Commonwealth People’s Forum

FCO Minister Hugo Swire spoke at the closing session of the Commonwealth People’s Forum at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

FCO Minister Hugo Swire spoke at the closing session of the Commonwealth People’s Forum

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire:

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to join your Forum today. And join in congratulating all those who have worked so hard in ensuring such a successful event.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s aim of strengthening participatory governance – encouraging contact between governments and their people – is something I strongly support. Being ready to listen and debate ideas with civil society is fundamental to democracy, accountability and good governance.

I have been interested to hear what you wish to see from your governments and what you want their priorities to be beyond 2015. I congratulate you on the Forum’s Outcome Document and the work of the Reference Group. I hope that in responding to your conclusions I will be playing my own small part in the dialogue that the Foundation promotes.

My view is that Governments and society – individuals, charities, and community groups – ultimately have the same aim: to improve the lives of our fellow citizens. That is as true in international relations as it is in our own domestic policies.

The days when governments believed they had all the answers are over. In fact, government interference can often be as much of a problem as it is a solution.

Governments have to recognise that the world is changing. People want to know how their taxes are being spent, what is being done in their name, how the companies they buy from source their products. There is a shift, one that is really apparent in countries like the UK, from state action to social action.

And technology is allowing this to happen. It is holding all of us, governments, businesses, charities, to account and letting people access information and get involved on a scale that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

It’s why the priorities at the G8 this year were:

  • trade – lifting people out of poverty through free and fair trade;

  • tax – making sure that people pay what they owe;

  • and transparency – making sure governments spend taxpayers money wisely and opening up the process of government to give people more of a direct say.

It’s also why the UK was among the founder members of the Open Government Partnership: we believe in its principles of accountability and engagement.

We govern in your name. Our decisions affect you. Its only right that we listen to your experiences, understand the challenges you face, know what your priorities are – and we respond.

The same is true of the post-2015 development agenda. Whatever action Governments decide to take, whatever is agreed at meetings like those that will take place this week will impact on us all.

That’s why the UN High Level Panel on the post 2015 development framework, which was co-chaired by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, went further than ever before to include people and organisations from all over the world, from Parliamentarians to farmers, minority groups to academics and businesses, in discussions about how to rally people behind the cause of eradicating global poverty – and they were particularly keen to hear from the very people whose daily lives are blighted by poverty and injustice.

It’s vital that everyone shares in development – that we all have a stake and a say – and that this is underpinned by a set of values defining our rights and responsibilities.

Since the last time we met, in 2011, the Commonwealth has defined its values; such as good governance, the rule of law and gender equality, in a Charter against which people can judge their governments.

The Charter commits Commonwealth members to respect the human rights of everyone. Against that background, the decision to hold CHOGM in Sri Lanka has attracted a great deal of comment and criticism, particularly from human rights defenders.

We look to our hosts Sri Lanka, to demonstrate, to demonstrate its respect for the values of the Charter. All the people of Sri Lanka suffered during its long civil conflict, and none should regret the end of LTTE terrorism.

But as it emerges from those years of conflict, Sri Lanka needs to show meaningful commitment to the reconciliation process it has set out, strengthen respect for human rights and ensure the independence of the judiciary. The Government needs to represent the interests of all Sri Lankan people, including minority groups. With the recent elections to the Northern Provincial Council all provinces have in place local governance structures to represent the views and interests of local communities. We now want to see all elected representatives being able to contribute meaningfully to regional governance.

We urge Sri Lanka to implement all of the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, including investigations into ‘disappearances’. We encourage Sri Lanka to investigate human rights abuses, transparently and credibly; guarantee freedom of expression; and, stamp out intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders including by bringing those responsible to justice.

But we should also recognise progress in areas such as infrastructure regeneration and resettlement of internally displaced people. This is important, too. I hope the advances made in demining – which the UK has supported - Northern Provincial Council elections and reintegration of ex-combatants will eventually prepare the way for a comprehensive political settlement.

This CHOGM is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to demonstrate where it has made progress. ‘But it will also focus attention sharply on those areas where Sri Lanka still needs to do more to protect its people. We will look to Sri Lanka, to demonstrate its commitment to Commonwealth values.

One of the reasons British Ministers were so keen to come to Sri Lanka, despite significant pressure not to, was to speak to the communities and individuals who have been affected by conflict and abuse. To hear their stories first hand. During my visit I look forward to meeting many people in different communities and hearing their views.

But our concerns are not with Sri Lanka alone. Across the Commonwealth, entire sections of society are disadvantaged because of who they are. I am greatly concerned by the treatment of the LGBT community in many Commonwealth states. 41 of its member states still criminalise homosexuality. I call on those members to follow the example set by The Bahamas, South Africa, Vanuatu and India, who in recent years have decriminalised homosexuality. The UK will continue to make the case for both acceptance and integration of the LGBT community, and press Commonwealth states to recognise that the LGBT community deserve the same protection as all others.

Gender equality is another area where urgent progress is needed – to ensure that women have the same opportunities and rights as men.

The sexual violence inflicted on women in conflict is abhorrent: action to discourage and reduce it is an important element of British foreign policy, and I am pleased to say, one that most Commonwealth governments support.

Improving the security of women – and all minority groups- their social and economic and social status and their involvement in decision making will be central to the post 2015 development process. It’s also a central feature of Government, to uphold the rights of all individuals equally and fairly.

Most importantly, this means respecting the will of the people. Being prepared to be held to account for their decisions and actions, holding free and fair elections and respecting the outcome. Sadly, the governments of Commonwealth countries have not always abided by these principles.

Fiji remains suspended from the Commonwealth following a military coup in 2006. It is important that we continue to encourage Fiji to make further progress towards holding free and fair elections next year.

And we are deeply concerned about the continuing delays to the Maldives’ recent elections and that President Waheed has remained in power past the end of his Presidential term, a clear contravention of the constitution of that nation. Some of these issues may strike you as ‘political’, rather than focused on development. But, in my view, they are inextricably linked.

The development goals the world adopts after September 2015 need to concentrate on the eradication of poverty and sustainable development. But rather than just focusing on the symptoms of poverty, we must tackle the causes: corruption, repression, lack of accountability. The Millennium Development Goals missed these points. And the solution is a set of values, like those in the Commonwealth Charter, which, properly implemented, allow people everywhere to feel that they live in a society which respects their freedom and rights and gives them a vote and a voice.

I spoke earlier about the importance of governments listening to civil society. Your actions and campaigns can have a real effect on the communities you live in. I look forward to continued dialogue, at CHOGM and afterwards.

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Published 13 November 2013