Panellists Human Rights Event FCO

An event on human rights, held at the Foreign Office, and including eminent speakers from across the Commonwealth and with a range of policy backgrounds, is always going to be popular. It is also most certainly going to be controversial and ask some important questions. Last night’s occasion ticked these boxes, sporting a full house from academia, government and civil society who all came with serious questions about the role of the Commonwealth in pushing forward a human rights agenda, its successes, and its failures.

Two key issues that were mentioned by the panel, and by Baroness Warsi in her speech, are the retention of the death penalty across 35 Commonwealth states, and the criminalisation of homosexuality in over 40 member states. LGBTI rights formed a central part of the Q&A section following the panel discussion, and many guests clearly felt this is a central issue to be addressed in the Commonwealth. This is unsurprising, given that for 92% of Commonwealth citizens, it is illegal to be homosexual.

The criminalisation of homosexuality clearly contravenes the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, as set out in the Charter, which has been adopted by all member states. The charter underlines a commitment to freedom of expression, and the promotion of tolerance, respect and understanding. It also states a commitment from all member states to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Persecution of individuals on the grounds of their sexuality clearly denies the right to freedom of expression, and subjects the individual to arbitrary interference with his privacy and family life, which is protected under Article 12 of the UDHR.

This issue along with others discussed, such as early and forced marriage, business and human rights and the death penalty, encounter the same difficulties. Purna Sen emphasised that many of the structures of the Commonwealth form a barrier to human rights progress. Sen alluded in particular to the small budget assigned to the Human Rights Unit at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the fact that governments of member states must ask for assistance, which rarely happens given that it is government actions that often need to be addressed.

Another shortcoming is that the Commonwealth Charter, like the UDHR, is not a legally binding document. Members are free to contravene the fundamental values it sets out with impunity. Finally, an issue that wasn’t discussed at the event but that is a key area in which progress can be made is the appointment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights, as recommended by the Eminent Persons’ Group in 2011. This would provide an independent office within the structures of the Commonwealth with the power to investigate human rights abuses, and provide guidance on best practice to all member states.

Whilst the tone at the event was often one of frustration, there are certainly positives to be taken away, and arguably it is important to have these in mind going forward to achieve real change. Baroness Warsi noted that “we should not underestimate the achievement in agreeing the Commonwealth Charter”, given that “it is never easy getting consensus within an international organisation”. The Commonwealth, after all, comprises 50% of the world’s citizens, with differing cultural backgrounds and economic and social priorities. Rajiv Joshi noted that there are few other international settings where some of the world’s poorest and richest countries can enter into meaningful dialogue, allowing space for economic rights to be realised.

There is a long way to go with human rights in the Commonwealth, but it was clear from the event that there is a solid foundation on which to build, central to which is the Commonwealth Charter. What needs to come next is increased accountability of member states for actions that contravene the values that they have all claimed to support.

The Royal Commonwealth Society will continue its focus on human rights in the lead-up to the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Valletta. A full report from last night’s event will be published on our website soon, and we will soon post details of follow-up work to allow the conversation to continue.