Eminent Persons Group - 29 October 2011
Ronald Sanders: Good morning. I am Sir Ronald Sanders. I am a member of the Eminent Persons Group and I’ve been asked this morning to introduce the Chairman and other members of the Group as we release the report that we have worked on over the last 16 months and presented to heads of government over the last few weeks and made a formal presentation of it to them yesterday.
This is the report and it will be available for anybody who wishes to make copies of it. We will try to make as many copies as we have available to you. There are not that we have, but they’re here.
We are also releasing to you this morning, the presentation made by Chairman Tun Abdullah Badawi of the EPG to the heads of government yesterday and that presentation I think you might already have, but it is here. For those of you who don’t have it, copies can be made available.
I would just now quickly like to, in fact I don’t suppose I have to because the nameplates are in front of the members of the EPG, but if I may quickly go through them; Dr Emmanuel Akwetey, Sammy Kavuma, Sir Malcolm from the United Kingdom, Tun Abdullah Badawi, our Chairman, Michael Kirby who I know does not require an introduction to an Australian audience and Senator Hugh Segal of Canada.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm first going to ask Senator Segal to make a few opening remarks. He’ll be followed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind and then the Chairman will, himself, make a few remarks about the presentation he made yesterday and we will then open the floor to questions from you.
Thank you very much.
Hugh Segal: Thank you. You can hear from here? That’s alright.
Members of the press, colleagues on the committee, I just want to underline three things if I may about the nature of our report and its purpose and our sense of our own remit.
Our own remit was defined at Port of Spain based on a concern by the heads who met there in 2009 about the slide of the Commonwealth into potential irrelevance; having no clear brand, having no clear identification with critical issues, the notion that as we entered into the new millennium some of the more high profile stances that had been taken by the Commonwealth against apartheid, on Rhodesia, on some other issues had really not been replicated in any way despite some serious human rights challenges that we continue to face around the world.
That there was a sense that the Commonwealth itself was a bit adrift in terms of focus and priorities and that it would be good to invite some outsiders who do not have any intrinsic engagement with the secretariat on a day to day basis to give their best advice as to how that might be remedied and that’s what essentially drove our collective efforts over, I guess, 14 months.
We were very biased in favour of transparency, so we sought input from all the many Commonwealth civil organisations across the 54 countries, received over 300 briefs and when we argued through from our different geographical perspectives some initial preliminary recommendations, we put those on the website on 3 May so that people could respond to those and engage and we received another 125 submissions to those, some of which came from member governments, in fact, very constructive and very supportive.
So what is in the report, in fact, not only reflects our best judgement but also reflects the judgement of the vast majority of the submissions we received from across the Commonwealth and from across the countries of the Commonwealth, all demographics and all age groups.
Our submission to the heads of government, and that’s who we reported to, we don’t report to the foreign ministers. I know they would wish that to be not the case, but we don’t report to them, we report to the heads of government. Our report was based upon our best advice as to how we could refocus the efforts, the perception, the reality and the presence on the ground of the Commonwealth in a way that makes a substantive difference in the lives of the 2.1 billion Commonwealth citizens we saw our role as serving.
Let me just add one final thought before I delightfully yield the floor to Sir Malcolm. There are 106 recommendations. To the best of our knowledge, and we haven’t been privy to the discussions but based on sources we use and sources you use, there has been fulsome discussion of two; the charter and the commissioner for human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
We have no evidence, not a scintilla of evidence, that there has been any discussion so far of the 104 other recommendations which deal specifically with issues like small island states, small states in the Commonwealth who are in deep financial debt problems, debt problems that would make Europe look like a walk in the snow by comparison. No discussion of the massive level of HIV AIDS which is worse in the Commonwealth than it is in any other grouping of countries around the world and what can be done to ameliorate that. No discussion of the rights of women.
No discussion of broadening the opportunities for young people. As Sammy Kavuma said in a remarkable speech in Tanzania when we were out in an outreach operation on behalf of the report some months ago, the people with the machetes in the streets after elections that don’t go so well are not 72 years of age. They’re all under 25 and they don’t have any work and we as a Commonwealth organisation that is primarily historically about development have a duty to address that and provide substantial aid and assistance and technical advice so that we can begin to get over those kinds of fundamental challenges in the day to day lives of the people we serve.
So I leave that for you to reflect on and evaluate in your own terms and I gladly the pass floor to Sir Malcolm.
Malcolm Rifkind: Thank you very much, indeed. I strongly endorse what Senator Hugh Segal has said. In my own comments I want to focus on two questions, two aspects, first of all the debate that has taken place so far, so far as we are aware of it, as to our proposals for a commissioner for the rule of law, democracy and human rights and the reform of CMAG and extending the role of the Secretary General and, secondly, the considerations relevant to our announcement this morning that we have taken the decision to publish the report so that it can be made available to all the peoples of the Commonwealth.
On that first question, Hugh Segal has already indicated some of the background considerations that led to the appointment of the Eminent Persons Group and we salute the decision taken in Port of Spain because it was a recognition that the Commonwealth faces a very serious problem. It’s not a problem of hostility to the Commonwealth or antagonism, it’s more a problem of indifference, that its purpose is being questions, its relevance is being questioned and part of that is because its commitment to enforce the values for which it stands is becoming ambiguous in the eyes of many of its own member states and of many of the peoples of the Commonwealth. So it’s against that background that we looked at these matters.
