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Evidence of meeting #8 for Foreign Affairs and International Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was egypt.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Barbara Martin  Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Marie Gervais-Vidricaire  Director General, Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Jeffrey McLaren  Director, Gulf and Maghreb Relations, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Hani Tawfilis  Board Member, Mississauga, Canadian Coptic Centre
X  As an Individual
Antoine A. Malek  Chair, Coptic Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal
Hugh Segal  Ontario, CPC

10:20 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

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.

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Senator.

We have about 15 minutes left, so I'm going to suggest that we have a question of five minutes from each party. We'll get one round in.

I'm going to start over at the NDP with Madam Laverdière.

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Senator, for this very interesting presentation that goes over a lot of ground. I have to say that personally, maybe because I'm a former Commonwealth fellow, I'm a strong believer in what the Commonwealth can achieve. I always like to cite what it has done on apartheid. It's a key organization.

I have two questions on your presentation.

If I remember well, within the Commonwealth Secretariat there was a democratic development division or section. If we get a commissioner on democracy, what will be the relationship between the commissioner and that section of the secretariat?

10:30 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

That's a very important question. Our recommendation, very simply, is as follows. We would probably like to see a budgetary amount somewhere in the vicinity of 500,000 British pounds associated with the creation of this position, and some technical support. Also, we would like to see the democracy programming part of the secretariat report to that person.

We believe that individual should report simultaneously, for administrative purposes, to the Secretary-General and, on substantive issues, should be reporting to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. Classically, whether that person was based in London or not--and we're of the view that the Commonwealth may be a little too London-centric, and that it would be better if the footprint of the Commonwealth around its 54 countries was larger and London was a little bit smaller--ideally, that would be an individual who would be able to coordinate and stimulate the program.

We have a section in our report that talks about a secretariat “fit for purpose”, which is a very British expression, as you will recall from your diplomatic days, and which means spending its money properly. We don't think the present mix of expenditures in the secretariat focuses on the kinds of priorities around human rights, rule of law, and democracy that should be central. We'd like to see some reallocation of funds within that context.

So ideally, this would produce a free-standing commissioner who had more authority and who worked full time on human rights, democracy, and rule of law issues with an energized group working with him and with a solid basis throughout the Commonwealth. That would be the perfect outcome, were we to be successful with this report.

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Thank you very much.

Very briefly, what discussions are happening right now around Sri Lanka's human rights record? Will the Commonwealth still be pushing for an independent international investigation?

10:30 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

Thank you, Madam.

First, as you will know, the Prime Minister of Canada has been very clear on this issue. He signalled some weeks ago that he was not prepared to agree to attend the next meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, which is scheduled for Sri Lanka in two years, unless there is progress precisely along the lines you have delineated.

My understanding is that the Australians are working diligently to achieve that kind of progress. While I don't see it as being a dominant issue in the meetings--I won't be in the meetings, as they are just for heads of government--I'd be very surprised if the meetings passed without some very clear and brusque discussion on the matter.

The notion of some independent assessment I think is one that everybody understands very clearly. The proposition that has been advanced by some that there is a war going on and people die in wars can best be responded to by the notion that we do have the Geneva Convention, which actually treats how people who surrender or non-combatants have to be treated in a war. The UN, as members of the committee will know, has already expressed very strong concern about what happened with the so-called disappeared during the end of the war, the ending process, and I can't imagine that moving on to Colombo will transpire unless there is clarity on that issue.

10:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you very much.

We're out of time. We'll move to quick rounds here.

You have five minutes, Ms. Brown.

10:35 a.m.

Conservative

Lois Brown Conservative Newmarket—Aurora, ON

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Senator. Thanks for staying up so late. My daughter did her master's degree in Australia, so I know how difficult it is to connect time-wise.

I have a great appreciation for the Commonwealth and the fact that we share so much in our ideology and philosophy. I believe there are great opportunities for us to build on those relationships.

