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Commonwealth meeting in human rights row

[telegraph.co.uk, Sunday, 30 October 2011 10:55 No Comment]

The Commonwealth has been branded a "disgrace" for refusing to publish a critical human rights report.

Meeting in Perth, Australia, Commonwealth leaders are also expected to reject a plan to appoint the group’s first ever human rights watchdog, which might have investigated Britain’s record in the war on terrorism.

A group of elder statesmen known as the "Eminent Persons" has drawn up plans to give the 54-member Commonwealth a more active role in its members’ internal affairs through reforms including the appointment of an independent human rights commissioner.

The Eminent Persons Group report concluded that unless the Commonwealth took tougher action on human rights abuses by members, it would lose credibility.

However, despite the backing of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the report has triggered an angry row between members.

It had been due to be published in Perth, following widespread leaks of its contents in recent weeks, but the summit decided on Saturday not to release the document.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary who sat on the EPG, said the decision to withold it was "a disgrace" that would undermine public support for the Commonwealth.

"The Commonwealth is not a private club of the governments," Sir Malcolm said."It belongs to the people of the Commonwealth."

The plan for a human rights commissioner has divided the Comonwealth’s big members.

Britain, Canada and Australia back the plan, and even the Queen tacitly urged members to endorse it, urging "further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow".

Other members, including India and South Africa, say the commissioner would allow richer Western Commonwealth members to interfere in the internal affairs of poorer members.

Malcolm Fraser, a former Australian prime minister, said the commissioner would also focus on the human rights record of intelligence and security services in Western members like Britain.

"Since 9/11, some of the developed countries, I believe, have transgressed quite seriously in relation to human rights in the so-called fight against terrorism, their attitudes towards refugees and sometimes in relations to their attitudes towards indigenous people." Mr Fraser said.

"So, it’s not only going to be African countries that would be subject to reports; Australia would be subject to report, Canada would, and I think that would be good.

The report was discussed at a "retreat" of leaders including David Cameron in Perth on Saturday. A final decision will be announced on Sunday, but because Commonwealth decisions are made on the basis of consensus, officials said there was effectively no chance that the commissioner call would be endorsed.

[Full Coverage]

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