24 October 2009

The Commonwealth @ 60

By Marguerite Finn

The last four years have been good years for diamond anniversaries: the United Nations in 2005, the local branch of the United Nations Association in 2008 and now in 2009, the Commonwealth is sixty years old.

All three organisations originated in a world reeling from the devastation of two World Wars, to promote common humanitarian values.

The Commonwealth of Nations came into being in 1949. Committed to racial equality and national sovereignty, the Commonwealth became the natural association of choice for many new nations emerging from decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Queen is Head of the Commonwealth, which today consists of fifty-three independent member states, representing over a quarter of the world's population. Much of the Commonwealth's excellent work goes on behind the scenes, sharing expertise and quietly helping members along the road to democracy.

The Declaration of Commonwealth Principles was issued in 1971 stating: "We oppose all forms of colonial domination and racial oppression and are committed to the principles of human dignity and equality. We will therefore use all our efforts to foster human equality and dignity everywhere and to further the principles of self-determination and non-racialism".

The Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meet next month in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. There will be lots to talk about – including climate change and global economic crises - but behind the bonhomie exist on-going violations of the Commonwealth's core principle of equality. I will focus on just two, which are happening with the connivance of two of its biggest members: Australia and India.

The Australian Government has bowed to the uranium mining industry at the expense of the Aboriginal people, over the issue of mining royalties. Having carved up swathes of Aboriginal land for uranium extraction, the government proposes the mining company pay royalties only if they are making a profit! Senator Scott Ludlam says this will disempower the Aboriginal people, leaving them with a lasting legacy of uranium-contaminated land and no compensation. A recent study shows that cancer rates among Aborigines near Australia's biggest uranium mine appear to be almost double the normal rate, yet a Commonwealth scientist denied that communities living near the mine are being exposed to "abnormal levels of radiation". The Rudd Government appears seduced by the uranium mining industry as it continues to follow the wishes of the Uranium Industry Framework, an unrepresentative, industry-dominated body created by the former Howard Government

A similar situation exists in Orissa in India – involving the British company Vedanta. The British Government demanded a change in the company's behaviour after investigating a complaint submitted by Survival International against Vedanta's proposed bauxite mine on the Dongria Kondh's sacred mountain. The UK ruled that Vedanta did not consider the impact of the construction of the mine on the tribe's rights and failed to put in place an adequate consultation. Vedanta refused to participate in the investigation. Prize-wining author, Arundhati Roy said: "If Vedanta is allowed to go ahead with its plans for mining the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa for bauxite, it will lead to the devastation of a whole eco-system and the destruction of not just the Dongria Kondh tribal community but eventually all those whose livelihoods depend on that ecosystem". Meanwhile, the Indian Government encourages and protects Vedanta.

Here we have two Commonwealth countries in breach of Commonwealth Principles. Could the CHOGM meeting in November put pressure on the Australian and Indian governments to uphold the rights of the indigenous peoples in their countries, showing that principles still count for more than corporate greed?

1969, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Arnold Smith said: "The Future of the Commonwealth will be what its member governments, its member peoples and those who represent them in member parliaments, choose to make of it". In 2009, are its member peoples playing second-fiddle to corporate interests?

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