I wonder if you would expand a little more on the issue with youth. Is this looking at perhaps moving the barriers to visas or any of those barriers that would inhibit young people from being able to move and take up opportunities?

You talked about youth entrepreneurship. Is that going to take youth from, say, Canada and put them into other Commonwealth countries, or allow them the opportunity to go there and establish businesses that could then build on foreign trade? Can you expand on that a little bit for us?

10:35 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

Sure.

The first goal is to take the very constructive premise of the Commonwealth scholarship...which has gone on for many years, and has facilitated young people from across the Commonwealth doing their graduate work in other Commonwealth countries and coming back with all those linkages. The notion is to take that same premise and say that between high school and university, it would be very good if young people in the Commonwealth had a program that was a combination of organizations like Canada World Youth, for example, and similar organizations around the Commonwealth that would link up.

Young people could go from Canada to Ghana, let's say, or from India to the Caribbean, to work for a six-month period where they are either working in entrepreneurship or improving their own educational exposure, or being given some mentorship in an industry or business or not-for-profit organization. It would give them great value and skill sets that they could then take home and use constructively in their own countries, all with the benefit of the Commonwealth experience.

Now, as you will know, Canada is one of the countries that have moved ahead to say that when foreign students come to study here, the notion that they might apply to stay while they are foreign students and continue to work here with those linkages is now something that's part of our immigration policy. Clearly, as you dovetail the sort of thing we're talking about in terms of young people and their mobility with existing immigration policies in some countries that are less restrictive, and other countries not quite as restrictive, then you might be able to see some of the fallout that your question I think implies.

Certainly all of us around the table, the ten of us who sat around the table, believe that. The richness of the Commonwealth experience, the broad range of cultures and languages, the broad range of religions and cultural expressions--those are things we'd like all young Commonwealth citizens to be exposed to. It will make for a better world. It will make for a stronger Canada.

10:35 a.m.

Conservative

Lois Brown Conservative Newmarket—Aurora, ON

Certainly the opportunity for a young person to go into another country and to see the opportunities there may very well be the genesis of new business transactions between Canada and another Commonwealth country that could be built on for trade, wouldn't you think?

10:35 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

No question about it; those are the vital linkages between networks that make such a huge difference.

It was Her Majesty the Queen who said a few years ago that the Commonwealth was the ultimate Internet network. It was the ultimate World Wide Web network that connected different people of different cultures, backgrounds, ages, financial capacity, geography, and religion.

Our task, as a group giving advice to the heads of government, was to ask how we can maximize that, how we can make that a truly living and dynamic instrument to assist the development of young people right across the 54 countries.

10:40 a.m.

Conservative

Lois Brown Conservative Newmarket—Aurora, ON

God save the Queen.

10:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Ms. Brown.

We're now going to turn it over to Mr. LeBlanc.

We're sorry to see that your engaging friend isn't here with us any more.

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Yes, I know that colleagues will be disappointed that Mr. Karygiannis didn't stay for this important discussion.

Senator Segal, thank you very much for joining us. Some people said that you're staying up late; I'm afraid you're just getting ready to go out, Senator. The idea that you'd be going to bed at 10 o'clock certainly doesn't make a lot of sense to us.

10:40 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

I'll take advice from you on how best to do that.

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Yes--and not in an open committee.

10:40 a.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Senator, thank you for the work you've done with respect to preparing this report. I think what we've seen of the recommendations, and you referred to a more formal release of the report, says something very constructive about Canada's engagement with the Commonwealth and the leadership that we've historically shown in this important organization. Your work in that respect I think is witness to that proud history.

I wanted to ask you two specific questions--without prejudging, of course, the heads of government meeting in the next few days. Do you have a sense from your colleagues working with you on the panel, or from discussions you've heard in Australia, of where the specific resistance would come from with respect to the recommendations? I think the recommendations are rather fulsome and appropriate.

