Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

  1.  The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is a non-governmental coalition of the bodies listed above, founded in 1987, and mandated to work towards the practical realisation of human rights within the 54 countries of the Commonwealth. Originally based in London the head offices of the organisation moved to New Delhi, India, in 1997 and a third office in Accra, Ghana, is planned in the near future.

  2.  The CHRI's core programmatic areas of work include: prison and police reform, the right to information, human rights commissions, constitution-making and human rights advocacy. Beginning in 1991 with Put Our World to Rights, the CHRI has published biennial reports just prior to the meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government. Its report to the 2001 CHOGM in Brisbane is to focus upon economic, social and cultural rights protection and the Commonwealth record since the Harare Commonwealth Declaration of 1991. The CHRI also conducts fact-finding missions to Commonwealth countries facing particular human rights crises, and has published reports of its missions to Nigeria (1995), Zambia (1996), the Fiji Islands (2000) and Sierra Leone (2000).

  3.  This memorandum is presented by the Trustee Committee of the CHRI—comprised of representatives of the seven sponsoring organisations with some additional members—which holds residual powers for the continuance of the CHRI and responsibilities deriving from its location in London.

  4.  The CHRI welcomes the increased attention shown to the Commonwealth in the FCO's Human Rights Annual Report 2000 compared to its reports in previous years. The CHRI see this as a positive step towards highlighting human rights concerns within the Commonwealth and the mechanisms available for human rights protection within the Commonwealth framework. The attention given by the report to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) as the guardian of the Harare Declaration is also to be commended, particularly as the proposed expansion of CMAG's remit is under consideration by the High Level Review Group chaired by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.

  5.  However, the CHRI recommends that further consideration be given in the report to the progress, or otherwise, of human rights concerns through Commonwealth ministerial meetings. Such an examination would give a fuller picture of the institutions of the Commonwealth and its capacity to influence human rights considerations. Recent meetings of Commonwealth women's affairs ministers (New Delhi, April 2000), law ministers (Trinidad and Tobago, 1999) and education ministers (Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 2000) have all provided occasions for debate on and commitments to the domestic implementation of the Harare Declaration and other international human rights standards. These meetings also allow for a more detailed analysis of particular areas of human rights protection, such as the consideration given by Commonwealth health ministers meetings to the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. As such they provide key fora through which to assess the commitment of the Commonwealth to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

  6.  The CHRI also recommends that the Human Rights Annual Report reflects on the degree to which socio-economic issues and questions of development are flagged during the meetings of Commonwealth finance ministers. Whilst attention is given to the principles of human rights and good governance enshrined in the Harare Declaration, the development aspect of the Declaration is often underplayed. The meetings of Commonwealth finance ministers, who last met this September in Malta, are a key stage through which the promises pledged at Harare toward development and socio-economic rights could be translated into tangible policy.

  7.  An examination of the Commonwealth by the Human Rights Annual Report at all its variegated levels—including ministerial meetings. CMAG, CHOGMs and the current High Level Review Group—would provide a more rounded analysis of both the Commonwealth's current activities within the field of human rights, and its potential for further action. For example in a recent publication Realising Human Rights for Poor People, the Department for International Development whilst commending the Commonwealth as "playing an important role" and being "particularly well placed to help member governments address controversial and politically sensitive issues", rightly concluded that it "could usefully do more" (p 21, October 2000). This position is strongly endorsed by the CHRI and forms the basis of the organisation's 1999 report on the downsizing of the Human Rights Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Rights Must Come First.

  8.  The Human Rights Annual Report 2000 highlights the Commonwealth election team of 40 observers sent to Zimbabwe to monitor the elections in June. In the past decade election monitoring has been a keen area of interest for the Commonwealth—with 32 missions having observed elections in 23 countries. However, taking into account the key focus the Commonwealth has placed on election observing, the report fails to make any critical observations about the successes or failures of these efforts or the longer-term benefits of such missions for the processes of democratisation. For example, no mention is made of the appalling precedent set by the Commonwealth Secretariat in accepting the Zimbabwe government's stipulation that no member of the Commonwealth election observer team should be of British nationality. As the CHRI submission to the September meeting of CMAG in New York made clear,

    "It takes little imagination to realise where this can lead. Will the Commonwealth allow an observer group to use its name in watching a future election on the Fiji Islands, if the national government has debarred participants from India or Pakistan?"

  In the light of this worrying precedent the CHRI urges the FCO to examine more fully the activities of these observer missions which constitute a sustained area of interest for the Commonwealth in underscoring free and fair elections and the rule of law.

  9.  The CHRI welcomes the current discussions occurring under the High Level Review Group as to the reform of CMAG, and the role of the British Prime Minister in helping to launch this initiative. However, the CHRI is deeply concerned by the apparent lack of transparency surrounding the processes of the Review. The result of this approach has been that not enough is currently known about the position of the UK at the High Level Review Group. It is believed that the UK is taking a strong but generally unpublicised stance during these deliberations on the future of the Commonwealth. The CHRI calls upon the UK government to actively work towards making both its own position and the review process itself more open and transparent so that the citizens of the Commonwealth are able to take an informed and intelligent interest in the discussions at hand.

