CHOGM Declarations – including the 1991 Harare Declaration and the 2007 Kampala Communique – have consistently reaffirmed the commitment of the Commonwealth to the advancement of fundamental human rights as a core political value of the Commonwealth.
In November 2009, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, adopted the Affirmation on Commonwealth Values and Principles. These values and principles recommit the Commonwealth to the respect for protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The commitments provide the strategic framework within which the Commonwealth’s human rights mandate is to be considered. Through its Human Rights Unit (HRU), the Secretariat continues to develop promotional and assistance programmes to support Commonwealth members’ stated human rights commitments.
Universal Periodic Review
In line with its recognition of the importance of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s newly introduced Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the promotion and protection of human rights, the Secretariat has been assisting member countries to prepare for the review with financial support from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the New Zealand Government.
Seminars were held in Barbados in October 2008 for all Commonwealth Caribbean countries, in London in November 2008 for all Commonwealth countries undergoing UPR during 2009, and in Malawi in Sept 2009 for all Commonwealth countries undergoing the review in 2010. Adopting a tripartite formula, the seminars brought together government officials, national mechanisms such as National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs)/ombudsman offices and civil society organisations, as well as staff from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) – the key stakeholders in the UPR process.
The seminars allowed Commonwealth countries the opportunity to share best practices and ask questions in the run-up to preparation of national reports, with the Barbados seminar allowing a specific focus on the Caribbean context. UNHCHR staff involved in the UPR process in Geneva participated in the UPR seminars as resource persons to answer technical questions. Out of these seminars, a publication, Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights: Towards Best Practice was launched to review the first year of UPR and bring together experiences of those who had undergone UPR.
The Secretariat seeks increasingly to create an interface and functioning networks between and among government institutions and local human rights organisations in acknowledgement of the vital role of civil society organisations. As such, the involvement of civil society organisations is sought, including in UPR seminars.
Human rights mandates and issues
The Secretariat works closely with bodies that have a human rights mandate or are concerned with human rights issues such as the UN, and development agencies such as NZAID. The Secretariat also has strong links with civil society organisations and human rights non-governmental organisations. One of the Secretariat’s partners, the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team, conducts annual consultation with members of parliament in the region, and in 2009 the meeting focused on violence against women legislation as well as other human rights topics – climate change, national and regional human rights mechanisms, disability.
In order to provide a normative framework for the national promotion and protection of rights, the Secretariat continues to encourage and assist member countries, particularly small states, with the process of ratifying the major human rights conventions, with drafting and implementing legislation to give them effect in national law, and with reporting obligations arising from them.
On 13 March 2009, the Secretariat invited all High Commissions in London to attend a high level seminar commemorating the joint occasions of the 30th anniversary of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and International Women’s Day. Jean Kekedo (High Commissioner of Papua New Guinea), Christine Chinkin (Professor of International Law at London School of Economics), Kashmala Tariq (Chairperson of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians) and Bernice Sam (of Women in Law and Development in Africa) each gave a dynamic contribution from their own different perspectives as to the utmost importance of full implementation of CEDAW. The seminar was held to pursue a practical agenda of three calls to Commonwealth countries:
- removal of reservations, and
- full domestication of CEDAW.
The Secretariat hopes to assist Commonwealth member countries in meeting all three.
The Secretariat regularly liaises with the UN human rights mechanisms, as well as regional forums, to ensure efficient and complementary programme activity. It also represents the Commonwealth in various forums. For example, since June 2005 the Secretariat has contributed to a UNHCHR Working Group on regional organisations ensuring that counter-terrorism measures are compliant with basic human rights standards. Further, in line with the mandate of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Office of the UNHCHR, the Secretariat continues to collaborate with the UNHCHR as well as other UN regional offices on various fronts to promote human rights. Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma met with the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Navi Pillay in May 2009 to discuss ways of further strengthening collaboration between the two organisations. The Secretariat attends the Human Rights Council meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, and observes UPR sessions involving Commonwealth countries. Regular meetings are held with various officials from UNHCHR to ensure regular exchanges of information on the latest developments in international human rights and to share expertise on various programmes.
The Secretariat continues to work closely with other organisations on human rights in the Commonwealth such as the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, Interights and Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team.
