UK wants 'reinvigorated' Commonwealth

2011-10-27 14:15

Perth - Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague on Thursday called for an end to discrimination against gays and the scrapping of the death penalty as he urged the Commonwealth to embrace reform.

Calling on the assembled leaders to heed the "clarion call" for reform, Hague said the 54-member Commonwealth grouping should act as a greater force for democracy and prosperity and speak out on pressing social issues.

"It is the view of the United Kingdom that the next days can and should be defining ones for the Commonwealth," he told a people's forum in Perth, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to begin on Friday.

Speaking at a meeting of Commonwealth leaders, he said the group tasked with developing options to reform the bloc - an Eminent Persons Group commissioned in 2009 - had found a need for change.

"And their clarion call for reform is one we should not ignore, whatever the precise details of what we agree to do," he said.

"The case for reinvigorating the Commonwealth is abundantly clear and Britain whole-heartedly supports the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group.

"In particular, we welcome their focus on promoting the values of the Commonwealth."

Hague said as problems became increasingly global - from financial crisis to climate change - the Commonwealth was the "ultimate network".

Yet while the organisation had taken strong action on human rights in the past, expelling apartheid South Africa from its ranks, it had not reacted as quickly to more recent problems.

Key challenges

"In recent years it has sometimes shied away from key challenges and has not always spoken out as clearly and decisively as it could have done, failing for example to take action on the human rights situations in Zimbabwe or Fiji before they became extreme."

Hague said Britain wanted to see the Commonwealth strengthening its role as "a standard bearer for human rights and democracy".

He said this meant Britain favoured the Eminent Persons Group's recommendation for a charter for the Commonwealth, and supported the push for a Commonwealth commissioner for democracy, rule of law and human rights

But re-emphasising values should not involve "one group of countries lecturing" others, but learning from each other to raise standards, he said.

"The United Kingdom for instance would like to see the Commonwealth do more to promote the rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens," he said.

"It is wrong, in our view in Britain, that these groups continue to suffer persecution, violence and discrimination within the Commonwealth. And that many members have laws criminalising homosexuality.

"Britain also wants to see the death penalty abolished throughout the Commonwealth."

Old British Empire laws against gays are still in force in 41 of the 54 member nations. These include statutes against homosexual sex.

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