Human rights are a fundamental principle of the Commonwealth Charter, which affirms a commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights mechanisms. The Commonwealth Charter notes that human rights are 'universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented selectively'. As such, the Commonwealth stands opposed to all forms of discrimination and was an instrumental voice in calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa, as well as leading on issues including modern slavery and child marriage.
The Commonwealth Secretariat is mandated by member states to protect human rights and actively works to support the strengthening of human rights protections across the Commonwealth. This means supporting Commonwealth member states, both in-country and in international fora, to strengthen their human rights protections. Where national human rights institutions do not exist, the Secretariat helps member countries to establish them.
In international fora, the Secretariat supports the capacity of Commonwealth member states to engage with the four-and-a-half-year Universal Periodic Review process at the United Nations Human Rights Council, in both reporting and implementing subsequent recommendations. Between 2011 and 2013, the Secretariat organised regional seminars on how to engage with the Universal Periodic Review, held in Australia, Bangladesh, Grenada, Mauritius, Namibia and the UK, where more than 200 representatives from governments, national human rights institutions, parliaments and civil society organisations participated.
In-country, the Secretariat has provided contextual support to more than 30 countries across all Commonwealth regions to strengthen human rights protections. Support to the Seychelles to develop a National Action Plan on Human Rights in 2014 was a key example of the Secretariat’s work, described by the government as responsive to its ‘context, needs and challenges.’ The Secretariat works closely with national human rights institutions to build capacity, ensuring that they are both independent and effective, in line with international human rights obligations. Partnering with civil society organisations, the Commonwealth also works to strengthen the role of parliaments, institutions and traditional leaders in protecting and defending human rights. The Secretariat’s support for parliamentarians directly led to the Pipitea Declaration in the Pacific and the Mahé Declaration in Africa, in which parliamentarians committed to promote human rights in the legislature. In 2015, Commonwealth national human rights institutions adopted the Commonwealth Kigali Declaration, a commitment to accelerate the elimination and prevention of child, early and forced marriage.
Beyond the Secretariat, a multitude of Commonwealth-affiliated organisations promote human rights throughout the Commonwealth family. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is the leading civil society voice on human rights in the Commonwealth sphere, with work that builds on their comprehensive research through a wide range of activities including capacity-building, education and advocacy. They are committed to achieving tangible outcomes that help people enjoy the practical realisation of their rights, with a current focus on the eradication of slavery and forced labour, as well as reforming policing and prisons in line with international human rights standards.
The Commonwealth’s professional associations also play a strong role in championing human rights in the Commonwealth. For example, the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) plays a critical role in promoting freedom of the press and operates closely with other Commonwealth media bodies such as the Commonwealth Press Union and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, to defend the independence and safety of journalists. The CJA was a founding member of the CHRI. Similarly, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) seeks to uphold the rule of law by driving improvements in legal education and encouraging knowledge exchange between members. They are also outspoken critics of the death penalty.
In the UK, the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief was established in 2015 to explore the role of UK parliamentarians in championing this critical issue. It combines practical parliamentary support from Westminster with academic research conducted at the University of Birmingham. A key activity is bringing about positive change, through training and developing for young leaders, to promote freedom of religion and belief, particularly to develop the capacity of Malaysian stakeholders in time for Malaysia’s Commonwealth Chair in Office period that begins in 2020.
With an average age across Commonwealth nations of 27, young people will continue to be at the forefront of action on human rights. The Commonwealth Youth Human Rights and Democracy Network brings together young people from across the Commonwealth with the shared objective of promoting and protecting human rights and democracy at all levels. The network focuses on four priority areas: discrimination, disability rights, gender-based and domestic violence, and democratic oversight and participation. In 2017, the Network organised and facilitated several awareness sessions, including ones at the National Youth Development Conference in Bangladesh, the International Conference on Youth Engagement and Human Rights in Bangkok, and at a meeting of human rights stakeholders in Uganda.
A multitude of Commonwealth organisations are working to protect the rights of women and LGBT+ people. This will be covered in a separate blog.