The Prime Minister arrives today in Perth, Australia, for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), straight into a debate over human rights. Some Commonwealth members want the organisation to take a much stronger stand when other members breach fundamental human rights and democratic principles. Others do not. Prime Minister Harper’s statement that he will not attend the next CHOGM in Sri Lanka in 2013 unless the Sri Lankan Government improves its human rights record places Canada in the former category. And given the Rajapakse government’s human rights record, no doubt that is where most Canadians would intuitively want and expect the government to stand.

Although the Prime Minister deserves credit for taking a stand on Sri Lanka, it would be a mistake for Canada to expend effort trying to turn the Commonwealth into the Council of Europe. Even if the Commonwealth could agree on strong procedures to penalise and/or suspend members who abuse human rights or thwart democracy, it lacks both the carrots and sticks needed to make those procedures credible.

At issue in the debate is the report of an Eminent Persons Group (EPG), prepared for the CHOGM. Though commissioned by the Commonwealth leaders themselves, it is proving so contentious that it hasn’t yet been made public. Members of the EPG, however, (among them Canadian Senator Hugh Segal) are speaking out, and leaked excerpts of the report make clear its main thrust, “[t]he Commonwealth is in danger of becoming irrelevant and unconvincing as a values-based association[.]” And further, “[t]he Commonwealth has to focus fresh attention on violations of human, political and civil rights if it is to continue to command attention on behalf of its member states and retain the respect of its own people.”

The EPG recommendations include a proposal for a new ‘Charter of the Commonwealth’ that would set out member states’ commitment to human rights and democracy; reinvigorating a ministerial action group to recommend action in cases where that commitment wanes; and the appointment of a ‘Commonwealth Commissioner to investigate and report on attacks on democracy and human rights.

The EPG highlights a real problem: what defines membership in the Commonwealth? A common link to the British monarchy? Not really: only 16 of the 54 member states retain links to the British Crown. An attachment to the English language? Doubtful, as the Commonwealth excludes the U.S., and Ireland. Other countries with no historical attachment to the English language and never colonized by the British (e.g. Rwanda and Mozambique) are Commonwealth members. In the absence of another rationale, no surprise that the EPG would turn to “values” as a means of solving the Commonwealth’s identity crisis.

But while seeking renewed commitment to human rights principles can’t do any harm, neither will an attempt by the Commonwealth to monitor and report on that commitment necessarily do any good. There is already a plethora of U.N. (as well as regional) reporting, fact-finding and monitoring procedures in place to scrutinize how states live up to their international commitments to respect and protect human rights. What would a Commonwealth Commissioner or a Charter of the Commonwealth add, given that binding treaty obligations to democracy and human rights are already in place?

Proponents of a Commonwealth role in human rights say that existing procedures are ineffective, the U.N. is too politicised, and that some particularity of the Commonwealth would make this new monitoring mandate more effective. Really? The Commonwealth includes countries like Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, which are determined and vocal opponents of rigorous human rights scrutiny in U.N. debates. Romantic appeals to a shared common law tradition are unlikely to convince them to change their tune. There is no political will in the Commonwealth to fund, never mind establish an effective, independent and impartial human rights monitoring procedure. At best, we might see the emergence of something similar to some of the already under-resourced and often politically marginalised U.N. procedures. In which case, why bother? Wouldn’t it make more sense to work to strengthen existing, treaty-based and universal, procedures?

Moreover, even if a strong monitoring procedure could be agreed, what incentive would offending Commonwealth countries have to change their behaviour? Beyond naming and shaming, the Commonwealth wields few sanctions—neither aid, nor trade, nor regional isolation nor even (let’s be honest) very much prestige is at stake. The sole sanction is the one the Commonwealth has imposed in the few cases where it has acted to show its disapproval of unconstitutional transfers of power: suspension of membership. And this has proved no real sanction at all.

Zimbabwe’s temporary suspension from the Commonwealth in 2002 because of Mugabe’s refusal to respect election results simply led him to withdraw Zimbabwe permanently. The current suspension of Fiji due to the military government’s postponement of elections in that country has not made any noticeable impact on the drawn out schedule it had already announced for a return to democracy.

As the EPG notes, the Commonwealth may seem purposeless to the citizens of Commonwealth counties. But it is a mistake to assume that the drafting of a Charter of principles grounded in human rights and the rule of law, and the appointment of a Commissioner to cajole states into compliance, would make any difference. The most likely result would be a heavily circumscribed monitoring procedure that was largely ignored even when it mustered the will to act. Such a result is likely to deepen, not dispel, disenchantment with the Commonwealth.

Where does that leave Prime Minister Harper and his threat of non-attendance in Sri Lanka in 2013? Likely in a lonely spot unless he can quietly convince at least a handful of his fellow Commonwealth leaders likewise to threaten a boycott, and then to make clear to the Rajapakse Government the precise steps that, if taken, would persuade them to attend. Better this focused diplomacy than lofty words about new Charters.

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