  10.  It is noted that the Commonwealth is an association of peoples as well as an association of states, and that the deliberations of the High Level Group will mean nothing if they have not been informed by the voices and opinions of the people of the Commonwealth. The CHRI calls upon the UK government to use its position within the High Level Review Group to promote a full and systematic exchange of information between the Review and civil society. Such a dialogue, necessitating the dissemination of accessible and relevant information from the Review Group and a participatory submissions process to take account of the views of civil society actors, would ensure the people of the Commonwealth enjoy a sense of ownership with the Commonwealth of the twenty first century.

  11.  The CHRI welcomes the British Government's position highlighted in the FCO's report that CMAG should concern itself with a wider range of abuses of the Harare Declaration than it is presently mandated to do. The CHRI urges the British Prime Minister, through the High Level Review Group, to continue to push for an expansion of CMAG's role, augmenting its current focus on the overthrow of constitutional government to deal with more widespread violations of the Harare Declaration. Areas for CMAG to be concerned include countries devoid of a plural, democratic and rights respecting polity, and serious and persistent abuses of human rights. The CHRI also commends CMAG's recent position—following its Chairperson's Statement on Zimbabwe and Cameroon in May 2000—in informally reviewing serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms falling outside the bracket of the illegal overthrow of an elected government. The speed at which political crises emerge worldwide renders it necessary for the Commonwealth to raise issues at the ministerial level through CMAG without waiting upon the biennial meetings of Heads of Government. For it to be an active and meaningful player in the protection of human rights, the Commonwealth must be vested with a rapid reaction mechanism to provide timely and effective assistance to those within the Commonwealth whose rights stand in danger of being trampled over. For this reason it is essential that CMAG be given the discretion to widen the scope of its focus and the CHRI hopes that this will be recognised and underlined by the High Level Review Group during its forthcoming considerations.

  12.  The CHRI also hopes that the Review Group will examine the follow-up resulting from the deliberations of CMAG meetings and ensure that these deliberations are backed up by tangible efforts to protect the Harare principles. CMAG has drawn some criticism for its perceived ineffectuality against the Nigerian military dictatorship, its failure to move swiftly over Sierra Leone and its limited impact in the normalisation of The Gambia or the return to democracy in Pakistan. However, its authority is not drawn from any treaty and its means of standard setting derive from the power to admit or exclude from the family of Commonwealth nations. That those who have been expelled or suspended so readily wish to return speaks for the desirability of Commonwealth membership. CMAG must now work to deepen its engagement with those states experiencing periods of human rights crisis. In its submission to the 1999 meeting of senior officials reviewing the future of CMAG, the CHRI suggested both an engagement with foreign ministers from countries showing worrying trends of rights violations (as part of an enhanced focus on crisis prevention within CMAG and the Commonwealth as a whole), and strengthening relations with civil society actors particularly in its visits to monitor countries under review, as two means of fostering a more sustained and meaningful relationship with states experiencing troubling periods of democratic turbulence.

  13.  The CHRI also welcomes the presence of the Rt Hon Robin Cook MP at recent meetings of CMAG as opposed to the attendance of previous CMAG meetings by Ministers of State. As Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Cook's attendance at CMAG meetings is an important indicator of the regard with which the UK Government holds both the Commonwealth and the principles underscored in the Harare Declaration. CHRI urges all governments to send high-level deputations to meetings of Heads of Government and Commonwealth ministers to stimulate fruitful and informed debate and raise increased media attention within the Commonwealth of such meetings, their outcomes and their relevancy to the lives of Commonwealth citizens.

  14.  From its inception, the CHRI has called for the appointment of a Commonwealth High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate serious violations of human rights. A Commonwealth High Commissioner for Human Rights concerned with all facets of human rights—economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights—would provide a renewed focus and direction to the safeguarding of human rights throughout the Commonwealth. The CHRI believes that such a Commissioner appointed on a four year term for his or her independent expertise, with dedicated budgets allocated for their work and standing with Deputy Secretary-General status would signal the serious concern of the Commonwealth for the human rights of its citizens. Working for the promotion of human rights and human rights education in the Commonwealth; providing advice to the Secretary-General, CMAG, the Human Rights Unit and other Secretariat departments through an annual report, oral presentations, and particular expertise on fact-finding delegations; warning publicly and privately when human rights problems are growing in any region and offering support to the good offices role of the Secretary-General, the Commonwealth High Commissioner for Human Rights would seriously augment the work being achieved in the Commonwealth to uphold the principles of the Harare Declaration.

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Prepared 30 January 2001