Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

  1.  This submission has been prepared and submitted by the Trustee Committee of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). CHRI is an independent, international non-governmental organisation mandated to work towards the practical realisation of human rights throughout the 54 countries of the Commonwealth.

  2.  CHRI notes that the UK Government claims to have made " . . . good progress in getting human rights high up on the Commonwealth agenda."[8] However, CHRI wishes to see a great deal more being done in order to mainstream human rights throughout the Commonwealth and particularly the Commonwealth Secretariat.

  3.  CHRI welcomes the UK Government's support in trying to obtain an expansion of the working remit of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). CHRI has made a submission to every CMAG meeting and continues to argue that, thus far, CMAG has undertaken an unduly narrow interpretation of its role. Consequently, it is failing to fulfil its actual remit and overall potential as an enforcement mechanism.

  4.  CHRI advocates that CMAG's mandate should expressly empower it to deal with "persistent or serious" violations of the Harare Principles[9] and should be proactive within its remit. The Secretary General, in partnership with a "commonwealth High Commissioner for Human Rights" should investigate human rights records of current and possible new members and should apply the membership criteria strictly.[10]

  5.  The High Level Review Group (HLRG) appointed at the 1999 CHOGM in Durban, South Africa, and of which the United Kingdom is a member, to review the role of the Commonwealth in the twenty-first century is one such opportunity. CHRI has made regular submissions to the group and continues to advocate for the centralisation of human rights within all Commonwealth mechanisms. Historically, human rights have underpinned the Commonwealth and it is our contention that the Commonwealth itself needs human rights more than human rights need the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth must publicly demonstrate its human rights commitments, set out in the Harare Declaration 1991, and subsequently reinforced by the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme 1995, in order to live up to the rhetoric of Heads of Government.

  6.  CHRI continues to be concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the HLRG. Little is known about the position of the UK Government within this group and problems have arisen in relation to the "confidentiality" of the draft document—these needs must be addressed in future. Whilst CHRI was grateful to be given the opportunity to attend a HLRG briefing a which the High Commissioner of South Africa and other HLRG member countries were in attendance, CHRI noted the absence of the secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs at this meeting. Presence at such meetings is an important indicator of the regard with which Commonwealth Governments hold the Commonwealth.

  7.  CHRI prepares a biennial report on the situation of Human Rights throughout the Commonwealth to coincide with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM). The postponement of CHOGM in 2001 as a result of world events represents a missed opportunity for the Commonwealth to reassert itself as an international organisation of some consequence.

  8.  It is noted with pleasure that the UK Government is proposing the inclusion of freedom of expression guarantees within the Harare Principles. CHRI would support this, in view of the fact that it is a fundamental freedom that is frequently abused by Commonwealth member states.

  9.  CHRI welcomes the UK Government's recognition of the important role that civil society, including NGOs can play in strengthening the operations of the Commonwealth and its Secretariat. CHRI feels that the knowledge and expertise of "unofficial" Commonwealth bodies is all too often overlooked. There is also a distinct lack of communication and feedback between the Secretariat and such NGOs about Commonwealth issues of interest and relevance.

  10.  Increased collaboration between the Commonwealth, Commonwealth NGOs and human rights offices within member governments should be facilitated. This would enable greater communication, understanding and information sharing.

  11.  The issue of resources continues to be of importance. The activities of the Commonwealth Secretariat continue to be hampered as a result of a lack of funding. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office must continue to ensure that at least a third of the money contained within the Human Rights Fund is utilised for "Commonwealth" research, projects and activities.

  12.  The Human Rights Unit (HRU) within the Commonwealth Secretariat should be strengthened and consolidated. This could be achieved with greater funding, additional staffing, and a direct access to the Secretary General. The UK Government should support and promote this view within the HLRG and to the Commonwealth Heads of Government.

  13.  CHRI welcomes the recognition of the UK Government that Zimbabwe is in breach of the Harare Declaration 1991. CHRI has monitored the situation as it has developed and called for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. The failure of the Abuja Agreement 2001 and the introduction of draconian legislation to curb opposition activities in the run-up to the Presidential elections in March 2002 only reinforce the need for the Commonwealth to take some form of punitive action. This is important as a signal not only to other members that such breaches will not be tolerated, but also to the people of Zimbabwe that the Commonwealth "cares".

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

January 2002

8   United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office-Human Rights Annual Report 2001, p 54. Back

9   Principles set out within the Harare Declaration 1991. Back

10   See paragraph 20, 1997 Edinburgh Communique, Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Back

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