Press Conference - Prime Minister of Australia and Secretary-General of the Commonwealth
Julia Gillard: Can I thank you very much for attending the concluding press conference of this, the first day of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I'm joined by the Commonwealth Secretary-General.
We've had a productive first day of CHOGM. We've covered a large number of issues. We've also adopted the agenda that will guide the leaders during the next two days of discussions. We formally welcomed Rwanda into the Commonwealth and we heard from President Kagame of Rwanda about Rwanda and its entry into the Commonwealth.
We've had a discussion about the theme of this meeting, building national resilience, building global resilience. We received the report from Foreign Minister Rudd on the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers' meeting and the small states meeting. We also heard from Ghana as current chair of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group about the activities of that group, known as CMAG.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group made known its continued concerns about the situation in Fiji, the only country formally on CMAG's agenda. CMAG cited in particular their concerns about ongoing censorship of local media, restrictions on public gatherings, and harassment and intimidation of the Methodist Church, trade unions, and civil society organisations. I expect leaders will discuss this report and the situation in Fiji over coming days.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group also presented its report on strengthening the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. This report was commissioned by leaders in 2009 to enable CMAG to be more proactive and preventative and less reactive in addressing serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values. This CMAG report on strengthening CMAG for the future contains some 30-odd recommendations. Leaders today agreed to adopt all recommendations for reform.
Now, this is a major reform, and it will strengthen the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in upholding democracy and the values amongst the Commonwealth membership that the Commonwealth has long stood for. In particular, these recommendations go to questions such as CMAG being engaged earlier with the Secretary-General, so CMAG and the Secretary-General engaging earlier, when it appears countries are veering from the path of democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
These recommendations now adopted by leaders provide for a set of objective criteria as triggers for CMAG involvement, for situations falling short of a constitutional overthrow of a government. These recommendations now adopted also detail a set of graduated measures that CMAG can take in response to situations of concern with a clear path and time lines for escalation, and these reforms also enable there to be extraordinary meetings of CMAG to deal with urgent situations.
I'm very pleased that at this meeting on the first day we have been able to take this significant step forward in strengthening the Commonwealth's ability to uphold its values.
During the course of today, leaders also heard a report from President Zuma of South Africa on the work of the UN's global sustainability panel, of which he is a co-chair. This report covered important issues of sustainable development, climate change, and marine conservation. We also heard from Prime Minister Stuart of Barbados and Foreign Minister Rudd, who are both members of the panel, the UN's global sustainability panel, on the work of the panel and the preparations being made through the panel for its report at the Rio+20 conference.
Leaders also heard from the Eminent Persons Group, who gave a presentation on their report and recommendations, and there will be a more detailed consideration of this report at the leaders' retreat tomorrow. I'm looking forward to those productive discussions at the leaders' retreat where, amongst other things, we will focus on food security, climate change and sustainable development, before turning to the EPG report.
I'll ask the Commonwealth Secretary-General for some comments, and then we'll be happy to take questions.
Kamalesh Sharma: Thank you, Prime Minister. Be under no illusion of the ambitious reform achieved by the chair, Prime Minister Gillard, today. The question is often asked if the Commonwealth subscribes to so many values, but how are these values realised? When we were standing here just yesterday for our press conference, this was a question asked. The difference between yesterday and today is that today we have the answer.
Today in a presentation made by the chair of the Eminent Persons Group, he asked the same question. He said the Commonwealth's relevance as a value-based organisation will be threatened if it is not clear to its citizens in what way these values are being protected.
I would just like to mention to you what it is that the CMAG and, indeed, the member states have agreed in respect of this new template of protecting and advancing the culture of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. The core changes in CMAG's mandate now, accepted by Commonwealth leaders, are a set of indicators which have been agreed upon the type of situations that might be regarded as constituting a serious or persistent violation of Commonwealth values.
One, the unilateral abrogation of a democratic constitution or serious threats to constitutional rule. Two, the suspension or prevention of the lawful functioning of parliament or other key democratic institutions. Three, the postponement of national elections without constitutional or other reasonable justification. Four, the systematic denial of political space, such as through detention of political leaders or restriction of freedom of association, assembly, or expression.
The following developments are also illustrative of factors that could be taken into account: a national electoral process that is seriously flawed; the abrogation of the rule of law, or undermining of the independence of the judiciary; the systematic violation of human rights of the population of any communities or groups by the member government concerned; significant restrictions on the media or civil society that prevent them from playing their legitimate role.