Now the main issues that have been raised so far by certain governments that are opposed to some of our proposals focus on two or three questions. First of all, it is being suggested that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group has already produced in parallel to our report its own proposals for its own reform and to a significant degree, these appear to have been accepted by the heads of government. That we very warmly welcome. That is something very good and very positive.
However, and there is a however, the main issue that we have been addressing and that CMAG has been asked to address is that while the Commonwealth has been every robust in dealing with member states who have experienced a military coup or an unconstitutional overthrow of their government, as in the case of Fiji or Pakistan in the past or, of course, Zimbabwe has been a particular circumstance, then there has been a robust response. But when there has been a very severe erosion of the rule of law or of democratic values that fall short of an overthrow of a government, then the reaction has been very poor in comparison and has, indeed, been sometimes non-existent.
That is not just true of CMAG, it has also sadly been the problem with regard to the Office of Secretary General. I say the Office of Secretary General because one of the issues that has been in dispute is whether the secretary general is permitted to speak out immediately there is a problem in some part of the Commonwealth, whether he can do that without the express mandate of the member states. Some say he has that authority already, some say that he hasn’t and, therefore, that is also an issue that we have had to address.
Now one of the arguments that has been used this weekend has been now that CMAG’s reforms have been endorsed by the heads of government, then surely the problem is resolved, there is no difficulty. That, I'm afraid, is not a convincing argument in our view. It’s not a convincing argument for two reasons.
First of all, CMAG didn’t need to have these reforms in its own report endorsed. It had these powers over the last 10, 12 years. It is precisely because it’s not had the political will to use these powers that we have come to the view, supported by many who have commented and given evidence to us, that CMAG’s own discretion has to be reinforced if it’s going to have the political will to act when these severe violations of human rights or the rule of law appear in a member state.
Our proposal for a commissioner is based on the belief that this could be of significant assistance to CMAG and to the secretary general, because whether you call him or her a commissioner or some other title, frankly, we are indifferent at the end of the day. It’s the role of the person and of the office that we are proposing that is important.
What we are saying is such a person would first of all be someone of considerable seniority and experience, they would be someone who would be independent of the Secretary General and of CMAG and their role essentially, with a small staff, not some grand organisation, with a small staff, would be to permanently keep their own on what is happening throughout the Commonwealth and not involve themselves in minor controversies. We’re talking about severe and persistent violations of the rule of law because that’s what’s been laid down in the Commonwealth’s own declarations as to its proper responsibility.
So such a commissioner or whatever they might be called, as soon as evidence of that kind of problem was appearing, would bring to the attention of the Secretary General, would bring that to the attention of CMAG, could, if appropriate, bring it to the attention of the wider world, that would be their discretion, and their job would not be to be a police officer, not to enforce some rule, we accept that that must at the end of the day be for the heads of government and for CMAG to decide, but their job would be to alert and to bring the analysis and the evidence to the ministers and thereby make it much more difficult, to be frank, that they could simply look the other way and take no action.
What we are keen to do and to argue for is two things. First of all, that we’re not simply talking in terms of punitive action, we’re talking about intervention that would be possible at a sufficiently early stage that a country, a member state that was beginning to move towards serious problems with the rule of law and human rights could be, hopefully, approached, work could be done with them to try and avoid that developing into something much more serious.
The second point I would make, and it is a point that has not emerged, is that, of course, from time to time the commissioner could be an ally of a member state that was being criticised in the media because while on many occasions when the media make allegations against a government on human rights and democracy, very often it’s justified and action is required, just occasionally it may be unfair criticism that is being made. Because the commissioner would be independent, because it would be someone with no links, strings attached to any government, if the commissioner came to the judgment that the criticism was unfair and unjustified, that would indeed be of assistance to the member state in question if it was facing unfair criticism.
So, for all these reasons, we believe that this continues to be a very important requirement. I make one final point on the commissioner. It’s not a new proposal. We discovered, or at least I discovered, others may have already known, that as far back as 1977 Gambia recommended that there should be a commission on human rights and the rule of law in the Commonwealth. It wasn’t accepted then and the Commonwealth is still waiting and you might think that 34 years later it was time for action to be taken.
Let me just conclude my comments by saying a few comments on our decision to publish this report. This document is quite deliberately called A Commonwealth of the People and we were delighted that Her Majesty the Queen herself referred to that in her statement yesterday when opening the Commonwealth Conference.
So the Commonwealth is not the private club of the governments or the secretariat or anyone of that kind. It belongs to the people of the Commonwealth. We have sought not just to make that a matter of rhetoric because, as Hugh Segal mentioned, from the beginning of our deliberations, we went out to Commonwealth organisations, individual citizens, anyone who wished to contribute, put it on the net, all our interim views, our interim conclusions and over 300 organisations responded.
I have to say, and this is a personal comment, I think it is disgraceful that here we are in the middle of CHOGM and this report has still not been thought to be appropriate for it to be published. Not by all the heads of government, I have to be fair. The Commonwealth acts by consensus and all it requires is for a certain number to object to prevent it happening. I know Australia has been very keen for it to be published, as have quite a number of other governments, so it’s not the fault of the heads of government as a whole, but it is, nevertheless, in my personal view, a disgrace that this report has not been authorised for publication and here we are two thirds of the way through, or halfway through this actual conference.
So, it’s a report that we have published. Most of the recommendations are already in the public domain, but what has not been in the public domain is our reasons, our analysis, the background, the explanations, the concerns in a detailed way and that should be part of the public debate, not just for the heads of government, not just for the media, but for all those interested in the Commonwealth itself. So this is an important decision we’ve taken, not lightly, but we think it’s the right thing to do.
