Engaging with the Commonwealth
Submission of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) to the
High Level Review of the Future of the Commonwealth
chaired by President Thabo Mbeki of the Republic of South Africa
The High Level Review Group
The HLRG represents a timely opportunity to takestock of the Commonwealth, re-assess its mission, focus its strengths and rectify its weaknesses. The Commonwealth is in danger of being marginalised as an international organisation. The CHRI welcomes the opportunity to engage with the HLRG now and will send further submissions to the Review during the course of 2001. The CHRI urges the HLRG to work harder to publicise its work in member countries, to initiate debate on the Commonwealth and its future amongst its citizens, and to enhance its dialogue with civil society. The deliberations of the HLRG will mean nothing if they have not been informed by the voices and opinions of the peoples of Commonwealth.
NGO Participation in the Commonwealth
The theme of the 2001 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is "The Commonwealth in the 21st Century: Continuity and Renewal." It is the assertion of the CHRI that human rights are key to the development of the Commonwealth in the twenty-first century, which require the participation of civil society and the non-governmental sector. The Commonwealth of Nations is increasingly described and recognised to be both an association of peoples and as an association of states. The Commonwealth Secretariat's website rightly draws attention to the fact that
"the 1.7 billion people (of the Commonwealth) account for 30 per cent of the world's population. They are found in every continent and ocean and are of many religions, races, languages and cultures." 
The challenge for the official Commonwealth in the twenty-first century must be to view the peoples of the association as a resource to be drawn upon, consulted, included and interacted with. The degree to which the Commonwealth achieves this will largely dictate its "continuity and renewal" in the third millennium.
There is a desperate need for its peoples to have a stronger sense of ownership of the Commonwealth. Not only does this require a sharpening of the public image of the Commonwealth but a sharpening of its relevance and direction. The Commonwealth must have meaning for the practical lives of its citizens, it must offer and deliver more in the way of tangible benefits. In order to achieve this, the official Commonwealth must engage more deeply with the non-governmental sector to ascertain what it is that the peoples of the Commonwealth want. One of CHRI's recent reports began with the contention that "the Commonwealth is about democracy and human rights or it is about nothing."  The CHRI believes that it is in areas such as the protection of human rights, the strengthening of democracy and efforts towards sustainable development that the Commonwealth can most strongly benefit its multifarious citizens.
The CHRI records its support of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group mandated under the Millbrook Action Programme (1995) as the guardian of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration (1991) and welcomes the current discussions occurring under the High Level Review as to the reform of CMAG and its remit. As the primary vehicle through which the Commonwealth assesses its members' adherence to the Harare principles, the CHRI urges the HLRG to recommend the expansion of CMAG's current mandate on the overthrow of constitutional government to deal with more widespread violations of the Harare Declaration. For example, the CHRI commends the position taken by CMAG in its recent Chairperson's Statement - May 2000 - in informally reviewing serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms falling outside the bracket of the illegal overthrow of an elected government. As a means of increased participation, it also welcomes CMAG's innovative decision to invite political parties and civil society organisations to its March 2001 meeting to consider the situation in Pakistan.
If the Commonwealth is to be a more effective international player it must have a rapid response mechanism, through which violations of human rights, democracy, good governance and the rule of law can be speedily examined. The speed with which political crises emerge across the Commonwealth, renders it ever more necessary for the Commonwealth to be able to raise issues and deliver responses at ministerial level through CMAG, without waiting for the biennial meetings of Heads of Government. The CHRI therefore considers the HLRG's remit for CMAG to be most important. It urges the Review to consult widely on CMAG with those NGOs working for the protection of the Harare principles within the Commonwealth
Commonwealth High Commissioner for Human Rights
Since 1993 the CHRI has called for a Commonwealth High Commissioner for Human Rights to bring renewed focus, authority and co-ordination to the work being carried out by the Secretariat to uphold the Harare Declaration. Not only would such an appointment signal the serious concern of the Commonwealth for the human rights of its citizens but it would underline to the rest of the international community the centrality of democracy, good governance and the protection of human rights to the ethos of the Commonwealth itself. Alongside other measures - such as the strengthening of CMAG - the appointment of a High Commissioner for Human Rights would enhance the reputation of the Commonwealth amongst the international community, business and civil society worldwide.
The CHRI has a serious concern for economic, social and cultural rights, and for the cause of development. It will publish a major report on these topics, for the attention of the HLRG, Government and the wider Commonwealth community, later this year. It is being edited by Professor Yash Ghai, principal author of Put Our World to Rights (CHRI, 1991).
Light Weapons Proliferation
The CHRI continues to be concerned about this issue (the subject of its 1999 report Over a Barrel: Light Weapons and Human Rights in the Commonwealth and of paragraph 36 of the Durban Communiqué) and is urging Commonwealth governments to co-ordinate their positions at the UN international conference taking place in New York this year. Follow-up work, by the new CHRI office in Accra, will commence in 2001.
Freedom of Expression and the Right to Information
The CHRI urges the HLRG to examine the importance of information exchange within and between the 54 states. The Commonwealth - with its common use of the English language - is uniquely placed to harness the advantages of the internet and e-technology. Within this context it is more important than ever that the Commonwealth unequivocally states its commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and the right to information. These areas were not covered by the Harare Declaration. There needs to be more transparency by and public access to the Commonwealth Secretariat. An important step along this path would be the formalisation of a policy of transparency and accessibility within the operations of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The HLRG process itself should be an advertisement for the principles of participation, accountability and openness.
Despite official acceptance that women's rights constitute human rights, massive disproportionalities exist throughout the Commonwealth in the status of men and women. Judged by virtually every index of gender comparison, women's enjoyment of human rights - in terms of employment, wages, access to resources, participation in public life and power sharing - are inferior to those of men. The Commonwealth has a duty to push for the realisation of constitutional commitments to equality and for the fulfilment of international human rights standards. It is regrettable that significant Commonwealth countries have entered sweeping and pervasive reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The protection offered to women by this treaty has been rendered meaningless in some states. The Commonwealth must set a better example in its policies and programmes.
http://www.thecommonwealth.org viewed 21/12/00
 Rights Must Come First: The Commonwealth Human Rights Unit - A Chequered History (CHRI, 1999), p.3.
 The CHRI has called for a High commissioner for Human Rights to be appointed on a four year term in his or her individual capacity as an international expert, based at the Commonwealth Secretariat with deputy secretary-general status and budgets specifically allocated for their work. By working for the promotion of human rights and human rights education in the Commonwealth; liaising with national human rights institutions around the Commonwealth; providing advice to the Secretary-General, CMAG, Human Rights Unit and other Secretariat departments through an annual report, oral presentations and particular expertise on fact-finding delegations; warning publicly and privately when human rights problems are growing in any region and offering support to the good offices role of the Secretary-General the High Commissioner would seriously augment the work being achieved within the Commonwealth to protect human rights as well as adding a central point for coordination with other international organisations.