Our vision to establish ourselves as a global South-based NGO, which is international in its work and vision has over the years come to fruition. The difficulty in achieving this recognition cannot be taken lightly; it has required twice the purposefulness of any NGO based in the North to establish credibility and overcome the perception that if based in India, an NGO can only be capable of being a regional body, not truly an international human rights organisation. Our acceptance as a human rights organisation in disparate locations of the Commonwealth bears witness to the growth we have undergone over the last 25 years.
Today, CHRI has its Headquarters in New Delhi, and offices in London and Accra; we are accredited to the Commonwealth; we attained special consultative status at the Economic and Social Council of the UN in 2005 and observer status at the ACPHR in 2002; we helped found the Usalama Reforms Forum in East Africa and the Right to Information network, SARTIAN, in South Asia; we serve as secretariat for NIPSA (Network for Improved Policing in South Asia); collaborate with HURINET-U and APCOF in Africa; have sent fact finding missions to Nigeria in 1995, Zambia in 1996, Fiji in 2002 and Rwanda in 2009; have a presence as RTI experts in South Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean; have an active police programme in South Asia, East and West Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean; and a localised prisons programme in India. Even so, these are only a few of the broad range of networks and associations we are a part of, and only a fraction of the work that we have undertaken over the last 25 years. We celebrate our successes and recognise how much further we still have left to go.
CHRI’s charter objectives are to achieve the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth. We “believe that the promotion and protection of human rights is the responsibility of governments, and that the active participation of civil society acting in concert is vital to ensuring rule of law and the realisation of human rights.” To this end, we “promote awareness of and adherence to the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other internationally recognised human rights instruments.”
That offers a very broad mandate. The big challenge before us in 1987 was to transform these words into actions that would bring about a tangible difference to the lives of the over 2 billion people living in its 53 countries. As an international organisation we needed to find a focus and a way of doing things that would change lives even if we could not intervene directly to repair individual injustice and suffering.
The merest glance around the Commonwealth found much wanting: two-thirds of the Commonwealth lived on under $2 a day. Even today, roughly two-thirds of the world’s poor live in Commonwealth countries. We believe the presence of so much poverty is not an inevitable condition but a clear sign of bad governance. Too many governments ignore their people’s wants and needs, keep them uninformed, excluded and distant from justice, restrict freedoms, and govern without being brought to book for their actions. As an organisation, the inter-governmental Commonwealth too, has been shy of holding its members to the soaring standards set for itself.
CHRI recognised that while there was a lot wrong, the Commonwealth also holds the building blocks for a better tomorrow. There is plenty of good practice and a deal of willing assistance available that could change ground realities. A legacy of shared language and experience, familiar modes of governance, historic connections, a common legal architecture and engaged citizens make it easy to create a discourse between countries, share good practice and build solidarity among active citizens and responsible governments.
This remains true today.
We realised we could not do everything nor be everywhere in the 53 Commonwealth countries. While human rights standards and accountability are set internationally, these are seldom fully realised within Commonwealth countries. Human rights are violated; we sought to find those strategic issues and ways of working that would bring about essential reforms throughout the Commonwealth through interventions at every level.
Over the years, these consultations and our own experience convinced us of the value of focussing our energies on two major areas – access to justice and access to information – while at the same time, leaving ourselves open to respond to sudden crises. This allows us an ever-deepening programme of work in seminal areas, valuable to human rights concerns in all countries, while being flexible enough to respond to unexpected issues of concern.
The two problems of deep-seated poverty and asymmetries of power between ordinary citizens and the State resonated throughout the Commonwealth. We felt that any attempt to tangibly affect the lives of ordinary people would never happen without their ability to participate and hold the instruments of State to account. We advocated then that people must be guaranteed a right to access information so that they can participate effectively in all the decision-making processes which impact so critically on their life outcomes. The frailties of governance within the Commonwealth meant that concerns for the people’s right to justice too came to the fore. These two efforts of access to information and access to justice were thus intertwined from the beginning.
We knew we could use international and national venues and opportunities to press for in-country reform by making problems visible (through media initiatives), offering solutions (especially on the policy level), building platforms and networks for dialogue, and building capacity.