The Commonwealth Summit and Human Rights Debate


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

Safeguarding human rights is such a lofty ideal that nation-states with diverse socio-political and economic set ups proclaim that they respect this basic human value. As the term is contested, and as there are divergent interpretations as to what exactly constitute human rights, the debates about it have often pushed the nations towards contestation and conflicts of interests. As the debate involving human rights does not stand in isolation, as it revolves around rights of human beings who live in state and society, various factors come into picture. The human rights pronounced universal and upheld by the United Nations Charter are often seen through the prisms of national interests, economic development, and many other considerations. The Vienna Convention of 1993 introduced the concept of relativity in its ambit, which was earlier considered absolute at least by some nations. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth the last week of October 2011 brought forth this stark divergence among the members of grouping towards crafting a body called Human Rights Commissioner towards upholding human rights in member countries.

The Commonwealth currently comprises 54 members, formerly ruled by the British. The countries include some of the emerging powers like India and South Africa (also members of BRICS) and developed countries like UK, Australia and Canada. The association which had emerged, to quote India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as a body based on ‘goodwill and to be terminated by goodwill,’ to encompass in its membership countries from six continents with diverse socio-economic and political set ups, and also with least developed, developing and developed status. The meeting at Perth was designed to deliberate, among other issues, about establishing a body called human rights commissioner as a statutory body to oversee protection of basic human rights in member countries. The idea was mooted by the committee called Eminent Persons Group, established last year under the Chairmanship of a former Malaysian Prime Minister. The proposal was opposed by various countries on the premise that there is already an international body called United Nations, which through its various agencies and conventions enforces human rights. Hence, emergence of another statutory body with powers will lead to duplication of efforts, and also may lead to friction of efforts of these bodies.

There are also many other crucial issues which must be taken into account. Human rights in no doubt a lofty ideal, its importance in the governance of people and nations needs to be emphasized. But the problem starts after that. Who will define the exact contours of human rights? Are these values are universal, or are they context specific? Whose rights are human rights?  Because what may seem to one power violation of human rights, may seem to another power a necessary action for protection of vital interests. The situation becomes further complicated, when the issue of human rights is linked to territorial integrity and sovereignty of a nation-state. Most of the nation-states are heterogeneous in their build up, and there are fissiparous tendencies in these nation-states due to divergent pulls and pressures of forces, which are at times aided and fuelled from outside of the boundaries of the nation-state. It is important in this case a needed mechanism to reconcile divergent interests within the multiethnic and pluralistic framework. The signing of declaration on protection of multiethnic and pluralistic societies between India and Russia in 1994 is instructive in this context, as it emphasized on pluralistic values while respecting diversities but without denting heterogeneous state structure. Sri Lanka, which is hosting the next CHOGM summit in 2013, strongly opposed the establishment of the new human rights body on the similar pretext. It is another debate whether Sri Lanka duly protected the rights of minority Tamils in its territory, but its elimination of LTTE cadres and leaders cannot be solely counted as pure human rights violations. LTTE was one of the most dreaded organizations in the world, which introduced many dreaded concepts like suicide bombing, child-soldiers, and had its own armed forces.

When human rights are in salience with national reconciliation without any imposition or force, and when both go in tandem, the results can be harmonious and long term. How to bring two divergent aspects together is undoubtedly a daunting task, but perhaps that is the most effective way to address human rights concerns. The recent case of Myanmar is instructive in this context. For decades, international criticism poured in along with sanctions, which made Myanmar’s economy crippled and its military junta further rigid.  Last one year’s developments show that a gradual approach from within, without much external pressure, can work miracles. The decision of the elected rulers of Myanmar to free political prisoners and start dialogues towards national reconciliation are welcome steps in this context. Similarly, in the case of Sri Lanka, the government can be nudged but not hectored, to bring reconciliation and harmony in the war torn country. Any imposition from outside may work contrary to the intended purpose. The foreign minister of Trinidad observed in the summit, “There have been a few blips like in any part of the world but I don’t think it demanded a commissioner.”  Perhaps the methods of impositions and sanctions are methods of a bygone era, where bloc politics and military supremacy were governing the relations among nations. In the post-cold war era, where economic diplomacy reigns supreme, and nation-state identity and consciousness are becoming increasingly assertive, it is almost impossible to impose policies without active consent of rulers of a nation-state and its people.

The Perth Commonwealth summit also brought forth many other stark realities. In the era of shifting power alliances, and in an era where the power centres are moving in different directions, the making of rules and regulations will be driven not by few established powers, but by the wider group of nations, impacted by the exigencies of prevailing situations, which in turn are determined by the rising concerns of economic development, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Though some critics call it a ‘talking shop,’ the utility of the diverse body lies in its importance as a platform where the emerging nations from various continents express and share their views. Its pronouncements on various issues like Millenium Development Goals, maritime security, counterterrorism, etc. are welcome. The members’ commitment to ‘unequivocally preventing the use of their territories for the support, incitement to violence or commission of terrorist acts’ and to ‘accelerate efforts to conclude negotiations on a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism’ are the steps in right direction. At the same time, as the deliberations on human rights commissioner indicate, the members will not be interested to succumb to pressures, which they consider antithetical to their national interests, whether by the grouping, or bodies created by the grouping towards impacting their national policies.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics. 


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Nov 2011.

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