Yesterday UK Commonwealth Minister Rt Hon. Hugo Swire MP opened day two of CPA UK’s Magna Carta to Commonwealth Charter conference. He stressed that whilst the Commonwealth Charter built on Magna Carta to improve the lives of Commonwealth citizens and protect their rights, the Commonwealth community can and should do more. Although it is an aspirational document, in his view it is meaningless unless its signatories take real and tangible steps towards implementing it, and he welcomed the plans of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to use their next meeting to examine countries’ level of adherence. Professor Philip Murphy of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies expanded on the point of its lack of enforcement mechanism, highlighting this as a major shortcoming. However, he did suggest that Magna Carta’s lasting effect came from its lasting position in the popular imagination rather than from its enforceability, and that the Commonwealth Charter could perhaps be made to emulate this by inspiring the public in Commonwealth countries. Finally, Karen McKenzie of the Commonwealth Secretariat outlined the ways in which the Charter is being used on a practical level to improve human rights protections through the Secretariat’s programmes and advocacy.
Splitting into smaller groups, the delegates then explored two specific areas of human rights infringement: early and forced marriage and obstruction of the right to education. In the early and forced marriage session, Sophie Lott of the Forced Marriage Unit outlined the unit’s work as an example of how governments can seek to prevent such abuses occurring. Meanwhile, Delphine Dorsi of ActionAid’s Education for All Programme identified the ways in which parliamentarians can act to support the rights of their young constituents to education.
Moving on to the rights of minorities, Crispin Blunt MP next chaired a session addressing conflicts between protection for human rights and cultural values. Professor Frans Viljoen of the Pretoria Centre for Human Rights examined the concept of culture, which he suggested was often used as shorthand for ‘the views of the majority.’ He also emphasised that any claim to ‘cultural override’ of a human right could not stand without a proportionality test, and that such a test must be considered within a human rights framework. Jonathan Cooper, CEO of the Human Dignity Trust, meanwhile called on the parliamentarians participating to use their legislative power to protect the human rights of LGBTI individuals in the 41 Commonwealth countries in which homosexuality remains illegal. He reminded those present that criminalisation has a very real effect on the lives of its victims, that they are often subjected to violence and persecution as a result of marginalisation. Concluding the session, Valerie Vaz MP reminded her parliamentary colleagues that fundamental rights cut across race, religion, gender and sexuality, and that it is the role of the parliamentarian to represent even the most vulnerable or marginalised of their constituents.
The afternoon’s programme began with a session Chaired by Lord Black of Brentwood on freedom of expression, particularly resonant in the aftermath of last month’s tragic events in Paris. Hon. Bruce Scott MP, Deputy Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, gave an overview of the model Australia uses to balance concerns over national security with respect for freedom of expression. Steve Crawshaw, representing Amnesty International, emphasised the ways in which anti-terror legislation is often hijacked by repressive regimes to suffocate freedom of expression, urging parliamentarians to guard against this happening. He concluded with a reminder that freedom of expression benefits all citizens by creating an open and stable society. Speaking last, Henry Maina, Article 19’s East Africa Regional Director, explored freedom of expression as a political right, incorporating the right to be informed as well as the need for transparency on the part of government. He echoed Steve Crawshaw’s suggestion that freedom of speech affects all citizens, paraphrasing Amartya Sen: ‘No country has suffered famine that has had freedom of expression.’
In a once-in a generation occurrence, parliamentarian delegates were then joined by Commonwealth scholars for a hugely impressive exhibition in the House of Lords, having come from the British Library, which reunited the four original copies of Magna Carta for the first time since they were sealed 800 years ago. As well as the background information on each copy given by four experts, those viewing were treated to an impromptu history of the significance of the copies from Lord Cormack.
Concluding the day’s programme for parliamentarians and scholars in a stirring final plenary address, Hon. Angelo Farrugia MP, Speaker of the Parliament of Malta, gave his and his country’s unequivocal support for the continued relevance of the Commonwealth as a force for good. However, he forcefully urged his parliamentarian colleagues not to rest on their laurels, but to continually bear in mind the principles of Magna Carta and the Commonwealth Charter when carrying out their work. He went on to endorse the view that the CPA should not be wary of addressing human rights infringements throughout the Commonwealth, and proposed two ambitious ways in which the wider Commonwealth could effectively do so: through a Human Rights Council, or by creating a 'Commonwealth Court of Human Rights.'
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.