The Commonwealth and Human Rights
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th January, 2016
The Commonwealth is a rather odd club, made up of 53 states of wildly different size, most (but not all) of which once formed part of the British Empire. They therefore share an interest in the English language, as well as maintaining ties with the old country and among themselves. There is a Secretariat in London and Dominica-born Baroness Scotland is its latest Secretary General, but the organisation does not have the sort of resources at its disposal of a regional body such as the European Union or even the United Nations. But also unlike the UN the Commonwealth has the advantage of being a club, which means that members who misbehave badly can be suspended or even thrown out. Others choose to withdraw instead when the they see that they are in disgrace. Since the beginning the main reasons for exclusions have usually been human rights violations and a democratic deficit, both of which sadly are still evident in some of the current member states. This evening, as the first event of the National Liberal Club’s new Commonwealth Forum, chaired by Lord (David) Chidgey, the writer and longstanding human rights activist Richard Bourne spoke in particular about the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative with which he has been closely involved, but setting this in a wider context. Developing countries tend to highlight basic human rights such as access to food and housing whereas comparatively wealthy countries like Britain put more emphasis on civil and political rights. The latter can sometimes be extremely sensitive, paradoxically because of colonial era laws which are still on the statute books in many Commonwealth states while Britain has evolved in a different direction. Richard Bourne mentioned LGBT+ rights, for example; whereas same sex marriage is now accepted in many ‘developed’ countries, including Britain, homophobic laws are still acted on in some Commonwealth states, such as Uganda and Malaysia. Similarly, whereas long ago the Commonwealth championed the merits of democracy there has been a worrying tendency for some African states in particular to revert to an older model of presidents for life. Because the Commonwealth works by consensus and pressure is brought to bear on misbehaving governments behind the scenes, unless their behaviour is egregious, it is often hard to see what the Commonwealth actually achieves in promoting human rights and Patricia Scotland has a daunting challenge ahead of her to try to change that. But perhaps the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative can quietly chalk up successes while keeping the Commonwealth on its toes.