Much the Queen’s man

November 7th, 2011

Of all the international multilateral groupings in the world – EU, WTO, UN, ASEAN, SAARC, and so on - it is the most civilised: all members of the Commonwealth play cricket, drive right hand cars on the left of the road, swear by the values of democracy and education and just love the Queen. Pakistan is now in but Zimbabwe and Fiji are still out, Rwanda is the newest member in, South Sudan wants to join and the Commonwealth’s Geneva office is addressing  the needs of small states in the organisation. This is the body that Kamalesh
Sharma is going to steer for the another four years, as Secretary General.

One could ask, as a plaintive blogger did, (sic) “Can someone explain what’s the point in today’s world of the Commonwealth?

Does the Commonwealth do anything or mean anything or is it just a talking shop”. The grouping does celebrate a sense of common values, though this can detract from the main menu sometimes. Some years ago, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala, Uganda, for instance,  a Jamaican journalist said she feared that Pakistan would dominate CHOGM, at the expense of the real issues on Caribbean minds – like financial compensation for the end of sugar regimes, or the unfair demands made on African-Caribbean-Pacific countries in the Economic Partnership Agreements being negotiated with the EU.

But at perth where the Commonewealth conference has just ended, the menu was clear: a strong message against terrorism.

Terrorism has crept into Nigeria. It has also recently happened in member-countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Uganda, Kenya, India, Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. Pakistan was very much on the same page on all issues: including the reelection of Sharma.

“Pakistan fully supports the extension in the term of Mr Sharma,” an official Pakistan statement said. India proposed 70-year-old Sharma’s name for a second term at the concluding session of the CHOGM and Pakistan seconded it. The move follows India’s backing of Pakistan in recent elections for a non-permanent slot in the UN Security Council.

But this will be an easy act for Sharma to follow, who, having been  Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Uruguay Round negotiator, Kofi Annan’s Special Representative to East Timor and also the editor of an anthology of poetry, knows a thing or two about reconciling contradictions. In his first term, Sharma replaced the well-loved Don McKinnon, former Foreign Minister of New Zealand who also completed two terms in the post . Mckinnon’s most endearing quality was his sense of humour, and Sharma proved he was not wanting in that department. When a Pakistan journalist asked if a 70 year old would be able to handle the strain of work of a second term Sharma (and not Australian Prime Minister and host Julia Gillard who made the announcement) said: “In life it does not matter how old you are, but how young you think.”

But Sharma will face significant challenges in his second term. At Perth, The Commonwealth has rejected the proposals by its Eminent Persons Group (EPG) advising the Commonwealth to appoint a Commissioner for Human Rights and also refused to publish its controversial report which political observers say is based only on the interests of a few countries.

Instead, the Commonwealth nations empowered their foreign ministers to intervene if member states denied their citizens of human rights or threaten the media or judiciary.
The Commonwealth leaders bowed to pressure from South Africa and Namibia and declined to publish the EPG report, which proposed the creation of a new commissioner on the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

The concerns of the African nations, shared by India, feared what one Commonwealth source described as the “imperial overtones” in the report’s 106 recommendations.

Interestingly, Sri Lanka, which, could be argued is guilty of gross human rights vioilations against its minorities, has offered to host the next CHOGM summit due in 2013. Many of the western nations present at CHOGM, Perth are strongly critical of Sri Lanka. They will have to swallow their disapproval of Sri Lanka’s version of multiracial democracy.

The Commonwealth ministerial action group will also be empowered to pressure and condemn nations over cases of election rigging, detention of political leaders or postponement of elections. Australia praised the leaders for agreeing to all 35 reform proposals presented by the action group of nine foreign ministers, which is chaired by Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

“This will enable the Commonwealth to act, when a country has been veering off course in terms of democratic values and the rule of law, rather than waiting until it has gone over the cliff to a grossly unacceptable state, and the leaders would only have the options of suspension or expulsion,” the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

Much is being made of the diplomatic triumph India has achieved in Sharma’s selection for another term – for there is no voting for the job. He came to the job with flawless credentials and experience. But now, he belongs, not just to India, but to the 53-member Commonwealth.

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