CHRI began as an idea floated at a conference in Cumberland Lodge, a residential centre in Windsor Great Park, England. The conference was called to look at the state of the Commonwealth after many African and Asian sports teams had boycotted the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986. Their protest was at the softness of the British government, led by Margaret Thatcher, on South African racism – the apartheid system. At the Nassau summit the previous year she was only prepared to move a “teeny, teeny” bit to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime.
So was the Commonwealth breaking up? Was the Commonwealth worth salvaging? The conference at Cumberland Lodge included many knowledgeable people who supported the association, but they were also critical. They realised that there was hypocrisy among states which practised human rights abuse with little democracy – there were several one-party and military governments then – which were happy to ignore their own faults while attacking apartheid. South African propagandists pointed this out, and the Commonwealth had no convincing reply.
The conference broke into small groups at one point and in one of these – which included Derek Ingram, the father of Commonwealth journalism, myself and four or five others – we put forward the case for a new initiative to promote human rights throughout the Commonwealth. We had no clear idea then how to do it, but were influenced by the example of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) of 1985-6, which visited South Africa in an attempt to get talks going to end apartheid.
In the summer of 1987, with two meetings at the then Commonwealth Institute (where Derek was a long-serving governor, and I was deputy director) we fleshed out the idea and won the support of some Commonwealth bodies – initially the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the Commonwealth Trade Union Council and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association. A paper went to the 1987 summit in Vancouver, calling for a Commonwealth initiative.
The 1987 summit saw some tightening of the screws on white South Africa, continuing attacks on the Thatcher government by the majority of Commonwealth states, and the setting up of a special fund to assist the embattled Frelimo government in Mozambique. But there was no inter-governmental Commonwealth initiative for human rights. It was only then, with the backing of more non-governmental bodies that we decided to set up our own Initiative.
Our format, borrowed from the EPG for South Africa, was to appoint a high-level inquiry group nominated by supporting Commonwealth bodies and we were lucky to get Flora MacDonald, a former Foreign Minister of Canada, to chair CHRIit. Their report, “Put our world to rights” was published in 1991. It was a key influence on the Harare Summit in that year, which led to the commitment to just and accountable governance, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights.