The role and future of the Commonwealth - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

3  Promoting good governance and human rights in Commonwealth countries

17. Membership of the Commonwealth is widely seen as implying a guarantee that a country is upholding high standards in democracy and human rights. Senator Hugh Segal, a member of the Eminent Persons Group, told us that countries wished to stay in the Commonwealth because it was "a badge of respectability".[8] In the past, the Commonwealth's internal mechanisms for preserving the 'respectability' of member states have often worked effectively. Several witnesses for instance saw the Commonwealth's opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa, from the 1960s to 1994, as a prime example of the Commonwealth's capacity for promoting change among its members. Sir Malcolm Rifkind told us that in that period the Commonwealth "had a great moral purpose and was seen as being very significant".[9] Some used the concept of a family to explain how the Commonwealth could bring its errant members into line.[10] Lord Howell of Guildford, the then Minister of State at the FCO, told us that it was a "plus" that the Commonwealth exerted "constant family pressure and irritation" on human rights failings in member states.[11]

18. To supplement these political pressures, the Commonwealth Secretariat employs a number of practical means to uphold its values in member states, ranging from election observation to technical cooperation programmes promoting judicial and public administration reform and the development of civil society.[12] The Commonwealth has observed over 70 elections since 1990, and in 2010 for instance observer groups monitored elections in Sri Lanka, St Kitts and Nevis, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands and Tanzania.[13]

19. But sometimes such actions are not enough, and suspension or expulsion is the inevitable outcome. These were seen by Sir Malcolm Rifkind as the Commonwealth's most distinctive and potent weapons in the fight for human and political rights. He said that while many international organisations made rhetorical statements, the Commonwealth was unusual in taking powers to suspend or even expel member states that no longer lived up to its standards and aspirations.[14] Sir Malcolm contrasted this with the conventions which apply to the United Nations, which "takes the view that it must have universality, regardless of the performance of individual governments".[15]

20. The establishment in 1995 of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) continued the tradition of intergovernmental activism against repressive behaviour in member states. CMAG was established by Commonwealth Heads of Government at the CHOGM in Auckland, New Zealand, in November 1995. It deals with serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration, and is charged with assessing the nature of the infringement and recommending measures for collective Commonwealth action aimed at the restoration of democracy and constitutional rule. Among other things, it has in the past recommended the suspension from Commonwealth membership of Nigeria and Pakistan.[16]

21. According to some of our witnesses, today's international environment poses both challenges and opportunities for the Commonwealth as an advocate of good government. Mr Sharma for instance saw a clear link between recent events in the Arab world and the Commonwealth's proclaimed values, "If you look at the Arab Spring and what people are saying about how they would like their societies to be run ... these are the things that the Commonwealth has been saying for decades."[17] Senator Hugh Segal suggested that the rise of China placed a responsibility on the shoulders of the Commonwealth, as well as giving it an opportunity: "We now face a circumstance, perhaps for the first time in recent history, where the largest economic power in the world is not a democracy or particularly devoted to democratic values." Senator Segal saw it therefore as a "very important countervail" that "2.1 billion human beings are part of a Commonwealth family that does believe in democracy and the rule of law".[18]

Failing to promote democracy and human rights

22. However, if the Commonwealth is to be credible as a global voice in favour of good government, it has to put its own house in order and live up to the values it proclaims. We heard disturbing evidence that the badge of Commonwealth respectability had become tarnished, and that the Commonwealth's best years as a promoter of democracy and human rights in its own member states were behind it. Several of those we met in Commonwealth countries called for Commonwealth institutions to set out a more vigorous human rights agenda, and to be effective and influential in pursuing it among its members. In one country the Commonwealth was accused of being "marginal" to the promotion of human rights. Senator Segal said the Commonwealth generally needed to "up its game on issues such as the rule of law, human rights and democracy".[19] The Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association expressed its concern at "the lack of implementation" in member states of the Principles endorsed by Heads of Government.[20] Dr Sriskandarajah, Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, told us that the Commonwealth had failed "to show how it adds value to existing international legal and other instruments".[21]

23. Several reasons were put forward for this apparent loss of moral authority and impact. First, too many Commonwealth countries fail to practise what they preach on human and political rights. The FCO's Human Rights Report for 2011, for instance, describes the current situation in Sri Lanka in damning terms:

At year end, significant progress was still needed to address the institutional weaknesses that allow for frequent human rights violations. Terrorist suspects continued to be held without charge for long periods. There were restrictions on freedom of expression, political violence, reports of torture in custody, further cases of disappearances and almost no progress in investigating past disappearances.[22]

24. Human rights in Pakistan fared no better, according to the FCO Report. There was a long charge sheet: "Despite some positive steps in 2011, there continue to be serious concerns about human rights in Pakistan, including the rule of law; investigation of allegations of torture; freedom of religion or belief; the death penalty; women's rights; children's rights; extrajudicial killings; access to water, healthcare and education; and free and fair elections."[23]

