Carr meets Kirby about Commonwealth
Today I met with Michael Kirby to talk about the Commonwealth of Nations. I am going to London for a meeting which will discuss, among other things, the proposal that the Commonwealth should adopt a charter of values.
The proposal for a charter was made last year by the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG), of which Michael Kirby was a member. The Group produced its report after an investigation of ways to strengthen the Commonwealth. The Group reported to the CHOGM meeting in Perth in October. In its report, the Group unanimously recommended that a charter should be adopted. It proposed a possible text for consideration and recommended that this text be put out for debate in all Commonwealth countries for consultation with the people of the Commonwealth.
Yesterday in Ottawa, the Canadian Senate Committee investigating the charter proposal came out in favour of the idea. It proposed the shortening of the text in the EPG Report and further consultation with citizens about what the charter should contain.
Michael Kirby told me that the EPG had been unanimous that the Commonwealth should adopt a charter so as to make the values of the organization known to its citizens throughout the world. About 2.1 billion people are Commonwealth citizens, living in 54 countries around the world. But according to Michael Kirby, most of them would not know of the values for which the Commonwealth stands.
The draft of the charter, contained in the EPG Report, was prepared by Mr Kirby. It drew on the successive statements issued by Commonwealth heads of government at the end of CHOGM meetings, dating back to the Singapore Declaration of 1970.
It has become traditional for the heads of government to issue a declaration reaffirming Commonwealth values at the end of each CHOGM meeting. The idea of a charter is to incorporate the essence of these values in a single document which can be placed in school rooms and become known to Commonwealth citizens everywhere.
The Canadian Senate Committee yesterday suggested a need to abbreviate the draft charter recommended by the EPG. Michael Kirby told me that he agreed with this recommendation. He suggested ways in which the current draft could be significantly shortened.
Michael Kirby said:
When I was a schoolboy, we all received a copy of Eleanor Roosevelt’s universal declaration of human rights. This was a great educational tool and the ideas have remained in my mind ever since. The Commonwealth is a community based on shared history and values. But if no one knows the values, there is always a risk that they will be abused and ignored by leaders and governments.
Amongst the values referred to in the proposed Commonwealth charter are:
– a commitment to international peace and security.
– a commitment to democracy as the central principle for government.
– support for gender equality, tolerance and respect for all.
– re-affirmation and protection of the rule of law and independence of the courts in every Commonwealth country.
– commitment to development and economic equity and an end to unjust discrimination and powerlessness.
Adopting a charter will not solve all the Commonwealth’s problems, Mr Kirby told me. But it would begin the process of providing criteria by which every country of the Commonwealth could be kept up to the mark. This includes Australia. No country is immune from scrutiny in today’s world against the central Commonwealth values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
Mr Kirby pointed out that the idea of adopting a charter had been proposed to the EPG at its first meeting by its Chairman, Tun Abdullah Badawi, past Prime Minister of Malaysia. It had been endorsed by every member of the EPG, which included leading Commonwealth citizens, including, Sir Malcolm Rifkind (past Foreign Secretary of Britain), Ms Asma Jahangir (President of the Supreme Court Bar of Pakistan), Senator Hugh Segal (Canada) and Sir Ronald Sanders (Guyana). The EPG also recommended the appointment of a Commonwealth Commissioner who could receive complaints and gather evidence to help the Commonwealth respond to alleged abuses of its own values. The proposal for a Commissioner is also under current investigation by Commonwealth officials and Ministers.
I am interested in the idea of a charter and said that I would take this idea to the upcoming meetings in London of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group which will be considering the report on the situation in the Maldives.
Michael Kirby was a justice of the High Court of Australia between 1996 – 2009. When he retired from the High Court of Australia on 2 February 2009, Michael Kirby was Australia’s longest serving judge.