Mon, Oct 11, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Commonwealth in turmoil over human rights

By Julian Borger  /  The Guardian, LONDON

The Commonwealth has abandoned its commitment to defending human rights, according to a leaked document obtained by the Guardian in which the secretary-general tells his staff it is not their job to speak out against abuses by the 54 member states.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have both said they will put new emphasis on the Commonwealth in Britain’s foreign policy. However, the organization’s London-based institutions, the secretariat and the charitable foundation, are both in turmoil, riven by disputes over their purpose and direction, as well as internal wrangles over the treatment of staff.

Coming soon after the well-publicized shortcomings in India’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games, the latest revelations about dysfunction within the secretariat and foundation are likely to add to questions over what the Commonwealth is for. The most threatening internal rupture is over human rights. Staff at the secretariat were furious when the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations Kamalesh Sharma remained silent over a series of abuses by member states in recent years.

For example, when Gambian President Yahya Jammeh threatened to behead homosexuals in 2008; when government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of widespread atrocities at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka last year and when a Malawi court in May sentenced a gay couple to jail for being homosexual, the secretary-general ignored calls from secretariat staff urging him to express concern at least.

“All those cases were all about the values the Commonwealth is supposed to stand for and we failed,” one staff member said. “I feel we could become moribund.”

In response to complaints from employees, the secretary-general’s office told his staff that the institution had no obligation to pronounce on the issue.

“The secretariat ... has no explicitly defined mandate to speak publicly on human rights,” Sharma’s office told senior staff. “The expectation is that the secretary-general will exercise his good offices as appropriate for the complaint and not that he will pronounce on them.”

Human rights activists said the comments represented a reversal of the Commonwealth’s tradition of speaking out over gross abuses, such as apartheid. They said the secretary-general was contradicting a key policy document adopted by Commonwealth heads of state in 1995 that calls for the “immediate public expression by the secretary-general of the Commonwealth’s collective disapproval of any such infringement” of democratic values and fundamental human rights.

Purna Sen, head of the secretariat’s human rights unit, said on Friday: “We have been accused of being over-cautious. Our work below the radar is extremely important, but we need to explore more fully where we can make public statements. Public comments need not be condemnations, but we need to defend our values.”

Others question whether quiet diplomacy by the secretariat has been effective, as states have little to fear from the Commonwealth.

Danny Sriskandarajah, director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, said: “I recognize the Commonwealth often works behind the scenes, but without public achievements on its values it will lose credibility.”

“Many of the Commonwealth institutions were created in the 1960s and have structures and hierarchies that now seem outdated. It needs to modernize its institutions if it wants to be fit for purpose in the 21st century,” he said.

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