Multilateral institutions are precarious ventures. Very often, they outlive the purposes for which they are created and history leaves them behind. The Non-Aligned Movement aimed to evade superpower rivalries. The end of the Cold War robbed it of its raison d’etre. There are other examples.
Today, the Commonwealth faces a similar risk. At its heads of government meeting, that concluded in Perth, Australia, on Sunday, it narrowly averted a controversy that would have led to disunity, if not fission, in the group. Under a series of reforms being deliberated to reinvigorate the group, one idea was to appoint a human rights commissioner for the Commonwealth. The proposal—shelved for now—was strongly opposed by, among others, Sri Lanka.
Human rights violations are a blot on any civilized country. In most countries, there are agencies that specifically address these questions. Their efficacy varies due to different reasons. In India, to give one example, a proactive human rights commission, coupled with a very strong civil society, has ensured that abuses are not rampant. There are variations in other countries, depending on their historical circumstances.
The appointment of a human rights commissioner is linked to the purpose and aim of his appointment. If the goal is to eliminate abuses, then probably it is too ambitious a goal. For however wide the ambit of such a person may be, he will remain external to the rights situation in a particular country. His ability to change the course of events is likely to be limited at best, and for all practical purposes, non-existent.
The Commonwealth probably realizes that. And the goal of a commissioner is more likely to be geared towards persuading member states to behave and also report to the grouping on the human rights situation in Commonwealth countries. It is here that matters get tricky. How is one to distinguish between mere persuasion and active attempts at arm-twisting? Take the Sir Lankan case. The country has just been through a vicious civil war that lasted 24 years. In such situations, abuses on both sides are frequent. The Lankan case is complicated by the fact that it was not an ordinary civil war for gaining power in the country, but a secessionist war waged to create a separate state. Any country is bound to resist that. Appointing a commissioner, who will have a mandate to needle countries when they encounter secessionist situations is bound to rankle.
Human rights issues ought not to be dismissed. But if the Commonwealth is serious about addressing them, then a more effective mechanism needs to be devised. That will require persuasion of another kind, one that a group-wide rights czar cannot muster.
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