The Commonwealth's 2.4 billion citizens — what are their rights?

Flags of the Commonwealth countries are hung along The Mall in London.   | Photo Credit: AP

Described as the biggest heads of government meeting the UK has ever hosted, leaders from 53 countries will meet to hold talks aimed at creating a “prosperous, secure, sustainable and fair future”, particularly for young people.

Expect a lot of pomp and circumstance. But what about substance?

As the UK hurtles towards its exit from the EU, Theresa May’s government is trying to reposition the Commonwealth as an alternative vehicle for securing the UK’s place in the world. With typically patriotic bravado, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently told Sunday Express readers that Commonwealth economies had grown twice as fast as the EU since Britain joined in 1972. Johnson also emphasised that the Commonwealth’s 2.4 billion inhabitants “share our values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Shared values matter for a group as diverse as the Commonwealth, which contains some of the world's richest and poorest countries, myriad languages, ethnic groups and cultures spread across six continents. It is a group bound together by the deeply painful history of colonialism, a system which allowed Britain to export its language, legal system and culture far and wide. Consequently, most Commonwealth countries today, as former colonies, carry a lot of common baggage side-by-side with these shared values.

Today, all Commonwealth countries must sign a Charter which sets out the group’s core values and which makes a bold statement about the important role of civil society “as partners in promoting and supporting Commonwealth values and principles, including the freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and in achieving development goals”.

But, how well is the Commonwealth doing in practice against these commitments? By one measure, 21 of 53 Commonwealth countries are seriously failing to protect citizens attempting to exercise their civic freedoms. Recent examples, including the crackdown on protest and internet access in Anglophone areas of Cameroon, clearly show that some Commonwealth states are paying little more than lip service to the words in the Charter. Others have pointed to the Commonwealth’s dismal record in protecting LGBTI people as evidence that the member states do not feel under any compulsion to adhere to the Charter.

In some Commonwealth countries, such as Bangladesh, Cameroon, Swaziland, Pakistan, Rwanda and Uganda, civil society organisations and human rights defenders face some of the severest repression on the planet. The CIVICUS Monitor has documented arrests, physical attacks and assassinations in Commonwealth countries. In many of these countries, there is little or no independent media, independent civil society organisations face intimidation and peaceful protests are often met with excessive force by police.

To make matters worse, the UK and Australia - two would-be champions for civil society - are also failing to properly protect civil society. There are serious concerns about both governments’ actions, which have sought to block civil society's participation in political debates, curbing access to information and, in the case of Australia, committing rights violations outside their own borders.

If the Commonwealth is serious about its shared values, all of its members, including countries like the UK and Australia, must get their house in order by recognising their duty under international law to protect a truly open space for civil society, one in which disagreement and dissent is tolerated and in which all citizens can have their voices heard. And member states need to call out their fellow Commonwealth governments who are involved in the commission or abetting of egregious attacks on peaceful activism.

One way Commonwealth countries could do this is through implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - a set of goals which apply to all UN member states and which provide the broad framework for the planet’s development between now and 2030. Distinct from previous attempts at setting global benchmarks for progress, this new set of goals includes targets related to human rights and the need to protect fundamental freedoms.

Progress so far on this front has been poor - by all states, and not just those in the Commonwealth. Not all countries have so far reported to the UN on their progress, and of those that have, pitifully few have bothered to include any mention of goals related to human rights, accountability and the space for civil society.

More than two years after these goals were adopted, it is clear that a large number of Commonwealth countries are failing to safeguard civic space and are thus failing to create the conditions for civil society to effectively participate as equal development partners in the implementation and monitoring of the goals.

Last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the Commonwealth must undergo a “wholesale revitalisation” if it is to secure a “prosperous, secure, fair and sustainable future” for its 2.4 billion inhabitants.

One way to do this is to set the Commonwealth apart not just in economic terms, but in terms of a true commitment to shared values, a commitment which means inculcating a culture of mutual accountability for human rights abuses across all members. In a world where many multilateral institutions are facing a crisis of confidence, the Commonwealth may well have a chance to turn history on its head and become a body which actually gets serious about fostering a culture of tolerance, debate and dissent amongst its citizens.

Doing so could set the Commonwealth on a new path and create the basis for more inclusive, sustainable and peaceful societies.


Cathal Gilbert is the coordinator of the CIVICUS Monitor, a research platform which rates civic rights violations for 195 countries. Prior to joining CIVICUS, Cathal worked for almost a decade on human rights, civil society and governance projects in East and Southern Africa.

Trinanjan Radhakrishnan is a Programme Officer with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in New Delhi India, which is an independent, non-partisan, international non-governmental organisation, mandated to ensure human rights are upheld in the countries of the Commonwealth. Previously, Trinanjan worked with the National Maritime Foundation, the Indian Navy's think tank.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 2:58:54 PM |

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