Commonwealth defends relevance,faces human rights finger-pointing

Sun Oct 30, 2011 3:24pm IST

* Leaders agree to intervene earlier on human rights

* No agreement on human rights commissioner

* Climate change action encouraged, no progress on child brides

By Rebekah Kebede

PERTH, Australia, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Commonwealth leaders on Sunday defended their moves to toughen support for human rights, rejecting criticism the group was becoming irrelevant and had failed at their three-day summit to hold member Sri Lanka accountable for alleged abuses.

But several leaders of the 54 mostly former British colonies, meeting in the remote Australian city of Perth, supported less than half recommended reforms put forward by an eminent persons group.

A key proposal to set up a commissioner for human rights was opposed by several leaders, including South Africa, India and Sri Lanka.

"With these discussions and the significant reforms we have agreed, I believe we've made a major contribution towards ensuring the Commonwealth is an institution that is well-positioned for the future," Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters on the final day of the summit.

But critics said those measures fell short, and focused on the leaders' inaction over Sri Lanka which will be host of the next summit in 2013. Canada has already threatened to boycott that meeting unless Sri Lanka improves its human rights record.

"It is an absolute disgrace that Commonwealth leaders have agreed to hold their next meeting in Sri Lanka in spite of its appalling human rights record," Amnesty International's national director Claire Mallinson said.

Sri Lanka was defiant and told critics to reserve judgment until it releases an internal report on alleged atrocities in the final stages of the 25-year-long civil war which ended in 2009.

"Sri Lanka has nothing to fear and is happy to face any audience anywhere in the world," G.L. Peiris, Sri Lanka's Minister of Foreign Affairs told a news conference.

In its final communique, the Commonwealth committed to helping small island states, which make up more than half of its membership, cope with the effects of climate change and said there was a need to work towards legally binding measures like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Many small island nations fear being wiped off the map by global warming and were pressing for a strong statement ahead of the international summit on climate change in South Africa next month.

"Climate change issues are not something that is happening in the future. It is happening now and we must deal with it now," Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the small island nation of Maldives said. He applauded Australia's recent carbon tax as a model for other nations.

The Commonwealth failed to take action on two other issues on its agenda-- child brides and HIV-AIDS. Twelve of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child brides are in the Commonwealth. Sixty percent of the world's HIV-AIDS population live in the Commonwealth and health advocates say laws in 41 Commonwealth states making homosexuality illegal have hindered the fight against the disease. (Additional reporting by Michael Perry, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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