Democracy, good governance and the rule of law are fundamental values for the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Charter enshrines participation in democratic processes as an inalienable right, acknowledges the importance of the separation of powers between three branches of government and upholds the importance of a free and active civil society. As such, a key goal of the Commonwealth is building, supporting and strengthening the legal systems of its member countries to support democracy and the rule of law. This aim is pursued by encouraging member states to hold regular elections, as well as by strengthening election bodies, institutions and processes. Since 1980, the Commonwealth has observed more than 130 elections in 36 countries, the latest of which was Tonga’s 2017 national election.
In order to deploy an observer team, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth must receive an invitation from a member government or electoral commission. Elections are monitored by specialist observation teams, supported by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which provides oversight into the factors which affect the credibility of electoral processes. Following the election, the team of independent observers offers its impartial assessment and issues constructive recommendations where necessary. Additionally, in 2010, the Commonwealth Electoral Network (CEN) was established by the Secretariat as a platform for sharing good practice in electoral management from across the Commonwealth. The CEN organises working groups on a host of electoral issues, including voter education, registration and electoral participation, the independence of election management bodies, and campaign spending and financing.
At The Royal Commonwealth Society, we facilitate the greater understanding of the Commonwealth’s democratic structures among young people by organising Model Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (model CHOGMs). Similar to a Model UN, these events allow young people to act as the heads of Commonwealth governments and engage in diplomatic discussions from the perspectives of the countries they are representing. These simulations provide students with an in-depth understanding of how the Commonwealth’s unique consensus-driven process works, through active engagement and participation.
Democratic institutions from across the Commonwealth continue to collaborate to strengthen democratic oversight and accountability. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), for example, represents a forum for Commonwealth parliamentarians to come together and contribute to strengthening the role of parliaments in providing strong democratic oversight across the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, strengthening local democracy across the Commonwealth is the mission of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF); through its unique membership CLGF brings together local government ministries with local government representatives in 47 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. CLGF has adopted the framework of the Aberdeen Agenda; a set of twelve core principles for local democracy and good governance, endorsed by Commonwealth Heads of Government and incorporated into the Commonwealth Charter. Using the Aberdeen Agenda as a guide, CLGF works to support the institutions and processes of democracy, by strengthening local government legislation, governance systems, community participation and the meaningful role of women in local governance.
Beyond elected representatives, Commonwealth civil society organisations also contribute to upholding democracy and the rule of law. The most prominent is the Commonwealth Foundation, an international organisation established by Commonwealth Heads of Government in support of the core Commonwealth principle that the Commonwealth is more than a collection of governments – it is also an association of citizens. Its role is as the Commonwealth agency for civil society, funded by governments and dedicated to strengthening public participation in all aspects of public dialogue in democratic societies.
Professional bodies also strengthen democratic institutions across the Commonwealth. For example, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) facilitates exchanges between professional lawyers, academics and students to drive improvements in legal practice and education. The CLA regularly organises projects, conferences, working groups and workshops that strengthen Commonwealth legal systems and the role of the judiciary. Likewise, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association aims to emphasise the practicality of legal education and to make it socially relevant through the development of law curricula and teaching methodologies, the facilitation of continued legal education and distance learning, as well as the provision of support to law schools.