That’s all I wanted to say Chairman.
Ronald Sanders: Before I invite the Chairman to make a few remarks, maybe I could just say a few words of my own.
I am, I suppose, a small state representative on this Eminent Persons Group and while the debate over the last couple of days has taken place on just two issues of 106 recommendations in this report and they have been largely political issues, most particularly over the commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, in this report are 104 other recommendations that really go to the heart of whether the Commonwealth can survive or not. But more than that, it goes to the very serious and grave issue that faces many small states in terms of their very existence.
That has to do with climate change, with the severe threat that is posed to countries like the Maldives, countries in the Pacific, countries in the Caribbean where, if global warming continues at the rate at which it is going, those countries will not exist in a very short space of time. Not only will some of them physically disappear, but in others there will be such severe dislocation of populations that will have to be shifted and shifted to God knows where because nobody has made any plans for what to do if such a tragedy occurs.
Yet we know that it is a tragedy that is looming and the Eminent Persons Group has drawn attention to that in a very serious way in this document. One of the things that we hoped would have come out of Perth as an urgent implementation of a recommendation was that an expert group would be set up immediately to look into that difficulty and to propose within a very short space of time an identification of the countries most at risk, what those risks are, how they can be met and how the problems can be funded.
If that does not happen, then I think that large countries of the Commonwealth had better be prepared for an influx of refugees who will have no choice, either live on a boat on the ocean or to find refuge on somebody else’s shores. This is a real and urgent problem. It cannot await what we hear as a suggestion that the rest of these recommendations be kicked into the high grass and be discussed sometime next year by foreign ministers. People cannot await that problem.
In small countries, Hugh Segal mentioned the debt that is overburdening a number of countries. In the Caribbean, 10 countries there are amongst the most highly indebted nations of the world and how did they become indebted? They became indebted through no fault of their own. The global financial crisis that started in October 2008 has impacted these countries even though they did not own one single bank that got us into this difficulty. But the result of it is that they are now unable, because some of them have a reasonable income, because of following democratic practices including trade unions and so on, they have a reasonable income which the IMF and the World Bank says disqualifies them from getting concessional financing.
They, therefore, have to go to the commercial market for money to build infrastructure and so on. But there is no commercial market for them to go to because the banks are simply not looking at sovereign debt in that way anymore. What are they to do? Many of them have gone to the IMF and are now caught in such strict conditionalities that the possibility of growth is almost impossible. In the meantime, unemployment is rising, poverty is increasing and so too, incidentally, is crime. These are not problems that can be kicked into the high grass where people fight over whether or not a commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in today’s Commonwealth is still an issue. That should be something that is accepted in passing as a norm of Commonwealth behaviour.
Having said that, I now turn to our Chairman who has guided us over the last 16 months with great patience and with remarkable restraint, Tun Abdullah Badawi.
Tun Abdullah Badawi: Ladies and gentlemen of the media I would like to say this, that as Chairman I am happy that we have an opportunity to prepare a report, an important report. Preparing this report was a responsibility that was given to us and what severely makes me feel that this report has become a very important report is because we had invited or we had received 330 submissions all over the Commonwealth from civil society organisations, intergovernmental bodies and other interested individuals had made submissions, very, very serious submissions and I want to tell you that we looked through all those submissions.
Besides, we have also been invited to talk to many organisations all over the Commonwealth. My colleagues had the opportunity to meet them and I, too, had opportunity to meet the Group in Kuala Lumpur members of the Commonwealth, they came from India, they came from Singapore and other countries close to Malaysia. So we certainly, I certainly came to the conclusion that they would want a good report, they would want that their views be reflected in the report and I must say this, we get the feeling that because of all the submissions that have been given to us, there is a certain feeling that something has to be done to the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth is already more than 50 years old, more than 60 I think, they want some change. They want the Commonwealth to be an association that can lead all these countries of the Commonwealth, that can provide a new dynamism in the Commonwealth. They believe that if we are not doing anything, then the Commonwealth will not be able to be more than what it is today which, to them, is not something that they could be satisfied about. They want a new Commonwealth, they want a new vibrant Commonwealth, they recognise there is a young generation who will now demand so many changes.
We have in our Group a leader of the Commonwealth Youth, he is a member of the EPG and has made representations and he, too, had met many, many leaders.
So, as a result of all these discussions that we had going through the 300 submissions, for 16 months doing the work and we are very transparent, there is nothing to hide because we know this is what the people want and the people will want to know whether we are reflecting some of the views they have conveyed to us. So this is very, very transparent.
Finally, we had the report, after 16 months of hard work, really, really hard work. I'm not trying to claim anything by saying that we are really doing hard work, but because the responsibility has been given to us and that report has to be ready for this CHOGM, so we have achieved. The report has been made and I personally must say that I am surprised that until this very moment the report has not been released. People want to now. People want what is all this report, what have you done, we want to see, are you reflecting some of our views or have you just pushed aside and think on your own what you think is best for the Commonwealth?
What you must understand is we, too, the 300 submissions also, should recognise their concern, we should recognise and accept their views. Their voices must be heard. So that’s what it is.
There’s also what the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Youth, that’s very, very important. They are the future. They are the future. They are our future and we have also thought that it would be proper if we can have a charter for the Commonwealth, a charter that will embrace all the various declarations we already had compiled, put it together as one charter. It’s not going to be a charter, we are not a treaty, but a charter is just to provide a guideline, what we should follow because a charter will be made up of the various declarations on Commonwealth values which are very, very important to us. If you can put it together in one document, it is easy to carry anywhere and that’s something that we will be reminded about.
