Observations from the CHOGM People's Forum

Bruce Argyle attended the CHOGM People’s Forum on behalf of Philanthropy Australia last week.

As part of the various meetings and fora held in conjunction with the Commonwealth Heads of government Meetings in Perth, the CHOGM Peoples Forum (CPF) brought together 250 civil society representatives from across the Commonwealth to share ideas and to respond to issues under the theme ‘Driving Change for a Dynamic Commonwealth’.

The program included eight themed workshops;

  1. Governance and Democracy
  2. Gender and Women’s Rights
  3. Indigenous People
  4. Education, Technology and Innovation
  5. Culture, Identity and Peace
  6. Economic Development, Trade and Finance
  7. Climate Change, Environment and Disaster Management
  8. Human Rights

The People’s Forum was opened by the Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard who spoke about the CPF being a place for promoting democracy and civil society, representing over 2 billion people from 54 countries. She encouraged those present to ensure that civil society brings commonwealth values to life on a daily basis.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah (‘Danny’), Interim Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, highlighted that, in order to remain relevant, the Commonwealth needed to return to focusing on both values and on value-adding in terms of adding value to people’s lives.  Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary General of the Commonwealth highlighted these values as including tolerance, respect and understanding and cited the Commonwealth as being the original worldwide web.

Phiroshaw Camay, Chair of the Commonwealth Foundation, spoke about the Statement on Civil Society that has been developed and highlighted the importance of education as a fundamental human right.  Ingrid Srinath, Secretary CIVICUS, The Global Society for Civil Society, took the assembled group on a journey of civil society … through the heady optimism of the 1990’s to the war on terror and increasing levels of disparity around the world.  This has been mirrored by an increase in criminalisation of dissent in many countries.

There was a strong focus on civil society throughout the Forum sessions and an encouragement to ‘join the dots’ through partnerships and collaboration. Interestingly, Facebook was cited as the largest example of civil society on the planet. Commonwealth connect was launched as a new platform for building closer connections between people in the Commonwealth.

Three recommendations forwarded to the Heads of Government were:

  1. To see civil society as a resource and as allies of government
  2. To instruct public servants to work more closely with civil society
  3. To instruct the Commonwealth Foundation to take on a facilitator role to make the above happen.

Sir Ronald Sanders spoke on behalf of the EPG (Eminent Persons Group) that was set up in 2009 to frame a report for the Heads of Government on reforms for the Commonwealth. This report includes 206 recommendations but has yet to be made public (much to the consternation of delegates present). It is said to include recommendations for a Human Rights Charter, the establishment of a Commissioner for democracy and human rights and an expert group to look at the impacts of climate change for member countries.

On Wednesday evening a panel of human rights advocates included the Hon Michael Kirby who spoke to the topic ‘Silence is not an option’.  Participants were strongly encouraged to speak up for human rights as part of civil society. In terms of Commonwealth priorities this included speaking up on:

  • Early and forced marriages
  • Racism
  • Rights of women and girls
  • Impacts of climate change

Climate change was highlighted as an area that the Commonwealth needs to adopt a much stronger position on, given the huge impact likely to be seen on small Pacific islands and low lying countries. Speakers included Daisy Cooper, Director of the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau who gave clues to how increased efforts could be achieved; Nicholas Watt of the Commonwealth Ecology Council spoke about the need to establish marine parks and sustainable fisheries (‘If we don’t have fisheries on the agenda then by 2050 we won’t have fish on the menu’).

On the final afternoon participants were delighted to have two special guests speak about the need to finish the task of totally eradicating Polio. It was noted that there are now only four countries and 1% of the world still have Polio (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria) but speakers highlighted that we cannot afford to rest before total eradication. The first guest was Ramesh Ferris, a polio survivor from India, now living in Canada. He talked of his own experience and how he was provided rehabilitative support and corrective surgery.  The second was Hugh Evans, CEO of Global Poverty Project (previously Oaktree Foundation) who talked about the need to raise funds to remove the final traces of Polio. Without this a further 10 million children will get polio over the next 40 years.  A special concert is being held for Polio in Perth during CHOGM and Julia Gillard announced that  Australia will commit to providing $50M of additional funds to address polio. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are also contributing $40M.

The Commonwealth People’s Forum provided an opportunity to see firsthand how civil society can engage around shared values to address global issues and to be a part of framing future directions. Against a backdrop of needing to ensure relevance it was great to network and be a part of a worldwide web of very diverse peoples.

» Click here to visit the official CHOGM website

Nov. 02, 2011

 Tags: what's new, topical issues, news, indigenous, government, general, environment, education, arts, advocacy

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