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".
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".
Some used the concept of a family to explain how the Commonwealth
could bring its errant members into line.
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.
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.
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.
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
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".
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.
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."
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".
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".
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.
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".
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
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."
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.
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.
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".
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
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.
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.
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".
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 decisionthe choice of
Colombo in Sri Lanka as the venue for the next CHOGM in 2013attracted
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".
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 Lankaa 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".
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".
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.
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.
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".
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
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.
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".
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 Groupthe Commonwealth Charter and the Commissioner
for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rightsare especially
important for governance and human rights, and we took substantial
evidence about both of them.
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".
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.
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".
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."
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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Q 211 Back
Q 60 Back
Q 172 Back
Ev 90 Back
Ev 92 Back
Q 211 Back
We consider below (para 26) the problems which affected CMAG in
later years, and proposals for reform. Back
Q 188 Back
Q 1 Back
Ev 134 Back
Q 131 Back
Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Human Rights and Democracy:
The 2011 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 8339,
p 318 Back
Ibid. p 285 Back
Ibid. p 70 http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/08/30/uganda-making-life-tough-ngos-lgbt-rights;
Q 211 Back
Q 61 Back
Q 211 Back
Ev 85 Back
Ev 99 Back
Q 124 Back
Q 37 Back
Ev 62 Back
Qq 201-202 Back
Q 5 Back
Q 203 Back
Q 204 Back
Q 5 http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2011/09/110912_canada_commonwealth.shtml
Q 173 Back
EPG Report 2011, p 34 Back
Ibid. p 181 Back
Q 39 Back
Q 132 Back
Q 59 Back
Q 212 Back
Q 63 Back
Q 161 Back