Thank you, Chair and members of the committee, for your interest.
When the heads of government of the Commonwealth met in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in October of 2009, there was a concern expressed about the Commonwealth perhaps losing a little bit of its relevance, not being as crisp and clear about its core values, and not perhaps engaging as dramatically as might be necessary on some of the issues that affect the 54 countries that are members of the Commonwealth and the 2.4 billion people who are Commonwealth citizens.
In that respect, they put together a so-called Eminent Persons Group that was to advise the meeting, which is beginning later this week, on what steps might be taken to increase the impact of the Commonwealth and to better protect its core values of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights, and on what can be done for the Commonwealth to be a more effective organization overall, both in terms of the secretariat in London and the way in which Commonwealth resources are spent.
Just so members of the committee are aware, the Commonwealth Secretariat has a budget of about 40 million British pounds a year. That's a little bit under $80 million Canadian. It has a staff base of about 275 to 300 people, based at Marlborough House in London, England. We have one Commonwealth agency in Canada, the Commonwealth of Learning, which is based in Vancouver and operates to provide distance learning education right across the Commonwealth, in a host of different languages, in support of the broad goals of development and economic expansion.
We met as a group under the chairmanship of Tun Abdullah Badawi, who is the former Prime Minister of Malaysia. We had people in our group representing all the regions of the Commonwealth. It was a group that was extremely diverse.
Members who sat on it were: Dr. Emmanuel Akwetey, who is the head of the centre for the study of democracy in Ghana; Patricia Francis of Jamaica, who heads the Geneva-based International Trade Centre; Asma Jahangir, a human rights and civil rights activist in Pakistan who has been in jail several times in defence of an independent judiciary and who was the winner, this last year, of the Diefenbaker award for international championship of human rights; Sam Kavuma, from Uganda, who is the chairman of the Commonwealth Youth Caucus; Mr. Justice Michael Kirby, who is the former Chief Justice of the High Court in Victoria, Australia; Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is a member of Parliament now in the U.K., chairs the parliamentary committee on national security, and was the defence minister in the Thatcher administration; Sir Ronald Sanders of Guyana, former High Commissioner in London; and Ieremia Tabai, who was the Prime Minister of Kiribati, in the Pacific Ocean, one of the smallest countries in the Commonwealth.
I had the great privilege of working with them. We met for five different meetings, mostly in London, and once in Kuala Lumpur, and we came up with a report that has over 200 pages and 106 recommendations. The report should be made public formally later this week, but the truth is that in May of this year we put our core recommendations on the Commonwealth Secretariat website.
Before we did that, we had received over 350 submissions from groups right across the Commonwealth. When we put the core recommendations on the website as terms of our initial thinking, we received another 150 submissions in response, from governments within the Commonwealth, individual groups, and individual citizens. So in that sense, we worked as hard as we could to be as open as possible about the process.
The core recommendations—and I won't go through all 106, because I know how precious your time is—really relate to the core values of the organization. We think that we should take all the declarations that have been made about human rights and democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of women's rights over the years by the Commonwealth and consolidate them into one charter of the Commonwealth so that everybody understands the core principles very much at play here.
We're calling for the creation of a Commonwealth commissioner for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, who would give direct advice in circumstances where, let's say, countries wish to join the Commonwealth, advice about whether or not they conform to the core values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights, and also to give specific advice when countries veer off those core principles and are still members of the Commonwealth.
Members of the committee will recall how strong the Commonwealth was on the issue of apartheid, when the Commonwealth took a stand in opposition to Mrs. Thatcher at the time in terms of supporting those efforts and democratizing South Africa. Recently, the Commonwealth has suspended Fiji because there was a military coup. There was a temporary suspension of Pakistan when it wasn't clear whether there was going to be a military dictatorship or an open democracy. Once they went back to democracy, they were invited back in. Members will also recall Rhodesia.
Our view is that we need a commissioner who will work full time on those issues so that when, for example, countries bring in legislation that targets people who happen to be gay, as we have seen in some countries, or in a fashion that would violate core principles of human rights, the commissioner can engage and begin to work either to get that matter addressed or to begin a process of considering whether that country's membership in the Commonwealth, over time, is still appropriate in view of the particular human rights stance it has taken. It's the sort of thing that might, for example, engage Sri Lanka in our present circumstance, were that position in place.
We've also taken the view that there should be a specific criteria for the way the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group considers these issues, so that there are automatic trigger points, for example, if an election is cancelled without consultation with the opposition. It was the case in one country where the Commonwealth was sending representatives to be observers on election day and the entire opposition was arrested three weeks before the election. There should be automatic triggers by which the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group begins to consider what disciplinary or other engagement is necessary.
We made a very strong recommendation with respect to working with the smaller countries in the Commonwealth on their behalf with the larger international financial institutions--and some of the smallest and poorest countries in the world are in the Commonwealth--to make sure these countries are treated fairly.
We also think the Secretary-General should have a precise mandate from the heads of government, which hopefully he will be granted when they meet later this week here in Perth, to speak out clearly and precisely when there are violations of the core values of the organization and not have to wait for a consensus to be formed before he or she is able to speak.
Finally, we made a series of recommendations with respect to young people and women. We'd like to see the establishment of a Commonwealth youth corps, where young people from throughout the Commonwealth can have work, development, and educational opportunities--and in sports as well--in other Commonwealth countries so as to build that sense of common opportunity and common heritage.
There is a particular focus with respect to asking governments to repeal those laws that make homosexuality illegal, which exist in many Commonwealth countries, making it very difficult for proper treatment programs to be launched for HIV/AIDS. The sad truth is that Commonwealth countries have very serious numbers in terms of HIV/AIDS, numbers that are worse than countries outside the Commonwealth. We see this as quite a serious priority.
We also make recommendations with respect to youth entrepreneurship and internships across the Commonwealth, with a particular focus on the rights of women in terms of participation and in terms of dealing with laws in some of our Commonwealth countries that victimize women in a way that is completely unfair.
That's the general drift, Mr. Chairman, of where the report goes. I'd be delighted to answer any questions in the time you have available.