I had an opportunity yesterday to make a presentation and it was about 10 minutes and we had some discussion, but I must say that the real discussion will be at the retreat today. We have no idea what is happening at the retreat. I must say we are very concerned. We would like to know what has happened, but one thing is we have also decided that the presentation that I gave to the CHOGM yesterday should be released and we want to have this released. We have already given to you, all of you already have this presentation which I made yesterday at the Commonwealth. I am sure that many of you would like to ask questions, but my colleague, Sir Michael Kirby, would like to say a few words, very short.
Michael Kirby: I want to say what a privilege it has been to serve with success a distinguished group of fellow Commonwealth citizens and I am very proud of the report which has been produced and I think when you see the report and look at the reasons you will also see that is provides a blueprint for the future.
I only want to add one thought. This arises out of questions I was asked just before I came into this room. A matter that is concerning some of the media who asked questions was, is it correct or isn’t it correct that having taken the step of improving the procedures of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, CMAG, that that obviates the necessity for a commissioner such as has been recommended by the Eminent Persons Group, the EPG?
I would say that, first, the improvements that have been adopted are definitely a step in the right direction, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind has said, and they very much parallel the kind of recommendations which the EPG itself put forward. So that’s definitely a step in the right direction.
Secondly, it appears that the concept which has been advanced by the EPG for a charter of values has also been adopted in principle. So that’s another definite step in the right direction. So we have to keep balance on these matters.
But is it enough? The report is carefully calibrated and was designed to work as an integrated whole and, therefore, the proposal for a commissioner of democracy, the rule of the law and human rights was put forward for the purpose of providing an institutional mechanism that would make the CMAG reforms and the charter reforms work and work more effectively.
We know in Australia that sometimes when matters are left to politicians things have worked out and successful steps are taken, but sometimes on sensitive matters they are not. Sometimes on sensitive matters the political process needs a bit of a help along and a bit of a stimulus. We saw this in Australia during the Coalition Government when legislation was adopted to take away all the rights to vote of prisoners. That was the subject of proceedings in the courts. We saw it more recently in relation to refugees. That was also the subject of proceedings in the independent courts.
We don’t in the Commonwealth have an independent court, but we do need independent institutional arrangements to stimulate discussion and progress and that is especially so in sensitive matters of human rights.
Now a very important series of recommendations in the report relate to HIV. The Chairman mentioned this yesterday in his statement, a copy of which you have, and Senator Segal mentioned it. I don’t know if this extremely urgent problem is getting the specific particular and urgent priority that it needs in the CHOGM meeting. I do hope and pray that it is because millions of people are dying and as has been said by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the levels of HIV in Commonwealth countries are twice the level of the non Commonwealth countries. That’s a very serious thing.
It was in that context that the Eminent Persons Group addressed the question of why that should be so and at least one of the reasons appears to be that in 41 of the 51 countries of the Commonwealth of Nations, the laws of those countries, the criminal laws, penalise, stigmatise, criminalise homosexual people.
I don’t know if that particular issue and the way we have to address it has been considered in the CHOGM meeting. It wasn’t considered at any moment during the time that I had the privilege of sitting in the CHOGM meeting and I would be surprised if it has been considered by the politicians. For some it is a sensitive matter. The EPG itself was sensitive to the cultural and other considerations on the issue, but in the context of HIV and millions of people living with HIV and dying, we have to have a certain sense of urgency.
As I thought of this this morning, I think that is the answer to the contention that the CMAG reforms are sufficient. If you leave matters entirely to politicians, sensitive matters will sometimes not be addressed. Occasionally you need independent people who owe no duty to politics and no duty to their colleagues to be kind and nice and polite, but who are persons of principle, who draw the issues of principle to attention and stimulate action in the political branches.
That is the lesson actually of the British constitutional heritage that the counties of the Commonwealth have. The politics sorts most things out, but sometimes it needs a stimulus and that, I think, is the answer to the suggestion that the CMAG reforms are enough. They are good, they are welcome, they are beneficial, but they are not enough and institutional arrangements are necessary such as the Eminent Persons Group has proposed of a commissioner who will have a role to stimulate the process and get the unmentionable issues on the table so that they will be considered and dealt with.
Ronald Sanders: I think, ladies and gentlemen, at that point we’d like to throw the floor open to questions from you. If I may start from the beginning, I'll start with you, sir.
Callum McCrae: Callum McCrae, Channel Four. I have a general question and a specific question.
The general question would be, here we have an Eminent Persons Group set up to address concerns that the Commonwealth is irrelevant and its report has, in effect, been rejected or certainly not published by the Commonwealth. Doesn’t this suggest that (a) perhaps the Commonwealth is irrelevant because it’s unable to confront those issues and, secondly, does it suggest at the very least that there are some countries which are quite determined that the Commonwealth should remain irrelevant.
That brings me to my second specific point which is that probably the single most dramatic failure of the Commonwealth and, indeed, the UN for that matter over the last couple of years has been the events, the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sri Lanka in 2009. On that question, I suppose specifically I’d like to know how this report, how your recommendations would have addressed that and, very specifically as well, is Sri Lanka one of the countries which has prevented the publication of this report.
Hugh Segal: Could I just speak if I may, just on the Sri Lankan issue only because my Prime Minister indicated some many weeks ago that barring some sort of independent judicial assessment of what happened to the 40,000 disappeared, he does not plan to be at a CHOGM in Colombo.
