The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 countries committed to the shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The UK sees the Commonwealth as an important partner to promote democracy and human rights globally.
We believe that the Commonwealth’s reputation has in recent years been damaged by its silence on human rights concerns in some member states. Against this background, the UK Government is committed to strengthening the organisation to enable it to promote more effectively its core shared values. Our focus in 2012 was on work to improve its institutions and mechanisms. Our broader policy aim is to help the Commonwealth target its limited resources more closely on areas where it can add value and have a positive impact, such as its well-respected election observation work, its convening and advocacy power, and its focus on supporting small states.
Our activities in 2012 built on the outcomes of the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011, where it was agreed that the Commonwealth’s core values should be set out in a Commonwealth Charter; the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) should have a stronger mandate to deal with serious and persistent violations of those values; the Secretary-General should have a more vocal role; and further consideration should be given to a proposal to appoint a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights.
In 2012, the UK played a prominent role in discussions on modernisation. First Lord Howell and subsequently Mr Swire, as Minister for the Commonwealth, helped to secure positive outcomes at a specially convened Ministerial Task Force meeting in June and at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting in September. On 19 December, the Secretary-General and Prime Minister Gillard of Australia (Chair-in-Office) announced that Heads of Government had endorsed a number of reforms and agreed the Commonwealth Charter.
The Commonwealth Charter was agreed on 14 December. It opens with the Commonwealth’s commitments to democracy and human rights and includes clear language on opposition to discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or on any other grounds. It also affirms a commitment to freedom of expression, gender equality, rule of law, good governance and the role of civil society. See the charter online at:
As part of the reform package, Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed to address the “specific needs of women in all aspects of law, public policy and public resources” to ensure that they are not discriminated against in law or practice; to take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede an effective response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic; and to establish or strengthen independent national or regional human rights institutions in accordance with the UN’s Paris Principles. They also agreed stronger roles for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s election observation work and its advocacy of women’s issues.
The UK supported the proposal for the appointment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights to serve as an independent figure to provide well-researched, reliable information on serious or persistent violations of democracy, rule of law and human rights in Commonwealth member states, and to propose action to address them. Despite our advocacy, there was widespread opposition to the proposal, however, on the grounds that the role would duplicate those of the Secretary-General and CMAG, and no consensus could be reached. Instead, it was agreed that additional resources would be allocated to support and enhance engagement by the Secretary-General and CMAG with member states on issues of concern. We welcome this commitment and look to the Secretary-General to ensure that it is incorporated into the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
The UK, although not currently a member of CMAG, has supported implementation of its stronger mandate. We welcomed the group’s response to the political crisis in the Maldives in February. We also note that the Secretary-General has begun to use his enhanced role to raise the profile of the Commonwealth, including by issuing more public statements on human rights concerns. We would, however, like to see CMAG address a broader range of human rights concerns and make a larger contribution to raising human rights standards across the Commonwealth.
In 2013, the UK will work to support implementation of the reforms which have been agreed. We want to embed the charter as a tool to protect and promote Commonwealth core values, and will work to raise its profile in the UK, particularly among Parliament, civil society and young people. We will continue to engage with the Commonwealth on human rights issues and encourage a stronger, more active role for CMAG in responding to human rights concerns. In parallel, as they adopt a new strategic work plan, we will press the Secretariat to implement their commitment to increase resources in support of CMAG’s work.
The next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held in Sri Lanka in November 2013. Ahead of the meeting, we will continue to press Sri Lanka, as with any other CHOGM host, to demonstrate its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights.