Raising awareness of, and strengthening respect for, human rights is a primary strategic goal of the Commonwealth. Through its Human Rights Unit (HRU), it develops promotional and assistance programmes to support Commonwealth members’ stated human rights commitments.
To provide a normative framework for national promotion and protection of rights, the Secretariat encourages and assists member countries, particularly small states, with the process of ratifying major human rights conventions, with drafting and implementing legislation to give them effect in national law and with reporting obligations arising from them.
The Secretariat regularly liaises with the UN human rights machinery and regional forums, to ensure efficient and complementary programme activity. It also represents the Commonwealth in various forums. 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.
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’s HRU also continues to work with governments (for example in Cameroon in 2005–06) to strengthen the capacity of existing national human rights institutions to operate confidently, competently and independently, based on these guidelines.
In acknowledgement of the vital role of civil society organisations, the HRU seeks to create an interface and functioning networks between and among government institutions and local human rights organisations. Regional workshops since 2003 have brought together government officials, human rights reporters, advocates and practitioners, and members of national human rights institutions.
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.
The Human Rights Unit, with the support and input of senior law enforcement officials and trainers from five West African countries, has developed a ‘Human Rights Training Manual for Police Trainers in Commonwealth West Africa’. In July 2005 the Secretariat held a workshop in Abuja, Nigeria for over thirty police trainers from the region, to assist them in using the manual to develop their existing training curricula. The Manual was launched by the Secretary-General in London to mark International Human Rights Day (10 December). The Secretariat began applying the same initiative to other regions in 2006.
In another example from 2005, and in collaboration with the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the HRU oversaw the launch with four Indian universities of model Commonwealth human rights courses. The first fruit of this initiative, which will extend to other parts of the Commonwealth in 2006, came in late 2005 when Commonwealth Orientation certificates in human rights were awarded to 160 police officers in India.
The Secretariat continues to publish and distribute ‘best practice’ guidelines on a range of rights issues. In a new collaborative development, a compendium of recent human rights cases from across the Commonwealth will be published biannually, for the assistance of judges, lawyers and students.
Placement of the HRU as a free-standing unit within the Secretariat reflects the importance of human rights considerations in all Secretariat activities. HRU has been working with all divisions to assist them in practically integrating and making explicit relevant human rights ideals, standards and frameworks. Related to this, the HRU regularly advises the Secretary-General and Secretariat staff on human rights issues arising from current Secretariat work.