I guess our view is that if the commissioner that is being called for in this report had been up and operating for some time, that would have been on the human rights side, certainly, a way in which we could have engaged with Sri Lanka at the end of the war to try and develop some constructive process in a way that was respectful but focused on getting to the bottom of the facts, assuming there may have been excesses on both sides. But there are rules about how that has to be addressed.
The absence of that and the absence of any engagement by the Commonwealth Secretariat as an institution on that issue over that period of time speaks, if I may say so, to the thesis of irrelevance that was the premise of your question.
I don’t know who are the countries that are standing in opposition to this document being made formally public. After our second meeting, I think in the fall of 2010, we issued a detailed press release about our discussions where we talked about empowering the secretary general to speak out more forcefully. Our headline was silence is not an option.
Clearly there are some people at this meeting for whom silence is the best option and I would say to them, with respect and affection, would silence have helped liberate people from Robben Island? Would silence have been the way to bring apartheid to an end? The history of human rights is that silence is not classically the best instrument and the Commonwealth in the past has understood that and leaders from right across the grain, I think of Mr Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, I think of Mr Mulroney, I think of others were so constructive and engaged on that front and I think that’s the challenge we face.
Michael Kirby: I don’t think we should get involved in particular cases. That’s not our remit and it would be counterproductive. I don’t think we should make any comment apart from what Senator Segal has said about Sri Lanka. That is not our business. We are not politicians. We have provided a structure, a way forward and I don’t think we should deal with it, but the Commonwealth is not irrelevant. We are here. We are discussing these matters.
There is a report and the fact that we’re discussing it as free people and exchanging opinions and putting forward this carefully thought out report is an instance of how the Commonwealth does work and it will work and it will come to these good solutions in due course and making the report available with the reasons will be a way to help that happen.
Malcolm Rifkind: As Michael Kirby says, it’s not our job to talk about the rights and wrongs of what may have happened in Sri Lanka. It’s fair to say, however, that one of the main examples of where the Commonwealth has been silent in the last few years has been with regard to the allegations, and I repeat allegations, about human rights abusers in Sri Lanka.
If you compare, for example, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth and the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Secretary General of the United Nations cannot take punitive action without authority from the member states, but he regularly comes up to the microphone and will express concern on behalf of the UN when there are reports of serious violations or potential violations in various parts of the world and the UN is seen to be involved and taking an interest.
This did not happen in the case of the Commonwealth as regards the Secretary General, whether that’s because he did not wish to or because he felt he didn’t have a mandate to do so, that is why it requires to be clarified and why we must ensure that never happens again.
Likewise, CMAG did not address that issue. I'm not saying what conclusion they should have come to, but the problem was they didn’t even address the issues as we are aware in any material way. So that is exactly where a commissioner would have made it infinitely more difficult for that issue simply to be avoided at that time.
Ronald Sanders: I think we’ve exhausted this. We have a number of other people who want to ask questions.
I find myself in the strange position which I'm going to have to curtail the speakers rather than the people who want to ask questions. So, gentlemen, I will point out which of you will speak and we’ll keep the answers as brief as we can.
Yes, sir, you.
Matthew Franklin: Matthew Franklin here from The Australian newspaper. We had the Australian Prime Minister and the Secretary General here last night and questions were put about Sri Lanka. It was hard to get a straight answer out of them. I'm not criticising them, but they made the point, as somebody else did here, that the Commonwealth operates on a consensus basis. I'm just wondering whether anyone has a view as to whether the fact that it operates on a consensus basis means that you end up with a consensus on everything you agree with but silence on anything that you don’t agree with.
I wonder whether your report addresses that in any way or whether you believe that the idea of a commissioner coming in over the top in the cases where politics couldn’t work is the way around that.
Ronald Sanders: Well, if I may attempt an answer to your question so that we don’t dilly on it, consensus does not mean unanimity and I think anybody who consults a dictionary will find that that’s the case.
What is consensus? Consensus really is the overall feeling of a majority of your members as to how something should be proceeded with and what you try to do is to find common ground. That’s the way the Commonwealth has always done its business, but it didn’t do it in relation to apartheid in that way. You will remember the famous Nassau Conference in which the first Eminent Persons Group was set up, and this is only the second in the life of the Commonwealth. There wasn’t consensus that that should be done. The British Government was not in favour of it, yet the Commonwealth went ahead and did it. Everything else proceeded from that and we now have a different South Africa.
So with skilful handling of these things, consensus can be achieved. It does not mean unanimity. Nobody has a veto.
So I hope that answers the question. Can we move on to, yes, you, sir.
David McIntyre: I'm David McIntyre from the New Zealand International Review. If you as a group are disappointed about 104 of your recommendations and even slightly disappointed about what happens to the two important ones, is there any way that you can continue to advocate the reforms that you have been advocating? Are you as a group still in existence, in fact?
Ronald Sanders: Well we were appointed to do this report and having done the report and the report having been presented to the heads of government, we no longer officially exist. That does not mean that as a group of individuals who have spent 16 months of our lives working toward ensuring that a document that addresses a Commonwealth of the People means that we should stop our advocacy for what we have recommended here.
I think in our individual capacities and, from time to time, collectively we may very well continue to advocate what is in here and monitor quite closely how, if at all, it is implemented.
Michael Kirby: Mr Malcolm Fraser was one of the members of the earlier Eminent Persons Group and even last night he was giving a lecture here in Perth continuing to advocate the issues which were before that group, so 30 years hence we may all still be around advocating for the Commonwealth and advocating for the strengthening of its institutions.
