As a delegate to The Peoples Forum of CHOGM I spent three days in the company of delegates from diverse Commonwealth countries: large and small, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped, populous and small island nations. It was a rich melting pot of people and ideas centred around civil society and what that means to Commonwealth nations.
A lot of talk was centred around “values”. What are the values that make the Commonwealth a meaningful organisation for its members? Civil society values adherence to human rights; access to health programmes, education, sustainability practices and care for the environment. The Eminent Persons Group spoke critically about the Commonwealth saying that it must reform or die, and that it does not relate to people in their daily lives.
The Group also stated that the Commonwealth was hypocritical and did not live up to is own values, referring in particular to those countries where human rights violations were rife. In an attempt to address this they suggest a Commonwealth Commission for Human Rights, but sadly this was not supported by the Heads of State. A proposal for a Charter however, was accepted. A Charter will clarify the values that the Commonwealth holds to.
The Commonwealth is an amazingly diverse organisation made up of large and small
countries; developed and undeveloped nations; rich and poor, populous and small
island states. The different perspectives that each brought to the discussion made for a very broad and far reaching programme. For example, for Australians Gender and Women’s rights matters might be concerned with equal pay, membership of boards or in parliament. For others it meant taking action against forced marriage and sexual
slavery, or the right to own land.
The Human Rights workshop was marked by robust discussion on indigenous issues, the right to own land, issues specific to some countries e.g. Zimbabwe; and membership of the Commonwealth. There was also general discussion on the worth of the Commonwealth as an organisation and its relevance in the world today. The People’s Forum spoke strongly in regard to membership with particular reference to the Heads of Rwanda and Sri
Lanka. A question arose as to whether it was better to suspend nations involved in breaches of human rights, or whether it was better to keep in close touch with them and work from within.
There was lament at the lack of access for Peoples Forum delegates to the Foreign Ministers and Heads of State. One person from each workshop along with each
convenor presented recommendations and were allowed 30 seconds each to do so.
Delegates consisted mainly of civil society organisations and community representatives. Churches were not broadly represented, yet it is in this mixed interconnected community
that bodies such as the Councils of Churches could have a voice of compassion
and reason. The experience of some post colonial countries however. is that the “church” has been patriarchal and restrictive, if not downright harmful. Tradition has not necessarily seen the wide inclusion of church bodies to the Peoples Forum.
Was it worthwhile for the Ecumenical Ministry Officer to attend? The outcome of meetings such as these is often not immediately apparent, and the value of having the Council of Churches represented may only weave its way into our work far in the future. It is outside of our usual arena, yet I believe it to have been worthwhile to have CCWA involved in this major event in Perth.
Members of the Peoples Forum certainly make up an energetic and active worldwide community network whose work continues between meetings.
Australians were also called to examine our role in regard to refugees and asylum seekers – not only on their arrival here by whatever means, but also in integrating them into
our communities with respect and sensitivity.
Great concern was shown that the next scheduled CHOGM is to be held in Sri Lanka. If that does come about, it is likely that, for the first time ever, a Peoples Forum would be not be held as a parallel event.
http://www.commonwealthfoundation.com is the site for updates and further
information regarding the meeting. Copies of speeches and presentations are also available here. I have some papers at the office if you would
like to look through them, and I would be very pleased to discuss any aspect of
the Peoples Forum with you or your church council. Download the final communique from the link below:
Rev Isobelle Shortreed. Ecumenical Ministry Officer. CCWA