Date: 26 Oct 2010
Author: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Declarations – whether unilateral ones, of precious things like love, or Universal ones, of foundational things such as Human Rights – are hollow if they are not backed by Deeds. There are protestations and protests about human rights, but ultimately, it is action that counts.
Where, then, does the 54-nation Commonwealth stand, accounting as it does for a quarter of the world’s countries, and a third of its people?
All of its members embrace the charter for human dignity that is the UN Declaration of Human Rights, yet only five of them – Lesotho, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Uganda – have ratified eight key treaties which come from it.
In a Commonwealth embracing people of every colour and creed – and with a pioneering record in the fight against racist rule in southern Africa – ten members are still to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
In a Commonwealth, the female half of whose population bear considerably more than half of its problems, two members are still to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
In fact, only one of the UN Treaties – the Convention on the Rights of the Child – has been ratified by all. Meanwhile the sovereign primacy of national law means that 21 of our member countries retain the death penalty, and as many as 42 outlaw homosexual acts.
And so it is across the world, and the 192 member states of the United Nations. The 1948 Declaration remains at best an aspiration, at worst a loose promise.
Such is the grey area of words, which is perhaps best set aside for the more prosaic reality of deeds.
The Commonwealth’s own stated values and commitment to human rights cannot be taken to mean that all its members are perfect, and observing them to the letter. All our members are journeying on the democratic path, the UK as much as any. But the vast majority of Commonwealth member countries are less than 50 years old, and their journey represents a far steeper and harder climb.
So when the Commonwealth faces up to its fallibilities, it recognises them first across the entirety of its membership. And when it turns its attention to an individual member, it does so by proffering a helping hand, not raising a wagging finger.
The inter-governmental Commonwealth sees little point in listing grievances, in naming names, or in using the crudest forms of megaphone diplomacy. But yes, when left with no other choice, it will of course stand up and be counted: it has suspended five of its members in the last 15 years. Even when it does take those most extreme of measures, it does so with the offer of help to return a country to its democratic path.
Just as we raise our concerns behind the scenes, we offer our support in a similarly unobtrusive and painstaking way.
The Commonwealth convenes a network of some 26 independent National Human Rights Institutions, and indeed it helped to establish them in places like Bangladesh, Cameroon, the Maldives and the Seychelles. Bodies such as these are living testimony that the state exists for the citizen, and not the other way round. They witness to the important fact that criticism is twice as valuable when seen from and heard within, and not without.
We have published guidelines on best practice for bodies like the Commission on Equality and Human Rights in the UK. We have supported our members in meeting the practical obligations that come with ratifying the two first – and foremost – UN human rights instruments: the 1966 Covenants on Social and Economic, and Civil and Political Rights. We have helped nearly half of our membership prepare for and respond to the process of ‘Universal Periodic Review’ carried out in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. We have given human rights training to police forces in over 40 of our member countries. And in supporting other bodies across the Commonwealth – like election commissions, parliaments, and central and local administrations – we are investing in societies which can actually yield the benefits of their stated values and rights.
So human rights, as we see them, should not be the stuff of headlines, but of both hard-wiring and hard work. We will never renege on the fact that human rights are fundamentally woven into our values and everything we do: as much in our efforts to support women and young people, as in our health and education programmes, as in our work – more predictable, perhaps – to promote democracy and the rule of law.
There is no coyness and soft soap sensitivity when we in the Commonwealth call ourselves family, because all families face their own challenges. But over the full 60 years since the modern Commonwealth was born, our Declarations have been matched by Deeds. We have sought to match aspiration with delivery, and to achieve a balance between public pronouncement and constructive engagement.