National Human Rights Institutions
The Commonwealth ‘Best Practice’ Guidelines on the Establishment of National Human Rights Institutions are an example of jointly developed best practice standards that are being used in project work, including by the UN, to strengthen the institutional capacity of human rights commissions, and other bodies, to protect individuals and groups. The Secretariat also continues to work with governments to strengthen the capacity of existing national human rights institutions to operate confidently, competently and independently, based on these guidelines.
The Secretariat provides advice both in countries where an NHRI is proposed and where the NHRI is in a nascent stage, requiring support. This kind of support was provided to the interim government of Bangladesh in 2008, leading to the establishment of a human rights commission there. Currently, at the request of the Swazi government, the Secretariat is advising Swaziland in the process leading to the full establishment and operation of a credible NHRI. Ongoing assistance continues to be extended to member states such as Malawi, where the Secretariat held an orientation seminar for the newly appointed commissioners in October 2009.
The Secretariat continues to support the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (CFNHRI), an inclusive body of national human rights institutions and other national accountability mechanisms having a human rights mandate, to:
- promote networking, sharing of information, experiences and best practices
- encourage countries to establish Paris Principles-compliant NHRIs
- assist national institutions to fulfil their mandated activities.
The forum met in the wings of the 2009 CHOGM. Among other things, the CFNHRI discussed the role of NHRIs in tackling climate change and agreed to promote the discussion on the human rights dimensions of climate change in their respective countries – looking at how the rights contained in the key international instruments are threatened by the impacts of climate change. The forum also met in October 2008 in Nairobi as well as in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2009.
Raising awareness and understanding
The Commonwealth Human Rights Programme for police trainers is a curriculum development programme designed to provide practical resources in human rights, so as to build these principles into standard police (and prison officer) training. The programme was pioneered with police trainers from five Commonwealth countries on a regional basis in West Africa in 2005 (Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone). The programme continues to benefit member countries in promoting best practices for the police and has reached police in 42 member states to date.
Lack of awareness about basic rights protections is a major barrier to realising ideals of human equality and dignity. Human rights awareness and education is therefore of great importance to the Commonwealth, especially for teachers, police and other government officials, distance learners, women and young people.
Workshops for civil servants in Maldives, and for youth workers in Solomon Islands were organised in May 2008 and September 2009 respectively.
The Secretariat continues to publish and disseminate widely best practice guidelines on a range of rights issues. Through the publication of human rights information such as the Human Rights Update Newsletter, the Secretariat acquaints countries with human rights developments in the Commonwealth and the wider world, and helps in developing policies in line with international human rights standards. In collaboration with Interights, a UK-based international human rights non-governmental organisation, the Commonwealth Human Rights Law Digest, which compiles human rights cases from across the Commonwealth, is published on a biannual basis. Recent publications include Human Rights in the Commonwealth: A Status Report, Child Rights in the Commonwealth: 20 Years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and The Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights: Towards Best Practice.
Human rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat
Finally, the creation of an independent HRU within the Secretariat has given human rights considerations more salience and the unit’s staff greater scope to work with colleagues across the organisation to promote mainstreaming. This unit assists all other divisions in the Secretariat in integrating in a practical way and making explicit relevant human rights ideals, standards and frameworks in their areas of work. The unit regularly advises the Secretary-General and Secretariat staff on human rights issues arising from current Secretariat work or developments across the Commonwealth, including on counter-terrorism; rights-based approaches to HIV/AIDS treatment, trafficking of persons, including women, and other gender issues; and human rights awareness among youth.
In 2006 HRU staff participated in Secretariat pre-election assessment and Commonwealth observation group missions to Guyana and The Gambia. In 2009 the HRU was involved in similar missions to Mozambique.
HRU also collaborates with the Commonwealth Foundation to facilitate better engagement with civil society and governments on human rights issues.
Through the HRU, the Secretariat seeks to progress the mainstreaming of human rights through promoting a rights-based approach to development across all its political, economic and social divisions. The findings and recommendations of a report commissioned for this project will be used as an internal document for institutional self-appraisal and as a framework to implement specific recommendations. Apart from that, the HRU also organises ‘Rights Talks’ for staff on various human rights issues.