The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, international non-governmental organisation working in the area of human rights. In 1987, several Commonwealth professional associations founded CHRI, since there was little focus on human rights within the association of 53 nations although the Commonwealth provided member countries the basis of shared common legal system.
Through its reports, research and advocacy, CHRI draws attention to the progress and setbacks to human rights in Commonwealth countries. In advocating for approaches and measures to prevent human rights abuses, CHRI addresses the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations Human Rights Council members, civil society and the media on criminal justice concerns. It works on and collaborates around public education programmes, policy dialogues, comparative research, media dissemination advocacy and networking on the issues of Access to Information and Access to Justice.
CHRI promotes adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Commonwealth Harare Principles and other internationally recognised human rights instruments, including domestic legislation supporting human rights in Commonwealth countries. It is headquartered in New Delhi, India, with offices in London, UK and Accra, Ghana.
CHRI’s work is split into two core themes: Access to Information and Access to Justice, which includes Prison Reform, Police Reform, and advocacy on media rights and the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN). CHRI additionally monitors the human rights situation across the Commonwealth through its International Advocacy and Programming (IAP) unit. We engage in advocacy at the global level and make formal submissions to treaty bodies and inter-governmental agencies, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. CHRI has also begun work on strengthening institutional response to issues of discrimination on grounds of skin colour and appearance.
A note on our journey
CHRI began as an idea floated at a conference in Cumberland Lodge, a residential centre in Windsor Great Park, England, which was called to look at the state of the Commonwealth after many African and Asian sports teams 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.
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 were also critical of the hypocrisy among states which practised human rights abuse with little democracy.
Some of us put forward the idea of creating a new initiative to promote human rights throughout the Commonwealth. In our efforts, we 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, we fleshed out the idea with the support of some Commonwealth bodies – initially the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the Commonwealth Trade Union Council and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association.
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 CHRI. 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.
CHRI’s charter objectives were and continue to be 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 a few major areas – access to justice and access to information being at the forefront of our focus – 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.
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.
Our collective vision has been to establish ourselves as a global South-based NGO that is international in its work. This 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, we are accredited to the Commonwealth, have attained special consultative status at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations in 2005 and observer status at the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (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); collaborated with HURINET-U and APCOF in Africa; 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. These are only a part of the broad range of networks and associations we are associated with, and only a fraction of the work that we have undertaken over the last 25 years.