Hugo Swire's speech - 'Commonwealth Charter debate: can it have any impact?'

Mr Swire spoke at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association confererence 'Human Rights in the modern day Commonwealth: Magna Carta to Commonwealth Charter'

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

Hugo Swire

I am delighted to be here, to open today’s session on the Commonwealth Charter.

And may I take this opportunity to thank Sir Alan and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for their valuable and tireless work in the promotion of democratic values.

It is also a great pleasure to see so many fellow parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth here today.

And what better time for us to come together as parliamentarians than in a year marking the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta?

It was near to here at Westminster Hall that King John returned after sealing the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta, or ‘Great Charter’ limited a king’s power, and set us on a path to democracy and the rule of law. But we are here to discuss another great charter: that of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Charter, agreed by all member states and signed by HM The Queen at Marlborough House - built on those same Magna Carta principles.

For the first time in Commonwealth history, we have a single statement - aimed specifically at improving the lives of our citizens through our shared values.

Underpinned by the Commonwealth’s own founding principles of: liberty; equality; and peace.

But, just over two years on from the Commonwealth Charter - and 800 years from Magna Carta - it is fitting that we take stock of the Commonwealth’s role in the promotion and protection of human rights.

And it is precisely because of my deep respect and admiration for the Commonwealth that I say it can – and must – do more.

For me, the rationale is simple. Not only is there a moral obligation to protect human rights and the rule of law, but there is a clear benefit to our security and prosperity.

Magna Carta’s ground-breaking concept of “equality before the law”…

… the understanding that power is not to be exercised in an arbitrary and unconstrained way…

… that the State is answerable to its citizens…

…that there must be due process - in short the “rule of law”…

…underpins the strong institutions, democratic freedoms and accountable government on which so many nations have built their success.

And successful societies are, after all, the building blocks of global security and prosperity.

Prime Minister David Cameron calls this the Golden Thread that enables nations to thrive.

And we are fortunate to have such staunch allies in the promotion of our Commonwealth values as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association - whose work shows the value of parliamentarians as drivers for progress on human rights.

Or the Commonwealth Secretariat – and in particular Karen McKenzie’s team – supporting member states in completing their Universal Periodic Review; strengthening the capacity of national human rights institutions; and supporting election observation – where the Commonwealth is a world leader.

The Royal Commonwealth Society has done good work on LGBT issues.

And the Commonwealth Foundation have developed important links, bringing together civil society and government.

But while there are clear advantages to the promotion of Commonwealth values, for some member states, challenges remain.

For some, the Charter remains a purely aspirational document and they are yet to implement fully the commitments to which all members agreed in 2012.

I recognise this.

We should not shy away from the fact that implementing the Charter will take time. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

Indeed, the Magna Carta itself did not suddenly create a free and just society in this country overnight. Rather, it was a critical step on an incremental process towards parliamentary democracy as we know it.

But that should not be an argument for members to delay taking positive steps to address the principles of the Charter,

Others argue that unlike the UN Treaties, the Charter is not legally binding.

This is true.

But I would argue that the Charter’s values and principles are nothing new. They simply reinforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And I would also argue that member states have, not only a moral obligation to uphold and promote what they agreed to in 2012 – but that it is in their own national self-interest to do so.

For, where political competition, rule of law, and free speech are lacking, social stability will be vulnerable at best, and absent at worst.

Nor can innovation, entrepreneurialism or prosperity flourish.

So, in my view, member states have a responsibility to be active in their promotion and protection of human rights.

And as parliamentarians and Commonwealth citizens, all of us should ask ourselves what more we can do to ensure that our own Governments achieve this.

And as well as our own domestic mechanisms I would suggest that there is a role for the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. CMAG is intended to be the custodian of political values.

Its role, in my mind, is to review the membership’s adherence to all the values of the Charter. And to offer support and guidance to member states when they need it.

But, as we approach the next CMAG meeting in March, many will find it surprising that there is currently no country of concern on its formal, public agenda.

So, I welcome the Secretary-General’s commitment to take a more pro-active approach and use the meeting to reflect on the membership’s adherence to the Charter’s values.

And finally, I am pleased that at our Heads of Government meeting in Malta this November, the theme will be ‘Adding Global Value’.

We should use this opportunity to consider how the Commonwealth can add real value to advancing human rights – and not just within our own organisation, but to the wider international community.

Malta has already identified women’s rights as one area where the Commonwealth can add value. And I very much support the creation of a Women’s forum that will sit alongside the People’s and Youth Forums.

As we approach that meeting in November, with excitement and optimism, I find that the words of Prime Minister Muscat of Malta echo my own thoughts, when he said:

Change does not happen by itself or by accident. We need to work for change.

So, let us continue to work together on our common values and principles…

…from Magna Carta to the Commonwealth Charter…

… promoting and protecting individual rights…

…for our collective success…

…making the Commonwealth more relevant in a dangerous and difficult world and

…building the Commonwealth into the powerhouse of prosperity I know it can be.

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Published 6 February 2015