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The Commonwealth: No slippage in fight for human rights

The following is an excerpt from a speech I delivered 0n 14th October 2010 as a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, to an Economic Forum at the Guildhall in the City of London held by the Commonwealth Business Council.

A British newspaper carried a story on October 10 suggesting that the Commonwealth Secretariat has abandoned its commitment to defending human rights. The newspaper based this story on a “leaked document” in which the Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, is alleged to have told his staff it is not their job to speak out against abuses by the 54 member states.
The Secretariat responded publicly saying: “There is no memo directing staff not to respond to reports of human rights abuses.  There was an options paper for discussion among senior managers about how we could strengthen our human rights pronouncements and encourage the buy-in of member governments to address concerns.”
Despite the Secretariat firm statement, the story was picked up by a section of the media in Australia and has been the subject of a lively e-mail discourse among many people who are deeply concerned about the image and substance of the Commonwealth.
This question of human rights in the Commonwealth and the role of the Secretary-General have occupied the attention of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) of which I am a member as we fulfil a mandate from Heads of Government to produce a report that would strengthen the Commonwealth and make it fit for purpose in the decades to come.
The EPG has focussed some attention on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) which was established to protect Commonwealth values and principles and to take action against member states that indulged in serious or persistent violations of them.
Like many others throughout the Commonwealth, the EPG has been concerned that, thus far, CMAG has acted only when there has been an unconstitutional overthrow of a government, but has not dealt with other serious or persistent violations of other declared core values of the Commonwealth. 
The EPG would like to see further empowerment of CMAG to take up the full gamut of its remit.  
We are aware that CMAG has been reviewing its own work and that it has developed a position, but in considering our own view of CMAG, while we will take CMAG’s review into account, we will not consider ourselves bound by it.
As people outside the day to day interplay between governments, we feel we can bring a level of distance and independence to the scope of the work that CMAG should be undertaking, and we can suggest objective criteria by which its scrutiny of a member state should be triggered.
We regard the Secretary-General’s “good offices” role as equally important in relation to violations of Commonwealth declared principles. 
Prevention is better than cure.
But, we recognise that this role is under resourced and requires not only wider machinery to alert the Secretary-General to potential problems, but also a mechanism that goes beyond government permission, to set the machinery in motion.
In other words, action by the Secretary-General to employ his good offices role to correct infractions of the Commonwealth core values should be undertaken within member states automatically and should not have to await the agreement of the government concerned.
However, there needs to be a clear understanding of what we mean by ‘human rights’.
In the Commonwealth, there are some organizations palpably more concerned with the wretchedness of the weak under despotic national regimes that they are with the degradation of the poor under inequitable international structures.
‘Human rights’ for these organizations means the former not the latter.
But human rights in the Commonwealth must embrace both, and do so with equal passion.
The Commonwealth must see its commitment to the universality of human rights as including strong opposition to the denial of civil and political rights anywhere in the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth will lose its credibility if it abstained on such human rights denials or was thought to be indifferent to their emergence within its member countries.
In this regard, we will likely recommend that, as the Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Secretary-General should immediately speak-up publicly when there are serious violations of the Commonwealth’s core values.
In making this recommendation, we will not be breaking new ground; we will simply be reiterating and reinforcing a principle long established.
The issue that clouds a clear Commonwealth posture on this matter is that of ‘interference in internal affairs’.
But there is a difference between meddling and taking an honorable stand, and the latter must not be avoided where human rights violations are so gross or systemic that the line against ‘meddling’ has been crossed.
The Commonwealth confronted this issue over South Africa as early as 1960, and very specifically over Idi Amin and Uganda in 1977.  In the latter case, even the UN Human Rights Commission stalled in condemning the Amin Regime on arguments about ‘interfering in internal affairs’.
At the 1977 Commonwealth Summit, the Commonwealth was strong in its condemnation.  After The Commonwealth had condemned Amin, the UN HRC followed suit.
I think it is true to say that all of the members of the EPG are convinced that the Commonwealth’s business as much as business in the Commonwealth, will be conducted in much larger measure and with far greater economic benefits if human rights in the widest meaning of that term are respected and upheld throughout its member states.
And, let me say with no fear of contradiction that Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, shares this view with the EPG.
We are convinced that problems of poverty, inadequate health and sanitation, education and infrastructural development are most effectively and sustainably addressed within a framework of democracy and good governance.
Upholding human rights in the broadest understanding of this term must remain central to the Commonwealth’s activities.

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