Vision for a stronger Commonwealth: An even greater force for human rights, democracy and prosperity

Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed the Commonwealth People's Forum in Perth, Australia on 27 October.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

It is a great pleasure to be here in Perth for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

I congratulate Australia for their adept stewardship of this year’s CHOGM. It has been a particularly testing time for the country after floods wreaked devastation earlier this year and it is a tribute to them that their energy and commitment in hosting this CHOGM has not in any way diminished.

This is in large part due to Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who I know shares my vision for a stronger Commonwealth; acting as an even greater force for democracy and prosperity and speaking out on the most pressing issues of our time.

Tomorrow morning Her Majesty the Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, will open the 21st Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It is the UK’s view that the next few days can and should be defining ones for the Commonwealth. The key focus of discussions has been on strengthening the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group. It was tasked two years ago to look at ways to strengthen the Commonwealth for the future and has found the organisation in urgent need of reform.

This is a clarion call which we must not ignore, whatever the precise details of what we agree to do.

Today the problems and threats we face are increasingly global in nature, from financial crises to a changing climate and the Commonwealth can help us to grapple with these issues. In a world that is more and more reliant on networks the Commonwealth is the ultimate network; spanning 54 countries, six continents and oceans and two billion citizens. It is a vast trade network worth $3 billion a year and has a rich web and latticework of over 100 civil society organisations, many of whom are here today. Organisations like yours are perhaps the Commonwealth’s greatest asset of all; and you are widely acknowledged to do the best of its work.

The case for reinvigorating the Commonwealth is abundantly clear, and Britain wholeheartedly supports the recommendations of the EPG. In particular we welcome their focus on promoting the Commonwealth’s values. The modern Commonwealth has always been an association based on strong values. It was, for example, the first to expel apartheid South Africa from its ranks, with members committing ‘to use all their efforts to foster human dignity everywhere’. Commonwealth debates on South Africa were at times difficult, as Britain especially knows, but looking back it is clear that the Commonwealth played a crucial role in the peaceful dismantling of apartheid just as it had already played fostering the emergence of an independent and democratic Zimbabwe in 1980.

Since then the Commonwealth has increased its work to support democracy, peace and human rights; through its response to Nigeria’s first coup and then to unconstitutional changes of government in other Commonwealth members; through the work of the Ministerial Action Group; in helping war torn states such as Sierra Leone to return to stability; and in monitoring 85 elections in the last decade alone.
But it is also fair to say that in recent years it has sometimes shied away from key challenges and not always spoken out as clearly and decisively as it could have done, failing, for example, to take action on the human rights situations in Zimbabwe and Fiji before they became extreme.
We want to see the Commonwealth strengthening its role as a standard bearer for human rights and democracy. It remains uniquely placed to do so; the sheer diversity of it membership gives it the potential to speak with a truly global moral authority.

That is why we favour the EPG’s recommendation for a ‘Charter of the Commonwealth’, discussed this morning by foreign ministers, that would set out in one place the core values to which members are committed. We believe it would act to refocus the Commonwealth on the areas in which it can make the most difference. Furthermore, by providing a clear, straight forward declaration that is easily recognised and understood it would reinforce the Commonwealth’s already powerful global brand that many millions of people are proud to be associated with.

We also strongly support the EPG recommendation to institute a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights. By providing independent and credible information to the Commonwealth Secretary General and to CMAG at an early stage the Commissioner can help the Commonwealth to take decisive and pre-emptive action; engaging with governments before situations escalate.

Re-emphasising values within the Commonwealth family should not be about one group of countries lecturing another but about learning from each other and spurring each other on to greater things and higher standards, as families often do.

The UK would like to see the Commonwealth do more to promote the rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. It is wrong in our view that these groups continue to suffer persecution, violence and discrimination within the Commonwealth and that many members still have laws criminalising homosexuality. A Commonwealth that lives up to its values is one where all its citizens are free to live their lives in a safe and just society.

Britain also wants to see the death penalty abolished throughout the Commonwealth. As a country we are a longstanding opponent of the death penalty. We know this won’t be easy but we are encouraged by the progress there has been, such as in Trinidad and Tobago this year where mandatory death penalty sentences for felony murder were ruled unconstitutional. We are keen to help any countries that retain the death penalty move towards abolition.

We welcome the Commonwealth’s focus this year on ‘Women as Agents of Change’. Girls and women throughout the Commonwealth must have access to education and employment; enjoy their full legal rights and be protected from violence. Successful countries and economies are built by using the skills and talents of all their citizens, not just half of them. This of course applies in politics as much as in any area. Some Commonwealth members such as Tanzania have considerably better records than the UK on female participation in politics and we will look to learn lessons from others where we can.

While holding ourselves to the highest standards in these areas and in all areas of human rights, the Commonwealth should not forget to seek opportunities to promote our values elsewhere in the world. We should be inspired and gain confidence from the extraordinary developments this year in the Arab World which confirm what our countries have long known, that the desire for political and economic freedom is universal.
These events offer the potential for the greatest advancement of human freedom since the end of the cold war and we must seek to do all we can to support these countries at this critical juncture. As the countries of the region seek their own individual paths towards democracy there can be no better example than the Commonwealth of the possible diversity within democracy. We are the embodiment of the ideal that democracy allows countries to develop in their own way and that it provides the essential foundations for sound economic development.

I know that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the UK is already looking to help support these countries and I would encourage other organisations to use their considerable experience and expertise to do likewise.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in the Middle East as in all other places the Commonwealth’s unique selling point is and will continue to be its values. A better and stronger Commonwealth will be one where states seek inspiration and encouragement from one another; emulating the best examples of human rights, democracy and rule of law and one that looks outwards and ask what the Commonwealth can do to foster its values more broadly around the world.

Adherence to these values is how we will ensure the Commonwealth fulfils its promise of freedom and dignity to all its people; how we will gain the respect and good will to advance these ideals around the globe; and how we will invoke pride in the organisation amongst future generations of its citizens. This is the challenge we have before us this CHOGM and I hope we will rise to meet it with ambition and determination.

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Published 27 October 2011