Furthermore, if an offer of engagement and assistance by the Secretary-General is not accepted within a specified time frame which is indicated, and the government in question fails to respond appropriately and serious or persistent violations of fundamental political values continue, the Secretary-General will consult with the chair of CMAG on the way forward.
I trust it will be seen that, both in terms of the coverage of serious or frequent violations as well as in terms of the time lines that have been defined in order to address the question, this is a most significant achievement for the Perth CHOGM.
The CMAG has also agreed to meet more frequently than it does, so that these issues can be discussed by them. So at last CHOGM, we had the affirmation of Commonwealth values and principles which brought together the subscription of member states to values and principles over 30-odd years and consolidated them. We therefore had the template of what we wished to achieve. Here, in what was achieved this morning, we have an affirmation of what we wish to do about it. Thank you.
Julia Gillard: Happy to take questions, so we'll maybe start over here and move around. So yes, just here.
Reporter: Prime Minister, is adopting CMAG enough for this summit? Must the leaders adopt the Eminent Persons Group report and its recommendation for a High Commissioner for human rights and democracy?
Julia Gillard: The Eminent Persons Group report will be considered by leaders tomorrow, so I'm not in a position to pre-empt those discussions for you, but I do believe the significance of what has been achieved with the strengthening of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group should be recognised.
I think the Secretary-General is in a very good position to give an understanding of the context that we've been working in with the Ministerial Action Group, the lead-up to today's work from the Port-of-Spain, and the realisation of the strengthening of the Ministerial Action Group, particularly its engagement in a pre-emptive way rather than a reactive way; that is, getting involved when problems are emerging rather than waiting until there is only a very blunt choice about suspension or expulsion.
So there was a question here? Yes, you, sir.
David Aiken: Yes, David Aiken from Sun Media in Canada. The next CHOGM is to be in Colombo. Will the Commonwealth be rewarding a government which is accused by the United Nations of war crimes against its own people, bombing hospitals, of having the privilege of hosting a CHOGM? What will you, Prime Minister, and you, Secretary-General, be saying to your colleagues tomorrow about that particular issue?
Julia Gillard: Well, as Prime Minister, I've made it clear that we are concerned about reports and allegations of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka at the end stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka. We have said very clearly that we believe Sri Lanka needs, through its lessons learnt and reconciliation process, to address these claims of human rights abuses and, in particular, needs to deal very directly with the work of the UN advisory panel. So we've made that view clear publicly and privately, and I'm very happy to restate it here now.
Yes, Sabra? Oh, sorry, Secretary-General.
Kamalesh Sharma: I would like to say that respect for fundamental human rights is a core value of the affirmation of Commonwealth values and principles to which I referred. We have offered support to Sri Lanka in the past and remain available to assist if the Sri Lankan Government wishes. Where requested by any Commonwealth member government, we have considerable expertise in areas such as promoting reconciliation between communities, constitutional and legal assistance, strengthening the capacity of national human rights organisations, and advising on models of devolution and local government. We stand ready to offer our partnership in these areas.
Julia Gillard: I'll go to Sabra. Yes?
Sabra Lane: A question for you both. Secretary-General, the Eminent Persons Group, is it the case that maybe their recommendations are a bar too high for what some countries in the Commonwealth are prepared to accept, and the CMAG recommendations that have been wholeheartedly accepted are something a lower-set bar, if you like, for the organisation?
Prime Minister, there's been talk here that G20 nations who are members of the Commonwealth, the five countries including Australia, may advocate the case more strongly of the Commonwealth at the G20 meeting. How do you envisage doing that? And when it comes to the climate change talks in Durban, is there a push for the Commonwealth to be speaking as a bloc to try and achieve greater progress?
Julia Gillard: Well, on the Eminent Persons Group report, it's going to be the subject of discussion by leaders over the course of the weekend, during the retreat. On the Commonwealth voice from here into forthcoming meetings, one of the objectives we set for this meeting is it would provide an opportunity for the Commonwealth to discuss issues like the global economy, so insights from Commonwealth leaders could be taken forward to the G20, that we would be discussing questions of climate change and sustainability so those insights could be taken forward to the important meeting in South Africa later this year, and then to the Rio+20 conference.