25. On certain human rights issues, the record of many Commonwealth countries is out of step with much of the developed world: of the 58 countries where capital punishment is still lawful, no fewer than 36 are in the Commonwealth. The FCO's 2011 report on human rights and other sources have recorded intolerance of homosexuality in a number of Commonwealth countries. For example in early 2012 a Bill was introduced in Uganda which would strengthen that country's existing anti-homosexuality legislation, and the FCO reported that it had recently found it necessary to raise concerns about the possible criminalisation of same-sex marriage in Nigeria and the human rights of homosexual people in Cameroon. Malaysia and Jamaica are among other Commonwealth countries which have long-established anti-homosexuality legislation.[24]

26. There were also doubts about the mechanisms available to the Commonwealth to influence member states on issues of human and political rights. Sir Malcolm Rifkind expressed particular frustration at the restricted role accepted by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, who had "rarely felt able to speak out unless he has been given an express mandate to do so." He drew a stark contrast with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who often made statements on his own authority.[25] There was also concern over the role played by CMAG. That group was said by Stuart Mole, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, to have "lost its way" at the turn of the millennium, and in the early part of this century to have become "inactive." He observed that CMAG had been "bypassed" by the work of the 'troika' of present, future and past chairmen of the Commonwealth summits which had been active over the issue of Zimbabwe. The CMAG watchdog "simply was not barking and it seemed to have very few teeth".[26] Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that CMAG had remained silent too often in the face of abuses, giving the example of violence in Sri Lanka some years ago when many thousands of people had been killed or displaced. He said "The Commonwealth was one of the few organisations in the world that had very little to say about it ... [and] seemed irrelevant."[27]

Reforming CMAG

27. In September 2011, in time for the Perth CHOGM, CMAG felt it necessary to produce a report with proposals for reform of its own operations.[28] The Heads accepted the proposals for a strengthened CMAG mandate; the threshold for CMAG engagement in upholding Commonwealth values and principles was lowered, so that it could act in a larger number of cases. The range of indicators for engagement was also broadened to take into account aspects of public conduct such as the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the media and civil society, and the space available for diverse political views to be advanced.[29] Since then, in a sign of perhaps greater activism, CMAG has made what Dr Sriskandarajah called "a provocative and bold statement about the state of democracy in the Maldives." He described that CMAG statement as "an example of the intergovernmental Commonwealth if not at its best, certainly at its most vocal".[30]

28. The strength of the Commonwealth's commitment to its principles and values, including the promotion of human and political rights, has helped to give it a substantial and distinctive role in the international community. However, in recent years the moral authority of the Commonwealth has too often been undermined by the repressive actions of member governments. We were disturbed to note the ineffectiveness of the mechanisms for upholding the Commonwealth's values, despite its efforts to improve governance and the conduct of elections in member states. We urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that the Commonwealth Ministers' Action Group makes full use of its new mandate and responds robustly whenever there is corroborated evidence of repression or abuse.

29. One Commonwealth decision—the choice of Colombo in Sri Lanka as the venue for the next CHOGM in 2013—attracted especially severe criticism from some quarters. It was described by Professor Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, as "a disaster and a scandal".[31] The Commonwealth Advisory Bureau observed that the communiqué after the Perth CHOGM more than ever reflected the national interests of the host country, on issues including the responsibility of extractive industries, piracy and UN Security Council membership. The Bureau suggested that this set a "dangerous precedent" for the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka—a country that was "currently boasting about defeating terrorism on home soil, whilst standing accused by others of only doing so through gross human rights abuses, possibly tantamount to war crimes".[32] Despite the criticism, the Secretary-General nevertheless told us that the Heads' decision was "very firm ... I do not see that decision coming under review".[33]

30. Some of our witnesses believed that the 2013 CHOGM could be used as a platform to promote human rights in Sri Lanka, Senator Segal suggesting that "constructive leverage" could be applied to the government.[34] For example, he hoped that the Commonwealth Secretariat, using the precedent of the International Olympic Committee's negotiations with the Chinese authorities over the Beijing games of 2008, would insist on full press freedom and full access to all Sri Lanka by members of the press covering the Colombo CHOGM.[35] Mr Sharma was confident that conditions at the Colombo CHOGM would meet the required standards. He said that the media "must be able to enjoy all kinds of freedom".[36] When asked whether he was satisfied that those principles would be observed by Sri Lanka in 2013, Mr Sharma expressed himself with great care, saying "We are satisfied that we are making satisfactory progress in dealing with the Government on those issues."[37]

31. Despite the reassurances of Mr Sharma, the situation in Sri Lanka continues to raise serious questions about the attendance of Heads of Government at the Colombo CHOGM. Senator Segal told us that he was "quite proud" of the stance taken on this issue by the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who stated in September 2011 that he would only attend the Colombo CHOGM if there were an improvement in human rights in Sri Lanka.[38] But Lord Howell was cautious in his comments on whether the UK Prime Minister should attend the Colombo CHOGM, saying that it was "much too early to say how these things will work out".[39]

32. We conclude that continuing evidence of serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka shows that the Commonwealth's decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo was wrong. We are impressed by the clear and forthright stance taken by the Canadian Prime Minister, who has said he would attend the Meeting only if human rights were improved. The UK Prime Minister should publicly state his unwillingness to attend the meeting unless he receives convincing and independently-verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka.