Ronald Sanders: Sir, please.
Phillip Coorey: My question, I'm Phillip Coorey from the Sydney Morning Herald. For Sir Malcolm, you mentioned the comments earlier of the Queen yesterday in her speech which I thought too, were very pointed. For our benefit, are you aware, is Her Majesty aware of the contents of the report? Had she been briefed on it before she came to CHOGM and how much can we read into what she said yesterday into those two paragraphs?
Malcolm Rifkind: I can’t obviously comment on that. I am absolutely certain that a copy of the report will have found its way to Buckingham Palace and the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, will obviously have taken a great interest in it, but beyond that I can’t comment and I wouldn’t comment if I could.
Ronald Sanders: A lady, for the first time this morning.
Sabra Lane: Sabra Lane here from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, just picking up on the words that the Queen actually used yesterday. She encouraged the leaders to make bold decisions. Are the current leaders in CHOGM incapable of making those bold decisions and if the contents of your report aren’t adopted at this meeting, shall CHOGM 2011 be regarded as a failure?
Ronald Sanders: Hugh?
Hugh Segal: Well, it’s not for me to typify how this will be viewed over history, which I think is the purport of your question. I'm personally, unlike Michael I actually am in politics, I do believe in incrementalism. I think that’s the way you make steady progress. So every step to the good that is taken, however it may or may not approximate the full size of our report, will be a step in the right direction.
It may very well be - we don’t know the shape of the final communiqué, none of us, but it may very well be that aspects of the other 104 are addressed, not as a formal reference to the EPG and, frankly, who cares about that, but as legitimate steps ahead that the leaders want to see mandated for the secretariat and others on a go forward basis.
So I’d want to wait to see all that until I came to any sort of cumulative assessment.
I do know this, that the commitment to facilitate a broad discussion by Australia as the host I think has been without limit. I think they’ve engaged as best they can and I think they are doing a superb job. What the result is, none of us can tell.
Michael Kirby: Even judges and ex-judges believe in incrementalists.
Ronald Sanders: Please, go ahead.
Paul Osborne: Paul Osborne from Australian Associated Press. I'm just wondering what recommendations, if any, you are making in regard to the Realm and what happens at the end of the Queen’s reign as far as a head of the Commonwealth.
A second question is, just on the report itself, were the Eminent Persons Group given any riding orders on publication of the report? Were you told it had to go to CHOGM before it could be published or did you just have to come up with your own way of producing the report?
Ronald Sanders: I will deal with this quickly if I may. First of all, in the document, in the report itself you will find that in a letter of transmittal to the Secretary General, we made the request that the report should be made public ahead of CHOGM and we did so for very good reason. We had 330 written submissions from all over the Commonwealth from people who took the time and the effort to tell us what they thought. We felt we owed them an obligation to let them know how we had treated what they had submitted to us. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, there is a precedent for releasing this report ahead of CHOGM. That’s what happened with the first EPG report. In fact, it was published and presented to the public four months ahead of the actual CHOGM that considered it and it helped enormously, I'm sure, in focusing people’s minds on the problems of South Africa at that time.
That’s the second part of your question. There was a first part. Could you tell me it again?
Unidentified Male: The Realm. The head of the Commonwealth.
Ronald Sanders: The Eminent Persons Group did not address that question. It was not part of our remit.
Next question. You, sir.
Julius: Thank you very much. My name is Julius. I'm interested in the views of Dr Akwetey on this report.
Ronald Sanders: Emmanuel?
Emmanuel Akwetey: My views on the report is reflected by what my colleagues have said. Is there a specific area you want me to address?
Julius: I was just interested in, I was just concerned that you have been...
Emmanuel Akwetey: I’ve been quiet. I spoke more than them yesterday in the meetings so I think they’re taking their turn.
But specifically I think the first question was of interest to me which said that has the report been rejected. I do not think it’s rejected. I think it’s premature to say that. We are aware that, as we sit here in the retreat, what we heard yesterday was they were going to discuss the report today. We are yet to find out what their deliberations have been about and so on. That’s one.
But two, I think that the late publication of the report would also not mean failure. For me, we have produced a report and it links to the question as to whether there are no bold decisions. Bold decisions probably with reference to the commissioner would mean that CHOGM 2011 failed.
I think what we have is a significantly different situation than it was in 2009. In 2009 there were feelings and talks about the need for reform. In 2011, we have a coherent set of proposals codified in a document presented for action.
I think this has significantly shifted the focus of discussion. Our leaders now will be measured by the proposals, what actions they take here or do not take and I think it’s going to follow them wherever they go.
What we are looking at is, indeed, a situation where this report is going to sustain the debate and the advocacy for reform. The relevance of the Commonwealth lives in the minds and hearts of many people, hundreds and thousands. That is the feeling we got when we looked at the submissions, that is what we confronted when we went out on our outreach across many countries and addressed many government and non-governmental officials.
So I think we’re going to find that the debate probably would not be resolved here, would not end here. It will continue, but the pressure is on for the reform of the Commonwealth and we even felt that in the debate that took place behind closed doors.
Ronald Sanders: You, sir.
Mark Kennedy: Mark Kennedy from Postmedia News in Canada. Gentlemen, you write in the report that the Commonwealth is experiencing decay as a result of its refusal to take a proactive stance when it’s sees examples of human rights violations and you call for urgent reform. So what I'm wondering, either Senator Segal or Sir Ronald, if your report essentially is shelved this weekend, if it’s shunted off to a committee and the next time it comes up for debate is, of all places, in Sri Lanka in two years where there are allegations of human rights violations, is the opportunity gone? Is it now or never?
