Commonwealth leaders talked through the day at a summit Saturday without nailing down how to deal with urgent human rights reforms deemed critical to the organization's survival.
The 54-member Commonwealth is still haggling over how to hive off various reform recommendations, despite dire warnings from an “eminent person's panel” that failure to act immediately will imperil the association.
The summit had been billed as a last-chance opportunity to revive the relevance of the 80-year-old international grouping before it heads to troubled Sri Lanka for its 2013 leaders' conference.
An internal, 200-page report flatly asserted that the future of the Commonwealth is in peril if it can't credibly address human rights, democratic and rule-of-law abuses by some of its member states.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had expected a final communiqué to be completed by Saturday night, scrubbed plans for an early departure because key details remain on the table for Sunday's closing session.
Mr. Harper did not speak with reporters but frustration was etched on the faces of the Canadian delegation.
What emerged from the cloistered leaders' retreat was a clear indication that much-needed reforms will indeed be “kicked into the high grass,” the very outcome that members of a Commonwealth-appointed reform panel say is unacceptable.
All that remains to be seen is which of the 14 top priority reforms remain in play on the fairway and which are lost in the rough.
Officials, speaking on background, said the leaders are now simply working on how to “stream” the various proposals — a bureaucratic exercise that threatens to bury reforms while avoiding turning any of them down flat.
The day opened with the chairman of the reform panel saying it was “imperative” that the 2011 biennial summit, known as CHOGM, accept his team's massive report, along with a speedy timeline for implementation.
“If this CHOGM does not deliver such reforms, it is our duty to sound the caution to you that this CHOGM will be remembered not as the triumph it should be, but as a failure,” said Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the former Malaysian prime minister.
The panel's report, which officially remains under wraps but has been widely leaked, baldly asserts that possibly terminal rot has set into the Commonwealth due to its silence about abuses, including forced marriages, laws against homosexuality and political repression.
Among other things, the report calls for a new commissioner of human rights to investigate abuses, and the repeal of anti-gay laws that still exist in 41 Commonwealth nations.
The report speaks frankly of a “decay that has set into the body of the organization, and one that will occasion the association's irrelevance — if not actual demise — unless it is promptly addressed.”
The malaise was reflected in the fact that only 36 of 54 countries sent their heads of government to this year's summit, despite the attendance of the Queen.
That those leaders couldn't even agree to publicly release the report was deemed “a disgrace” Saturday by British panellist Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign minister.
“Clearly there are some people at this meeting for whom silence is the best option,” said Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, Canada's representative on the panel.
“Would silence have been a way to bring apartheid to an end?”
The Commonwealth of a previous generation was instrumental in shining an international spotlight on member nation South Africa's systemic racial discrimination.
South Africa, Namibia and India are among the countries who now object to the proposal for a rights commissioner.
It appeared late Saturday that the creation of that office, along with other key recommendations, would get punted to a future foreign minister's meeting for deliberation.
India's foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai, was quoted by Indian media as saying his country opposes the new office because it would be a costly duplication of work already being done by the United Nations.
Mr. Mathai said there was a “lively debate” over the panel report's recommendations, and diplomatically suggested that the notion of a rights commissioner needs “further examination and clarification in many areas.”
Sir Ronald Sanders, who represents small Commonwealth states on the report team, likened any such move as having the recommendations “kicked into the high grass.”
But the pre-emptive barrage from the panel appointed in 2009 to revitalize the Commonwealth appeared to fall on deaf ears.
The leaders' talks were characterized by insiders as meandering rather than acrimonious, suggesting a puzzling lack of urgency.
And a sudden and unexpected lock-out Saturday by Australia's national airline, Quantas, over a labour dispute also taxed the resources of summit host, Australia's pro-labour Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Seventeen delegations at the meeting had booked flights home on Quantas, further throwing the conference into disarray.
The day was not, however, entirely a write-off.
Canada announced it will spend an additional $600 million over three years on sustainable agricultural development, more than doubling its original aid pledge from the 2009 G8 summit.
Harper also announced increased aid for a decade-old global polio eradication program, committing another $15 million over the next two years toward that goal, adding to the $348 million Canada has spent since 2000.
Follow us on Twitter: