My preface is a simple but merited statement. It is this: the Commonwealth is a human rights advancing organisation. So where do we stand? With human rights, it is worth saying that there are often stark distinctions drawn between the rhetoric and reality, the principle and the practice.
Yet there are grey areas in between. For instance, the fact that 14 of our members have yet to ratify the two 1966 UN covenants, on civil and political rights, and social and economic rights – or subsequent conventions, for instance against torture – does not necessarily mean that they neither agree with them nor observe them.
It may well simply mean that the practicalities of ratifying, of implementing, or of reporting, are too onerous for some smaller or poorer states.
The Secretariat lends a supportive hand. When we received reports that the lives of human rights workers were threatened recently, we sought clarification. Because we should all see ourselves – governors and governed alike, and as signatories to the Commonwealth Principles – as people with responsibility to uphold human rights.
Disappearances, arbitrary detentions, attacks on the press and freedom of expression or the space for civil society, undermining of the independence of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary: whenever and wherever we hear of such things, they are of deep concern.
How are we to respond when human rights are in jeopardy? How, especially given the fact that every country in the Commonwealth is committed to journeying on the path of democracy, human rights and the rule of law and that most – at one time or another – will stumble?
Not one of our 53 countries is perfect. The Commonwealth way, therefore, is to recognise this, and to be ready to work – constructively and with quiet engagement – towards better solutions. I feel that we gain little by publicly listing our grievances, and by naming names. We gain the most when we agree ways of working together – or working separately, from our different points of strength, towards a shared goal – in strengthening our responses to abuses of human rights.
The Commonweath Secretary General was speaking at the Commonwealth National Human Rights Institutions conference in Trinidad and Tobago last week