PERTH, Oct 28 – Queen Elizabeth II opened the 54-nation Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on Friday where issues from human rights to succession to the British throne are being discussed.,
Leaders were greeted with a traditional indigenous cleansing ceremony at the Perth Convention Centre by elders from the Noongar Aboriginal tribe before dance performances amid tight security.
The monarch said she was delighted to be in Perth “for a meeting that promises to bring new vibrancy to the Commonwealth”.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the host, told the gathering that it was vital for the Commonwealth bloc to move with the times.
“The world has changed, and a wise institution changes too,” she said.
“So as the Commonwealth journeys towards its centenary, it is time for renewal. To answer the question posed of our organisation – how do we best pursue our timeless values in a world of change?
“Let us make CHOGM 2011 memorable for answering this question. Memorable for being the meeting that gave the Commonwealth the direction it needed at a time of global uncertainty and risk.”
Outside the summit venue, thousands of police were on city streets 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.
About 1,500 people gathered nearby were planning to march in solidarity with the Occupy movement against corporate greed and the growing rich-poor divide.
The CHOGM Action Network is also concerned about alleged human rights violations in Commonwealth countries, accusing Sri Lankan President Mahendra Rajapakse and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame of war crimes.
Police have been given special powers to deal with any protests and can search people at will and ban known activists from entering special zones.
“I think the authorities in the lead up have undermined their commitment to support peaceful demonstrations through intimidation. The repression has been intense,” Colleen Bolger, a spokesperson for CHOGM Action Network told AFP.
Most Commonwealth leaders are attending the summit, although Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pulled out without giving a reason while Britain’s David Cameron is arriving late after attending the eurozone debt crisis talks.
Reforming the Commonwealth as it struggles to remain relevant in the 21st century will be a key focus for the grouping, composed mainly of former British colonies and embracing two billion citizens.
Like Gillard, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned the bloc must heed the “clarion call” for reform.
Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma said the three-day meeting would consider a series of proposals, including establishing an independent commissioner to monitor human rights.
But local reports said the centrepiece of the recommendations was in danger of being rejected, with India and South Africa firmly opposed to the creation of a rights watchdog.
Leaders will also discuss proposals to change the rules for the line of succession to the British throne, with the subject taking on new momentum since the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton in April.
Other issues set to be tabled are the laws in many Commonwealth countries which criminalise homosexual sex and the prevalence of forced marriages of young girls, with some of the bloc’s members among the world’s worst offenders.