Back to basics on human rights - the terrible lessons from Ukraine

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Is that an over-used quotation from Lord Acton’s letter in 1887 to Bishop Mandell Creighton?

I don’t think so. Lord Acton was perfectly encapsulating ideas expressed by others before him. He was describing the trajectory followed by so many dictators. For more than 30 years, Vladimir Putin has been treading this downward path to his creation of a hell for millions of others, most notably in Chechnya, Syria and now Ukraine. But does this horrifying, monumental story of human rights abuse really have anything to teach us, citizens of a Commonwealth of 54 post-imperial nation states?

I fear it does. One obvious lesson is that the abuse of power—all abuses of power, large or small—must be challenged and resisted. Any and every failure to challenge emboldens the abuser, and encourages their belief in impunity, their certainty that law is for “the little people” and does not apply to them.

So, we can be proud that most – but, sadly, not all-- Commonwealth States have spoken out strongly against President Putin and his regime.

Oren Gruenbaum says that “One of the most powerful speeches” at the United Nations “came from Kenya’s representative, Martin Kimani”[1]

‘We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighbouring states … However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.’

Many of the Commonwealth’s smallest States also spoke up for rights and stood up to Russia.

Consider this from Walton Alfonso Webson, of Antigua and Barbuda. He said Russia’s security concerns did not justify any use of force and that when the principles of self-determination and sovereignty were threatened anywhere, the international community had to speak out, ‘lest our silence be misconstrued as consent’.

Which made it all the more disappointing that India—with by far the largest population in the Commonwealth—chose to place itself in a small minority who abstained in this global vote at the General Assembly which overwhelmingly (141 votes of the 193 member states) condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“What has all this got to do with efforts to uphold human rights in the Commonwealth?” you may now be asking.

Everything, I would argue.

Rights belong to each and every human - and they are fundamental to dignity, equality and liberty. 

The abuse of rights can be conducted on a massive scale, or at a very local, individual level.

So we must uphold human rights across the Commonwealth with renewed vigour now. We all know abuses remain far, far too numerous and widespread. No-one in the Commonwealth should be hoping that global attention on the horrors of Ukraine—the result of absolute corruption stemming from absolute power—will distract attention from the denial of basic rights and freedoms on a smaller scale. Rather, scrutiny needs to be intensified of all those who wield power—if not necessarily absolute power—at any level in society: from the highest reaches of government through law enforcement, businesses and individual employers down to the level of abuse within communities and families, or simply of one person by another.


James Robbins, Chair

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, UK

March 2022