News / Asia

Australia Warns Commonwealth Could Slide Into Irrelevance

Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting in Perth, Australia, October 26, 2011
Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting in Perth, Australia, October 26, 2011
Phil Mercer

Australia is warning that the grouping of former British colonies - the Commonwealth - must become more modern and open or risk sliding into irrelevance. Commonwealth leaders are gathering in the Western Australian city, Perth, for a summit that is held every two years.

Host of this years Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, Australia says the organization, which has been accused of being cumbersome and unwilling to make tough decisions, must become more relevant in a rapidly changing world.

The government in Canberra says although the Commonwealth must go through a process of renewal, it still has an important role to play in global affairs.

Shared history

The grouping is bound by a shared history as former British colonies. It has more than 50 members across six continents, including Ghana, India, Tonga and Malaysia.

Australian Special Minister of State Gary Gray says the alliance is as relevant as ever.

“I think CHOGM has an enduring purpose. Anything that brings together 50 or more of the world's prime ministers and presidents to engage in global issues - CHOGM represents every continent," Gray said. "CHOGM represents a multitude of global organizations from the G20, the G8, the African Union. It is an organization which is as cosmopolitan as our globe itself.”

Comprehensive review

Two years ago a comprehensive review of the Commonwealth was ordered by its senior members, to assess the organization’s direction and purpose.

It is expected to recommend the establishment of a charter of Commonwealth values and the appointment of commissioners for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Analysts say the Commonwealth has often lacked authority in the past because of its preference for solving difficult issues quietly, behind closed doors.

Leaks of the report published in an Australian newspaper claim the Commonwealth is plagued by organizational “decay” that has allowed members to breach human rights and democratic conventions.

Accountability

Samuel Makinda, a professor of politics and international studies at Perth's Murdoch University, says the Commonwealth needs to become more accountable and brave.

“People want more transparency," noted Makinda, "and transparency requires that the Commonwealth countries come out openly and criticize each other, if they believe they have gone off the road.”

Although modernizing the organization will be a key focus of this year’s summit in Perth, food security, gay rights and the status of women will also be on the agenda. Alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka are also expected to be discussed.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth officially opens the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting Friday.

Although many Commonwealth members, such as South Africa and Pakistan are republics, others like New Zealand and Australia are constitutional monarchies, where the British queen is the head of state.

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