Ronald Sanders: Hugh?
Hugh Segal: Well I would say the trend is not good, if that’s what happens. The trend would be troubling and I'm hopeful, and I say this without a scintilla of evidence to back up this aspiration, that leaders will come up with a slightly more activist conclusion in terms of how to proceed, but that is pure prayer on my part. I have no evidence as we speak to back that up.
Ronald Sanders: Yes, the lady here.
Elissa Jobson: Elissa Jobson from Global Magazine. I'm sorry, I came late to the meeting, so if this question’s already been asked, I apologise.
There’s 109 recommendations in the report and there seems to be a feeling from the membership, the delegates that this is maybe too many points for heads to consider in any detail in such a short time that’s available at CHOGM. Do you accept this point and why did you produce so many points of action?
Ronald Sanders: Emmanuel?
Emmanuel Akwetey: Well out of the 106, 14 were prioritised and in those 14 recommendations we sought a balanced between democracy and development because the Commonwealth is also about development, not just democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
We think that the politics of adopting these priorities, which it was a hard time to focus them on the priorities, how they would be implemented within the shortest possible time. The urgent reform was about at least taking action on the 14 priority areas.
At the moment, we do not know which ones they have added to the two that they’ve debated openly, we are yet to find that out, but I think my colleagues could add to that.
Maybe Sammy could elaborate on the aspects of Youth and other in the proposal.
Samuel Kavuma: The voice of the youth. Thank you. In line also with that, we also talked about [unclear 0:54:40.9] developing a plan of action on how these recommendations are going to be implemented.
But I also wish to add my voice to the rest of the members, especially when it came to the process in which we reached these recommendations, especially from the young people.
There was a lot of consultation that we had to do with the young people and received a lot of them, even more than 300, especially from the social media a lot of young people had a lot of contribution and also I want to make it on record, this year’s Commonwealth Youth Forum that took place here, the recommendation that reflecting on young people within this report was at the heart of our discussion.
It has risen, the expectations from the young people, and they expect a lot from this event, so especially when you look at how the trend and the discussions it is really a disappointment.
Also, I would say there are lot of things that we need to also not forget. Out of the membership of all citizens in the Commonwealth, 60 per cent of the population are young people. We are all seeing about the percentages of unemployment. In my own country the unemployment percentage is 83 per cent of the young people are unemployed.
We all know about the poverty issues which are affecting young people. We all know about issues to do with conflict. We’ve all seen the post election conflicts which have happened, especially in African countries. Whenever it comes to elections, whenever it comes to [unclear 0:56:23.8] and the most affected people are the young people.
So, it is up to the heads of government, this institution has been in place for over 60 years. It is now serving a new generation of young people. The decision they will take, it may not be their own decision but it should be for the young people.
So I think it’s a question which is left up to them, but we came up with very good recommendations of which some of them were to do with issues of development, some of them are to do with issues and what is the strategy and how to handle the issues of unemployment among young people.
The Commonwealth has a vast experience of different countries which are at different levels. We are having young people who can be able to benefit from the rest of what other members are. Having exchanges between young people with different other countries, in form of experience, in form of young people moving on to different countries and saying what, how can this be done, what are some of the experiences here and there. Also, providing a platform for which young people can be able to address their issues.
We have seen uprisings of issues within the Arab world and also in North Africa. Let us not say that this is only happening in those countries, but it may soon come to the Commonwealth and if we don’t have these answers, then I think it’s high time for heads of government to look through this. Then, also, looking at all the recommendations up to over a full year when there are a lot of reforms that we are looking at and addressing the immediate concerns especially. I think it is something which is really not working well.
I think it’s important that all the issues are looked at, because there are issues to do with women also. There are issues to do with HIV AIDS that are affecting young people directly. When you talk about issues to do with climate change, they’re affecting young people and, also, we, even during the discussions, we looked at through how we have issues. At least every recommendation had a small focus on young people. We had a mainstreaming of issues on young people, however, we also came up with specific recommendations to do with young people.
Ronald Sanders: Daisy?
Daisy: Thank you. In terms of achievements, the Commonwealth is best known for helping to bring about the end of apartheid, namely through the 1986 Eminent Persons Group, but the Commonwealth has got many other successful strings to its bow. It pioneered good officers which was copied by the United Nations, the Commonwealth was the first organisation to raise HIV and AIDS, it was the first organisation to raise sea level rise and in 1994 it Western Australia was the Commonwealth that brought an end to the seven and a half years of the Uruguay trade rounds.
This track record is really attributed to leadership at the time and whilst the question of the future of the Commonwealth has been asked since the 1950s, for those of us who are close to the Commonwealth we know that the rot really set in around the turn of the century.
So my question is, by tomorrow evening what for you will be the litmus test of whether Commonwealth leaders and also the Secretary General have the necessary qualities to lead the Commonwealth?
Ronald Sanders: Malcolm?
Malcolm Rifkind: It’s not possible today to know what’s going to be in the communiqué when it does emerge and I think the crucial point I would want to emphasise is when we make criticisms it would be wrong to talk about the Commonwealth as a whole because the reality within the Commonwealth is you have quite a number of heads of government who understand exactly the problems and who are strongly trying to press for change, and there are a number who aren’t. Therefore, hopefully, it will emerge in due course which are the problem governments, which are the problem prime ministers or presidents and that’s where the focus of pressure has to be.