So one of the purposes of people coming together and talking about their views is that it does help inform those future events.
Kamalesh Sharma: The report of the EPG is a unique one inasmuch as it covers the entire spectrum of Commonwealth engagement and democracy and development and diversity. These are the three Ds we are driven by. There are many recommendations in it and I attach the highest importance to all of these recommendations receiving the consolidated appraisal and attention of the heads, which they will receive and the process has already started today.
As to your question of effectiveness of the Commonwealth in pursuing some of the development agenda, which is in the report and otherwise, I would like to tell you that as a secretariat, we have been engaging with the G20 since its first meeting in Washington.
On that occasion as Secretary-General, I wrote not just to the five Commonwealth members of the G20, but to all of them, all 20, because it’s a concern equally for everybody. I want particularly to express my deep appreciation to Prime Minister Harper of Canada, who invited La Francophonie, my counterpart and myself, in order to see how this could be better structured. Since then we've been working on the working group on development created by the G20 and directly with the Chair on these issues.
These issues now are trade, financial inclusion, growth with resilience and above all, innovative sources of financing. They were maternal health and so on earlier; moving on there will be other issues. As to what can be decided in way of a regular way of consultation, there is a suggestion by Australia that there should be an officials meeting every year. These will be discussed by the heads, so that moving forward everybody knows and understands what it is as an obligation if you like, on the five members of the Commonwealth to advance forward with particular concern for small states and for vulnerable states.
Julia Gillard: Just one second, you Sir, you’ve been very patient so we'll go here and then to Matthew Franklin and then here. You, Sir?
Reporter: Good evening. This is [indistinct 0:17:27.6] from India Radio. We talk of human rights violations in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Terrorism is one issue which affects all of us. India has been the victim of terrorism for a long time now and Australia has also experienced terror attacks. What does the Commonwealth propose to do to reign in the countries which are supporting terror outfits like Pakistan? Thank you.
Kamalesh Sharma: I can explain to you because this is, if you like, an institutional question you asked. Ever since the relevant Security Council resolution on terrorism was passed, the Commonwealth has engaged with its member states into those areas of assistance where it has a certain comparative advantage or where this kind of assistance is sought. This is basically in looking at domestic laws which are comparable with the new situation that has been created in legislative drafting. We have been working on that and also on any aspect of international collaboration that may become necessary in order to implement it. The world is full of activity in [oil 0:18:44.3] and many different areas. Every institution must seek out that in which it has strength and do it. This is what we've been concentrating on.
Julia Gillard: Can I say just from our Australian perspective, we do know what it is like to lose people through a terrorist incident, we've lost Australian lives. We in our country have had to work through our own domestic responses and international work on counterterrorism. But we've always brought the perspective to that, that the purpose of terrorism is to cause us to be afraid to live our lives and enjoy our freedoms. We shouldn’t, in any response to terrorism, effectively give terrorists what they were seeking in the first place, which is driving us to live differently, or with less democracy, or less freedom than we had initially. Matthew Franklin?
Matthew Franklin: Hello, a moment ago my Canadian colleague who's not there now asked a question about whether you…
Julia Gillard: I don’t know what the deadlines are in Canada for newspapers.
Matthew Franklin: Well he asked both of you whether you believed that Sri Lanka should be given the privilege of hosting the next CHOGM. With respect, I don’t think either of you gave a direct answer on that, at a press conference where you are announcing measures by which you want the Commonwealth to speak up on human rights. So I put the question again, do you believe that Sri Lanka should be given the privilege of hosting the next CHOGM?
Julia Gillard: Well Matthew, I've addressed that question in earlier press conferences and indicated to you that there's no proposal before this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to change the hosting arrangements in 2013.
Kamalesh Sharma: The decision was taken collectively by the Heads of Commonwealth leaders at the last CHOGM in 2009, in the Port-of-Spain. The decision was that the 2011 CHOGM was going to be in Perth, 2013 was going to be in Sri Lanka and 2015 is going to be in Mauritius. This decision is firm and final.
Julia Gillard: I think you, Sir, you had a question. Yes? There's a microphone for you, Sir.
Reporter: [indistinct 0:21:10.0]. In the new [idea] of Commonwealth, I see a lot of duplication with the work of the United Nations. How do you differentiate from United Nations the Commonwealth's new objectives?