In other words, where will the opposition come from? I think we may have a sense of what specific countries, but have you been getting a sense of how vigorous the opposition will be to many of those recommendations, and from where it will come?

Then, perhaps as a follow-along, what influence do you hope the Commonwealth, and the heads of government particularly, may have with some of these recalcitrant members or some of the countries that would obviously cause us more concern than some of the others? Can the Commonwealth still exercise with many of these countries on the issues that you outlined in your earlier comments? Can we be an effective source of influence and pressure to bring about the change that we're all hoping for?

10:40 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

Thank you for that question.

Let me deal with the second part first. It was Lord Howell, the British minister responsible for Commonwealth affairs, who said, at a meeting of the Commonwealth foreign ministers at the UN three weeks ago, that one of the reasons countries want to be in the Commonwealth is that membership implies a certain stability of government, a certain respect for the rule of law, and a certain respect for human rights.

Quite frankly, when companies are thinking about where they want to invest, where there is the stability to advance their shareholders' interests by building infrastructure or making other kinds of contributions, Commonwealth membership counts. Therefore, one of the most significant leverage points that the Commonwealth as an organization has on any of its members that might drift off the core values is the fact that, in the end, they can be excluded.

This is what happened in the battle over apartheid. This is what happened with respect to Rhodesia. This is what happened with respect to Fiji. When that exclusion takes place, it does have a significant impact. That point of leverage is the way in which those countries that are very much in support of this report—and I think they are a strong plurality—are working on some of their colleagues who are not quite so well disposed.

The points of anxiety for the countries that are not well disposed really very much to the commissioner or human rights, rule of law, and democracy. I think they fear that the commissioner would be an individual who would pass judgment publicly on the quality of their democracy and cause them more grievances, more international difficulties. For some, I know, the word “commissioner” implies a commissioner of police

The truth of the matter is that whether the commissioner is called a high representative or a special envoy or a special ambassador matters less than the fact that they have a clear mandate to engage on these issues and to work, not only.... As we've seen in some recent African elections, there was an observer team looking at recent elections, such as, for example, in Uganda. That observer team was headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Mrs. Billie Miller from Barbados, and she said election day went well. On the counting of the ballots and the structuring of the vote, all of that seemed to go according to Hoyle, or according to the rules.

But there are some core issues with respect to a level playing field on party finance and the way in which that part of the system operates. So now there's an agenda on which the Commonwealth can work with our Ugandan colleagues to improve the quality of their election laws in a fashion that strengthens their circumstances.

So we see the Commonwealth commissioner that we have called for working in that kind of constructive way. Can it lead in extremis to the exclusion of a country? Yes, it can, but our view is that it need not be the case if there is a common will on both sides to make real progress.

On the financial side, some countries will worry that the cost of our recommendations will be too high. It is our view around the table—the view of those of us who worked on it from the different countries and regions—that when you have a budget of about $80 million Canadian a year, the ability to reallocate about 5% to meet the new obligations that Commonwealth priorities might require is not onerous. It is doable.

Of course, that requires a secretariat that's both fit for purpose and prepared to make changes. All over the world, the governments that send money to the Commonwealth are making changes because of the fiscal and economic circumstances we all face. We don't think the secretariat should be immune from that.

Monsieur LeBlanc, those are the two areas where the strongest opposition has been launched. So far in the public domain, the only country to speak publicly against recommendations is Sri Lanka; I think that's been recorded in some Sri Lankan newspapers today. Otherwise, I think there's a bit of back-and-forth negotiation going on, even as we speak. I can't give you a prediction on how it will come out, but I understand the discussions are quite robust.

10:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Senator, thank you very much for your time. We look forward to seeing you when you get back to Canada. All the best.

10:45 a.m.

Ontario, CPC

Senator Hugh Segal

Thank you very much, Chair, and thanks to colleagues on the committee.

10:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

The meeting is adjourned.