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CHOGM: Paper Diet Feeds the Toothless

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Nov 24 2003 (IPS) - The Commonwealth hasn’t done badly on human rights – on paper that is. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Abuja will seek to transfer at least some of those rights on to the street where they are needed.

As a step towards that, a Commonwealth Human Rights Forum Dec. 3 and 4 will for the first time bring together non-governmental human rights organisations and national human rights institutions.

The forum is being planned as a platform where urgent human rights issues facing member countries will be raised and presented to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to follow.

So is this just another of those Commonwealth groups, with more print to follow under a new letterhead?

Look at some of the mechanisms the Commonwealth has already:

– The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG): This is made up of a rotating group of eight foreign ministers (currently Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Botswana, India, Malta, Nigeria and Samoa). Its brief is to look into "serious or persistent violations" of the principles of the Harare Declaration of 1991 which seeks to bind member countries to democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

– The Human Rights Unit, which is the main body responsible for human rights within the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is a free-standing unit that reports directly to the secretary-general.

– The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation which supports human rights through technical assistance that includes human rights training.

– The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative itself, a non-governmental group set up with support from the Commonwealth Foundation.

CMAG has the highest profile among these, which does not mean that it has effective reach. It can look at a problem, send a team, recommend action to the host government, and then at most recommend suspension of the country concerned from the Commonwealth.

At the moment Pakistan and Zimbabwe stand suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth, a kind of half-way suspension house. They remain members, but cannot participate in decision-making bodies.

These can hardly be decisions that improve human rights anyway. "The Harare declaration refers to a broader concept of human rights, but to date CMAG has mostly been concerned with ensuring formal democracy, with its focus on the unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government," Clare Doube from the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) told IPS.

"Ideally CMAG should also look at the more substantive aspects of democratic functioning of its member states, including the value they place on protecting and promoting human rights," Doube says. "Formal exercise of voting rights is not determinative of the fundamental freedoms enjoyed by a population."

The Human Rights Unit, Doube says, comprises just two programme officers and an administrative person. "More resources should be dedicated to their work," she says. The third mechanism, the technical cooperation fund, has seen its budget slashed by 40 percent since 1990 (it is 23 million pounds for 2003-2004).

The Commonwealth also promotes human rights through the Commonwealth Foundation and the civil society organisations it supports. Many of these play an active role in supporting human rights.

"But there is a great deal of room for improvement and innovation in all that the Commonwealth does," says Doube. "The Commonwealth has made a number of commitments to human rights over a number of decades, but has no system in place for monitoring and reporting on the implementation of these commitments. The Commonwealth is strewn with paper promises."

Human rights activists within the Commonwealth propose improvements along several lines:

– The creation of a Commonwealth human rights commissioner mandated to promote, protect and monitor human rights, give advice, and make recommendations.

– The creation of a human rights adviser to CMAG, to work like rapporteurs with the United Nations. An adviser such as a recently retired Supreme Court judge could provide evidence prior to CMAG meetings, and assist governments running into trouble or emerging from CMAG suspension.

– More generally human rights could be supported through an environment that promotes open governance. This would mean implementation of comprehensive information access and disclosure policies.

The non-governmental Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative set up in 1987 with support from associations like those of Commonwealth journalists, broadcasters, trade unions, parliamentarians and others has been working largely on policy level advocacy, and some educational ventures.

The Forum that the CHRI is organising in Abuja will now "bring together many different organisations that have never come together before," Doube says. "It should result in the creation of a new network, and should be a good kick in the right direction. The CHRI will be the secretariat of that network."

The legal resources consortium and the Nigerian human rights commission are also involved in organising the Commonwealth Human Rights Forum. The non-governmental organisations supporting the forum include the Association of Commonwealth Amnesty International Sections.

The outcome of the two-day meeting will be fed to CHOGM, that gets going the day after the CHRI forum concludes. Commonwealth leaders have been listening to human rights noises for a long time. The CHRI is hoping that this move will be a little noisier, and lead to a little more action.

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