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About The Commonwealth
The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 countries. The modern Commonwealth came into being in 1949 when Commonwealth Prime Ministers met and adopted what has become known as the 'London Declaration', where it was agreed that all Member countries would be "freely and equally associated". The Association's values of human rights, democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all unite its Members. These values were agreed and set out by all Commonwealth Heads of Governments in their biennial meeting (known as CHOGM) in Singapore in 1971, consolidated twenty years later in 1991 at Harare and reaffirmed in 2009 at Trinidad and Tobago. They were again reaffirmed in the Commonwealth Charter, adopted in 2012.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is held every two years for Commonwealth leaders to meet and discuss global and Commonwealth issues, and agree on collective policies and initiatives. CHOGMs act as the principal policy and decision-making forum to guide the strategic direction of the Association.
As such, CHOGM is a major target of CHRI's advocacy work. It provides an opportunity to advocate for the Commonwealth so that it meets its own human rights commitments.
Through its biennial reports to CHOGM, CHRI continually draws attention to human rights progress and setbacks in the Commonwealth. CHRI also organises meetings and events on human rights issues in the Commonwealth in the periphery of CHOGM.
The theme for CHOGM 2013 is "Growth with Equity; Inclusive Development." This theme will guide the agenda and discussions in parallel forums and will focus on the post-2015 development agenda framework.
It will be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 10 to 17 November 2013 and seeks to bring together leaders from across Commonwealth nations.
Sri Lanka as the Host of CHOGM
This year's CHOGM is particularly contentious, with calls for a boycott emanating from various quarters across Commonwealth countries. This is due to the lack of accountability within Sri Lanka for on-going human rights abuses and credible allegations of war crimes. Of particular concern is the passing of the role of Chair of the Commonwealth to the President of Sri Lanka that will occur at the meeting.
A Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General found several credible allegations of humanitarian law violations in the recent conclusion of the island's civil war. This view has also been echoed by several UN experts such as successive UN Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings.
Several well known human rights groups have also reported that many human rights abuses continue within the country even today. Many experts including the UN Secretary General's Panel of experts have found Sri Lanka's domestic enquiries into allegations to be wanting in impartiality, even as Sri Lanka refuses to accept demands for international investigations by these experts.
Since the end of the conflict, there have been significant concerns about the human rights situation in the country. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently visited Sri Lanka, and expressed concerns that Sri Lanka was "showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction."
CHRI has released its 2013 report, ‘The Missing Link: A Commonwealth Commissioner for Human Rights’, which emphasises the need for the Commonwealth to restore its relevance as an Association while highlighting the growing disregard for Commonwealth values among Members States.
The report analyses existing Commonwealth mechanisms: the Human Rights Unit, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and the Good Offices of the Secretary-General, and illustrates how they have been insufficient in responding to human rights violations.
In 2009, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was created to “to build a stronger, more resilient and progressive Commonwealth and make it relevant to its times and people in the future”. A Commonwealth Charter consolidating the Heads of Governments’ commitment to human rights was adopted; the Secretary-General’s Good Offices role was strengthened; and the mandate of CMAG was enhanced. However, the EPG’s recommendation to appoint a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights was dropped since no consensus could be reached on it between States. In the meantime, human rights standards in the Commonwealth continue to rapidly decline.
The Report calls for the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Human Rights- the missing link in the Commonwealth reforms process. An independent Commissioner for Human Rights would rebuild the confidence of its people in the values of the Commonwealth and fill the gap between promise and practice.
A majority of jurisdictions across the Commonwealth contain laws that criminalise same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults. These laws, whether they are enforced or not, entrench homophobia and transphobia and reinforce prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This discrimination, accompanied with pervasive stigma, negatively impacts on the realisation of human rights.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are vulnerable to threats, harassment and violence at the hands of both state and non-state actors. Incidents of violence are often not promptly or thoroughly investigated and occur within a context of impunity. Arbitrary arrest and detention based on a person’s real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity are common, often accompanied with the abuse of due process safeguards. Those detained face heightened risks of ill-treatment and violence.
CHRI urges Heads of Government to express a Commonwealth position of zero tolerance to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This would strongly encourage Member governments to condemn the marginalisation of sexual minorities. Equality and non-discrimination are core Commonwealth values. CHRI urges governments to address violence against LGBT people and be proactive in protecting the rights of those that work on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
The UN Secretary-General, in the global consultations summary document “A Life of Human Dignity for All”, asserts that a post-2015 era demands a new vision and responsive framework where sustainable development is enabled by the integration of economic growth, social justice and environmental stewardship. An enabling environment is best provided by a human rights-based approach to development, now endorsed and practised by a growing number of states.
A rights-based approach means acknowledging that citizens have a right to sustainable development and a right to meaningfully participate in the development process. A rights-based approach also necessitates the promotion of non-discrimination, equality and equity in the distribution of cost and benefit. The new development agenda must embrace freedom from fear as well as freedom from want. This means explicitly aligning the new development framework with the international human rights framework – including civil, cultural, economic, social and cultural rights as well as the right to development.
CHRI urges Heads of Governments to ensure that the post-2015 development framework is effective, transparent and inclusive by collectively endorsing a rights-based approach to development which is aligned with the international human rights framework and includes rule of law, access to justice and equality indicators.
Commonwealth Member States face common policing issues. The Commonwealth has within it some of the best policing in the world, which can inform good practice. However, many States are too often cited for the inability of the police to protect citizens and for the impunity afforded to the police’s unlawful actions. Much of policing in the Commonwealth is not suitable for democratic societies. In order to reduce such allegations, enhance real security - both in everyday life and under emergency situations - and provide greater access to justice to its people, a coordinated pan-Commonwealth approach would be the most efficient and effective way to assist Member States to improve the quality of their policing and would make the Commonwealth a world leader in police reform.
Since the report of the Commonwealth’s Expert Group on Development and Democracy, endorsed by the 2003 CHOGM, there have been numerous calls for the Commonwealth to take concerted action on policing. These have not been heeded.
CHRI urges Heads of Government to give serious consideration to establishing a Commonwealth Police Expert Group to examine police reform across a range of issues, including developing better understanding and relations between the police and citizens.