The Commonwealth cannot act unless there is the political will of its member states. It is entirely reasonable that consensus, not unanimity as Ronald Sanders pointed out, has to be the basis on which it operates, but don’t believe, no one should believe, that there aren’t large numbers of people in the Commonwealth, including amongst the heads of government, who share the concern and who are pressing for the necessary reforms.
Tun Abdullah Badawi: I think at the moment the retreat is discussing this report. I'm not sure what is going to be the conclusion of that, but there is one thing that I believe is good because we have been invited by the Chairperson that we should be at lunch today and we will be given the opportunity to respond maybe to the questions today and we can also raise some questions. So it’s not over yet. It’s not over yet, but we will be there.
One thing that I believe is that whatever happens, the people will be interested in this report. They have spent a lot of time discussing among themselves, they have spent a lot of time making recommendations, helping us. They would want to see the report, but if you feel they are not going to release the report, the people will demand for the report. If they demand, they want to see. All of us think that we should be able to give them the report. I think the voice of the Commonwealth is in this report.
Malcolm Rifkind: Just one additional sentence, if I may. Whatever the outcome of this weekend, one thing is undoubtedly the case. The issue of the rule of law, democracy and human rights and the Commonwealth’s attitude to it has been the dominant theme of this conference. It won’t go away whatever the communiqué actually says.
Tun Abdullah Badawi: Yes, it is.
Emmanuel Akwetey: I honestly think if the decisions after CHOGM fall short of expectation, there’ll be great disappointment. I think it would somehow crystallise the scepticism towards the Commonwealth and whether it could rise up to its challenges in the 21st century.
So there will be a sense of collective failure in terms of leadership rather than of specific position because the political decisions have to be made at this meeting and I think the Secretary General and his team have to guide that decision and have to also engage in following up on these decisions.
We would like to be hopeful that this is the Commonwealth of the people we are looking at and we’ve taken pains to explain that our proposals were not framed by nine people, 10 at the beginning, who sat and thought through what could be done, but there were extensive consultations. What we framed and presented resonates with aspirations, feelings, ideas, suggestions on the ground about people who truly are committed to seeing the Commonwealth stronger and restored to its glory.
We’ve made it clear to the leaders that they should look beyond themselves and think of the future of the Commonwealth 50 years on, 60 years on. We hope they will do that, but I think one thing that inspires us is that we now have a coherent set of proposals by which those who still want to continue and who still have faith in the Commonwealth would have to engage their leaders whether at the global or at a national level. I think probably we are yet to see a very serious fight for the life and soul of the Commonwealth on the basis of our report.
Ronald Sanders: We’re going to take one more question. Who would that be? Okay, you, sir.
John Kerin: John Kerin from the Australian Financial Review. You mentioned intervening in small states and helping with the debt situation. I just wondered in what ways you would do that, I guess.
Emmanuel Aketey: Would you kindly repeat your question and maybe speak a bit louder?
John Kerin: Sorry. Sir Ronald Sanders made some mention of intervening in countries, not intervening in countries but helping countries in the Caribbean and other areas struggling with very high debt at the moment and I just wondered what sorts of actions the Commonwealth might take to help with that situation.
Ronald Sanders: We have a clear set of recommendations on this question. I pointed out that the debt that many of these countries are now faced with is not as much a result of their own policies as it is the result of external factors. Amongst those external factors are regular hurricanes which now go through these countries with greater intensity and far more frequency than they did in the past and I think that there is clearly a link to global warming in relation to these matters.
But when Australia has a disaster, you might have a disaster in one area of your country which might destroy a part of your country’s production and, therefore, its export capacity. When these things happen in small islands, it destroys the gross domestic product for as much as three years and the capacity to recover from that, the resilience does not exist in the same way as it does in larger countries. That means those countries have to go out and borrow money in order to rebuild their infrastructure.
They can’t go to the World Bank because they’ve been graduated from concessionary financing because of their per capita income. Now they have that per capita income because they are democratic countries which have very vibrant trade unions that every year, year after year, are looking for better terms and conditions for workers, which is understandable. So they’re constrained from getting concessional refinancing. They’re the victims of external factors, not only of hurricanes but, I mentioned earlier, the effect of things that happen in their global financial market. The recession which the world has gone through has hit these countries extremely hard even though they did not contribute to the factors that made these things possible.
Now if they can’t get concessionary financing, they can’t get commercial financing, what are they to do? Amongst the things we’ve suggested is that the Commonwealth must establish high level groups to interface with the International Monetary Fund of the World Bank and other international institutions to make the conditionalities that they impose upon these countries for concessionary financing not only subject to one criteria. That one criteria that they use at the moment is per capita income.
What we are saying is that they need to take other factors into account, amongst them the external damage that comes to these countries through no fault of their own, but there has to be a different approach. The small countries cannot do that by themselves. They don’t have a voice, for instance, on the Board of Governors of the World Bank. The Caribbean is represented on the Board of Governors of the World Bank by Canada. It doesn’t have a voice of its own. They don’t have a voice in the G20. They are excluded from the decision making process to present their own case. So since they cannot present it by themselves, but 32 of the member countries of the 54 member Commonwealth are small states, which other organisations can they turn but this one to advance their cause?
Those are amongst the arguments that we’ve laid forward.
So, I think we can thank you all very much for coming to listen to us this morning. We firmly believe that the Commonwealth we came to serve is still a Commonwealth that deserves service, but only if it is reformed and we have put those reforms into this book and we hope that in the end good sense will prevail and wise heads will make sure that these things are done.
Thank you very much.