Kamalesh Sharma: I think you put a very pertinent question. This is always a challenge because we don’t want institutional duplication. We are a modest organisation in terms of finance and size, so it is even less desirable for us to be doing things which others do better or do more of.
There is one very important aspect to bear in mind, you cannot take the view that because IMF is dealing with debt, Commonwealth need not take any interest in it. I would like to remind you that HIPC, or Highly Indebted Poor Country initiatives on bilateral and multilateral debt, which was one of the important IMF initiatives, was a Commonwealth idea.
There are many such examples in the area of trade, in the area of climate change, where the Commonwealth can make the cause of its brand strength of working with small and vulnerable states of contribution, which institutionally is not being made elsewhere.
I'll give you another example from the last CHOGM. People say nothing much came out of the environment conference in Copenhagen. One result did come out, which is a start-up fund of $30 billion. That one decision that came out of Copenhagen was taken a few days before that in CHOGM 2009 and was simply adopted in Copenhagen. So we keep on looking at where we can add national value for members, regional value for our members and global value.
Julia Gillard: Okay we'll take the last three questions, so one, two then three. Yes you?
Callum Macrae: Callum Macrae from ITN Channel 4, also as it happens director of the film Sri Lanka's Killing Fields. I would just like to ask, I know that everybody is waiting for the results of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, but I would just like to ask both of you whether you feel that an enquiry set up by the Sri Lankan government can investigate accusations that that government committed serious war crimes and crimes against humanity. Whether it is actually constitutionally capable of doing what is required? Also, if that commission does fail to meet international standards of transparency and truthfulness, what steps will the Commonwealth take and what steps will Australia take?
Kamalesh Sharma: I think that we must look at what comes out of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission's Report, which is due out in the middle of next month, with an open mind. I don’t think it is right to prejudge a report before it has even appeared.
Sri Lanka is one of the founding members of the modern Commonwealth. In 1949 when the new Commonwealth was created, there were only three countries from the developing world, Sri Lanka was one of them. Sri Lanka is also one of the oldest independent democracies in the developing world. I think Sri Lanka deserves it when it says, look at the work that we are doing, the work of the commission with an open mind.
Julia Gillard: If I could just say, to learn lessons and have reconciliation there does need to be truth telling and we are making that point. Yes?
Melissa Jobson: Melissa Jobson, Global Magazine. To return to the CMAG report and countries violating Commonwealth principles, you’ve delineated the circumstances under which the Secretary-General and CMAG will become engaged. What form will that engagement take? Will CMAG have powers other than suspension and expulsion? You’ve also said that there would be a time frame in which countries that are referred to CMAG would have to respond. What exactly would that timeframe be?
Kamalesh Sharma: The response of the good officers of the Secretary-General, in consultation with the Chairman of CMAG, who can be presumed to be in consultation with the nine foreign ministers of CMAG, will always be very calibrated. The intention behind what we've accepted this morning is to engage constructively to advance all the goals that we have before us. I often say that the spirit in which the Commonwealth acts is not to raise a warning finger but to raise a helping hand. As to how we proceed in each individual case will be dependent upon the responsiveness and the nature of the engagement. On the question of time, to the more serious of the items that I mentioned, a rule of thumb period of about two months has been prescribed. With some of the others that are more structural in nature, it could be longer.
Julia Gillard: I will just take the last question here from Phil Hudson.
Phillip Hudson: Mr Secretary-General, Phil Hudson form the Herald Sun. Yesterday you told us that one of the restrictions the Commonwealth had is that you could see the train crash and only act after it had happened, and now you're excited today that CMAG will have these extra superpowers to intervene earlier when countries are, as you’ve said, veering off the rails. Now that you’ve got these extra powers, are there any members of the Commonwealth right now, that you are concerned may be veering off the rails?
Kamalesh Sharma: Not intervene earlier, but engage earlier. It's always engagement that we look for. One of the principals that we follow for effective engagement is to maintain the climate of receptivity and trust in which we work, and we do it below the radar screen for greater effectiveness. But in some cases, if the progress is not satisfactory in the way in which it is expected now by the CMAG, it can go on the agenda of the CMAG and the CMAG will take a view on how public to make that situation. Of course from time to time it is up to the Secretary-General to make clarifying statements in answer to enquiries or interest as to what exactly is happening. That certainly is open to the Secretary-General to do. He need not be entirely a silent person.
Julia Gillard: Thank you very much.