their advocacy of the recommendations in the Eminent Persons Group rather than emolliently diplomatic. And there is an element of imperial lese majestie, a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude from William Hague, even when he accepts that Britain’s human rights record has not been perfect.

The major error, however, was not publishing the Group’s report so that civil society could be mobilised in its support. William Hague would have preferred it published. as he told civil society representatives at a special meeting with all the Commonwealth foreign ministers before giving his speech. But he and others clearly did not fight hard enough to get it published. A major civil society campaign would have pushed the Commonwealth in a more progressive direction, and given progressive Governments like South Africa reasons to support it. Instead, organisations like Amnesty International were left campaigning over the choice of venue for the 2013 CHOGM, rather than a major overhaul of the organisation’s entire human rights strategy and mechanisms.

Clearly, there are Governments around the table with an interest in not being held to account. The proposals would have made the Commonwealth more effective at preventing human rights abuses, rather than just punishing countries after the event with blunt tools like suspension.

in recent years it has sometimes shied away from key challenges and not always spoken out as clearly and decisively as it could have done, failing, for example, to take action on the human rights situations in Zimbabwe and Fiji before they became extreme.

Trade unionists on the Commonwealth Trade Union Group delegation from Fiji and Zimbabwe have cause to rue that tardiness, and those from Malawi and Swaziland (where suspension would already be warranted on the same grounds as Fiji’s) could have cause for regret all too soon, as their countries slied – as the Malawian trade union delegate put it – towards becoming the next Zimbabwe.