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Commonwealth civil society makes broad recommendations

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Fri, Nov 4. 2011

The 2011 version of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, known as CHOGM, concluded in the west Australian state capital of Perth, last Sunday. Though the meeting of the Heads of Government and State is the central feature, CHOGM is no longer confined to simply a meeting of these leaders.{{more}} Over the years, there has been a gradual recognition that the Commonwealth is much more than its governments, and that the people of this diverse bloc of states are an essential component and must be included in any deliberations.

Out of this there has developed a series of parallel gatherings, of representatives of various forms of people organisations in the Commonwealth, who meet to discuss relevant matters which are then fed into, (or at least are supposed to be so done), the Conference of the Heads. This year three such consultations, of youth, business, and civil society leaders were held in Perth, and the conclusions were shared with Commonwealth Foreign Ministers who, in turn, were due to brief their Leaders on the outcome.

This is a positive development, since it gives formal recognition that these sectors are part and parcel of the Commonwealth structure. But, in order for them to be effective, the process must be properly managed and the results channelled appropriately. One weakness of the 2011 event was the separation of the respective deliberations of the non-governmental entities. There was a Forum for each of the Commonwealth representatives of the youth, business and civil society sectors. Each in turn interacted with the government representatives but there was no provision for these sectors to interact with each other, to share their respective views, and to seek to integrate them into a coherent cross-Commonwealth current reflecting the views of the two billion people of the Commonwealth. This was a great opportunity missed which could have helped to enrich the discussions and decisions of the leaders.

I had the honour to have been asked, by my peers, to represent the views of Caribbean civil society at what was dubbed the Commonwealth People’s Forum in Perth. This brought together over 300 delegates from all parts of the Commonwealth in a series of workshops/assemblies to share their views on such critical issues as human rights; governance and democracy; economic development, trade and finance; education, technology and innovation; health. Climate and the environment; indigenous people; and culture and identity.

A series of recommendations, contained in A Commonwealth Civil Society Statement, were approved and a representative group engaged in discussions on these with Commonwealth Foreign Ministers. A report on this exchange of views was forwarded to the Heads for their consideration.

A major point of contention was the recommendation by the Eminent Persons Group, set up at the 2009 CHOGM in Port of Spain, which received civil society endorsement, for the establishment of an office for a Commissioner on Democracy and the Rule of Law, with an implementation plan to put real teeth to the formal commitment of Commonwealth leaders to uphold, respect and preserve fundamental human rights. This did not meet with the approval of the Heads and caused heated debate and concern over whether the Commonwealth, in practice, is to put the rights of its citizens over political expediency.

In the end, not even the Report of the Eminent Persons Group was fully endorsed or published. Instead, with some political heavyweights blocking the way to an unequivocal stand on human rights, a ‘Charter 4’ was agreed upon and a number of Committees are to be established, a move described by one member state as “kicking the proposals in high grass”.

Several Commonwealth Caribbean leaders, our own among them, were absent from the meeting, and it was left to Kamla Persad Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, one of only three elected female leaders in the Commonwealth, to give the Caribbean a prominent profile. She addressed the closing of the Civil Society Peoples Forum, and pledged her support for civil society organisation and representation.

Renwick Rose

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