CHOGM in Perth, Australia
PERTH: Commonwealth leaders Saturday met to thrash out key reform proposals seen as critical to the bloc remaining relevant, but a contentious human rights plan appeared deadlocked.
The grouping of 54 mainly former British colonies is under huge pressure to move with the times with its head Queen Elizabeth II on Friday saying it must adapt to remain "fresh and fit for tomorrow".
Central to reform is a report two years in the making from the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which was created after the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to answer criticism that the bloc was failing to uphold democracy and human rights.
At the heart of its 106 recommendations is the creation of a commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights and a charter which puts in writing the values upheld by all member nations.
Leaders were spending the day at "retreat" talks in Perth's King's Park discussing this issue.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said they would also focus on health, food security, sustainable development and climate change.
Rich countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada favour a stronger focus on human rights but many other developing nations resent outside influence.
Emmanuel Akwetey, one of the 11 members of the EPG, said if the key recommendations were not embraced, it would set back the bloc.
"There will be a sense of collective failure in terms of leadership," the Ghanian said Saturday.
"We are yet to see (from the leaders) a very serious fight for the life and soul of the Commonwealth, on the basis of our report."
Even Gillard appeared to water down expectations Saturday, saying any reforms, such as a rights watchdog, could only be adopted if there was consensus among all members.
"But I'd like to remind people that progress has already been made during the course of discussions," she added, citing a move to give Commonwealth foreign ministers more powers to deal with human rights breaches.
This step, announced Friday, would allow the bloc to intervene or engage earlier with governments in danger of violating human rights and the rule of law.
The EPG, chaired by former Malaysian prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was put together following criticism that the group was becoming irrelevant and in opening the summit the queen made specific mention of it.
She urged the meeting of Commonwealth leaders to embrace the reforms.
"I wish heads of government well in agreeing further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow," said the monarch, who leaves for London later Saturday.
"We should not forget that this is an association not only of governments but also of peoples," she added.
Hugh Segal, a Canadian senator on the EPG, urged leaders to give equal attention to other crucial issues, such as climate change and debt for small states, as well as HIV-AIDS and rights of women.
"I'm hopeful... that the leaders will come up with a more slightly activist conclusion as to how to proceed," he said.
The summit is being held amid heavy security with the centre of Perth in virtual lockdown to deter potential terrorist threats and limit any protests by those wanting to emulate the global "Occupy" movement.