33. Two of the recommendations made by the Eminent Persons Group—the Commonwealth Charter and the Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights—are especially important for governance and human rights, and we took substantial evidence about both of them.

Commonwealth Charter

34. The Eminent Persons Group recommended that a Commonwealth Charter should be drawn up. This Charter would be intended to "establish a Commonwealth 'spirit'" which would institute "the concept of a Commonwealth whose collective purpose is driven by the aspirations of its people".[40] A draft intended for wide consultation, and appended to the EPG report, proposes a pledge by governments to "uphold, preserve and defend the Values and Aspirations of the Commonwealth as declared in this Charter" and recalls the several previous declarations of Commonwealth principles and values described in Chapter 2 above.[41] This led Professor Philip Murphy to warn against inflated expectations of what the Commonwealth Charter could achieve. He was concerned that people were sceptical, and that "the last thing the Commonwealth needs is another well meaning statement of principles, which will be largely ignored in the way that previous statements of principles have been".[42] He believed that there was no official machinery capable of making members comply. Nevertheless Professor Murphy saw some potential value in declarations, referring to the example of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, which gave birth to a series of popular movements, such as Charter 77, in eastern Europe. Citizens of these countries, he told us, were able to say to their governments, "You have signed up to this, and we are going to hold you to account." Professor Murphy said: "It would be wonderful if the charter gave rise to a series of dissident groups called Commonwealth clubs, on the ground, trying to enforce those rights."[43]

35. Dr Sriskandarajah saw the Charter as something that "would make it very clear what membership of the Commonwealth means." He envisaged it being particularly useful in schools, helping young people learn about what today's Commonwealth stands for.[44] This view bears out the evidence of our visits to Commonwealth countries, where we found support for the principles of the Harare Declaration, combined with a sense that it needed updating to reflect modern realities. However we were concerned to hear a suggestion that the process of debating the wording of the Charter around the Commonwealth has been rushed and that civil society has not been fully involved in the debate.[45]

36. We support the Eminent Persons Group's proposal for a Commonwealth Charter. However, the UK should only accept the Charter's final wording if it reflects the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth. Before signing the Charter, the Government should assure itself that substantial progress is being made by the Commonwealth towards compliance with international human rights norms.

Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights

37. Sir Malcolm Rifkind was among those who expressed concern at the actions of a number of countries that had opposed the idea of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. He said that Sri Lanka was "the obvious case in point." But he was most disappointed by a number of other countries, specifically South Africa and India, which had also been "very negative" in their response to that recommendation.[46]

38. Stuart Mole said it was unfortunate that the proposal for a Commissioner had become "a totemic issue", because "it is seen by a lot of other Commonwealth member countries as a stick to beat them with." He suggested that language played a part, as 'Commissioner' was not a helpful title, and that the more Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia voiced support for the Commissioner, the more they might be resented.[47]

39. But there are signs of possible compromise. Lord Howell thought that although the specific idea of a Commissioner was a "challenged one" the Commonwealth would take forward "the thought behind that" with the Commissioner proposal being replaced with something more agreeable to the Commonwealth as a whole.[48]

40. We recognise that the Eminent Persons Group's proposal for a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights has not found favour right across the Commonwealth. There is clearly room for discussion and negotiation about the nature of the role, including its title. It is important that it should not duplicate the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the Ministerial Action Group. However, the intention behind the recommendation for a Commissioner is an important one, and goes to the heart of what the Commonwealth is about.

41. The UK Government should insist that the key elements of the EPG's recommendation for a Commissioner are accepted and implemented. In particular, we believe that it is important that the mechanism that emerges from the negotiations should reflect the EPG's recommendation that the Commissioner should provide "well researched and reliable information" on "serious or persistent violations of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in member states," and "indicate approaches for remedial action."

8   Q 19 Back

9   Q 211 Back

10   Q 60 Back

11   Q 172 Back

12   Ev 90 Back

13   Ev 92 Back

14   Q 211 Back

15   IbidBack

16   We consider below (para 26) the problems which affected CMAG in later years, and proposals for reform. Back

17   Q 188 Back

18   Q 1 Back

19   IbidBack

20   Ev 134 Back

21   Q 131 Back

22   Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 8339, p 318 Back

23   Ibid. p 285 Back

24   Ibid. p 70;;  Back

25   Q 211 Back

26   Q 61 Back

27   Q 211 Back

28   Ev 85 Back

29   Ev 99 Back

30   Q 124 Back

31   Q 37 Back

32   Ev 62  Back

33   Qq 201-202 Back

34   Q 5 Back

35   IbidBack

36   Q 203 Back

37   Q 204 Back

38   Q 5  Back

39   Q 173 Back

40   EPG Report 2011, p 34 Back

41   Ibid. p 181 Back

42   Q 39 Back

43   IbidBack

44   Q 132 Back

45   Q 59 Back

46   Q 212 Back

47   Q 63 Back

48   Q 161 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 15 November 2012