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‘Commonwealth must confront its weaknesses’, say civil society

Posted on 21/09/2011
By Martin Petts

In a strongly worded statement civil society representatives drawn from across the 54 member association have called on Commonwealth heads to act urgently to strengthen the role of civil society in order to become a ‘meaningful vehicle for change.’

With five weeks to go until the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, civil society leader Shantal Munro Knight will address Foreign Ministers from Commonwealth member states at a special meeting in New York. Presenting the 2011 Civil Society Statement that draws on the views of nearly 300 representatives, she will urge Commonwealth governments to include civil society in their decision making.

The statement highlights the disconnect between the Commonwealth’s high level policy making and those at the grass roots which ‘hampers effective action […]. The statement goes onto say that ‘The Commonwealth must confront its own weaknesses.’

Crucially Ministers have an opportunity to respond to these views in the communiqué that they will produce from the CHOGM in Perth in October. It is this communiqué that will set the policy agenda for the Commonwealth.

The statement includes demands to Heads of Government to:

  • Create an independent Commonwealth Commissioner on Democracy and the Rule of Law;
  • Enhance the power and presence of the voice of women at all levels of Commonwealth institutions and processes;
  • Commit to programmes that mitigate the HIV and AIDS pandemic, including decriminalising same-sex sexual conduct;
  • Contribute to the safeguarding of traditional cultures;
  • Protect human rights defenders across the Commonwealth.

Munro-Knight considers this audience to be the first step on the road to a fully inclusive Commonwealth. ‘Failure to include citizens in decision making processes makes for slow and ineffective change’ said Munro-Knight who has been vocal around the Caribbean. She has spent time mobilising citizens to feed into what she cites as a ‘very important process’ and an ‘opportunity that comes only once every two years’. ‘We must continue to show why governments need civil society. We make things happen, we create the change, we are the ones affected by the issues in the world. So we need to be listened to.’