Commonwealth 'facing irrelevance'

For the Commonwealth's prophets of doom there may have been some subtle symbolism when the Queen and Prince Phillip touched down in Perth on Wednesday before today's leaders' summit.

Most royal commentators believe this will be the 85-year-old monarch's last visit to Australia. Critics warn that unless this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting adopts urgent reforms, the final shadow of imperial Britain will also vanish.

This is a crucial moment for the loose coalition of 54 nations spread across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Caribbean.

As the globe prepares for the population to reach seven billion, the organisation representing almost a third of the planet's inhabitants risks a dive into terminal irrelevance.

The prime ministers and presidents now gathered in Perth are faced with charting a new course to overcome deep internal chasms and regain the grit and eclat that once helped shut down apartheid in South Africa and white supremacy in Zimbabwe.

Critics warn that unless they succeed, continuing to attack only "easy" targets such as Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and Fiji's military junta, and allowing inertia and timidity to replace action, will ensure the Commonwealth is doomed.

"The institution is sleep-walking towards irrelevance," Royal Commonwealth Society chairman Peter Kellner wrote in an article for Trinidad Express Newspapers.

Others have issued equally grim warnings.

Two years ago a Royal Commonwealth Society survey found the institution directionless, without clear aims, "anachronistic and fusty", lacking drive and failing to live up to its values and principles.

A statement to this summit by the Commonwealth Civil Society - a coalition including charities, aid groups, professional organisations and trade unions - urges the Commonwealth to "confront its weaknesses".

And leaders will have before them a report by an Eminent Persons Group attacking the Commonwealth's "decay", its failure to speak out when its values are violated, and bureaucratic complacency and inertia.

Reform has the backing of nations such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain, but the group's specific targeting of human rights and calls for a policy of proactive measures will meet a wall of opposition.

Commonwealth leaders will need to find bridges across an array of other issues, including Europe's financial crisis and its impact on developing members, climate change, food security, the vulnerability of small and poor states and real action for sustainable development.

- NZ Herald

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