A fairer future for all? CHOGM and human rights in small island states.

With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London next week, comes an opportunity to support the important role the Commonwealth can play in the protection and promotion of human rights for the people of the numerous small island states that make up the Commonwealth family of nations.

The Commonwealth Charter binds all Member States to the shared values of the Commonwealth. These include the promotion of a fairer future for all and a commitment to eradicate any form of discrimination to ensure that human rights and the rule of law, good governance and a shared vision of democracy are upheld across the Commonwealth. But in recent years, this declared commitment to human rights has proved difficult to put into practice with some countries choosing to leave the organisation when concerns about their human rights record are raised.

In October 2016 the Maldives, a small island developing State, announced that it would be leaving the Commonwealth as it had been targeted for its alleged human rights records. It had faced questions about its progress on democracy in the face of concerns about freedom of expression, the detention of political opponents and the independence of the judiciary. But rather than addressing those concerns, it chose to leave. The very nature of the Commonwealth as a voluntary association means that countries can and do come and go as they choose. But despite many concerns about human rights being raised across the Commonwealth, most governments continue to show their commitment to the organisation and the values of the Charter.

Of the 53 Commonwealth countries, 31 are classified as small states and 25 of those are small island developing states (SIDS). This means that, compared to other international and regional organisations, the Commonwealth should be particularly well placed to understand the common challenges of small states and island nations in this area. For example:

  • Lack of capacity to implement international human rights obligations. With a limited number of staff members, financial constraints and technical capacity, the burden of ongoing reporting obligations to a range of different institutions and agencies and the need to keep up with constantly evolving international standards can be an impossible load to bear.
  • Population size and close-knit communities can pose a problem in terms of access to justice and effective accountability mechanisms to support human rights and the rule of law. It not always easy to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done, as judicial outcomes can easily be attributed to the personal relationships. Other accountability mechanism seems to be flawed from the get-go because of the relationship of staff to highly placed members of society or the lack of capacity to discharge their mandate.
  •  The human rights impacts of climate change are felt most acutely by the populations of SIDS but capacity and resource constraints can hamper their ability to advocate for their rights on the international stage. For SIDS, discussions around climate change and resilience cannot be divorced from human rights.

What then should be the role of the Commonwealth in supporting the protection and promotion of human rights and a fair future for all in its numerous small island states?

Given the nature of the Commonwealth, it needs to engage in a way that encourages positive change but keeps its Membership on board. This is often a difficult line to tread but the Commonwealth is well placed to develop its position as a vehicle to strengthen the capacity of its Member States to deliver on the shared commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This can be achieved through political, financial and technical support.

There are several concrete areas where the Commonwealth is uniquely placed to provide crucial support to its small island member states, in particular SIDS by:

  • Continuing its efforts to provide technical support to many SIDS to address their limited capacity by providing support to meet their reporting requirements under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and other human rights reporting mechanisms.
  • Supporting and strengthening civil society on human rights in SIDS. This is crucial to ensure effective protections on the ground and strong voices in international fora. Greater collaboration with the Commonwealth Foundation to support CSO access to valuable funds for work on human rights issues could be an important means of support as it is through this avenue that CSOs are able to bring about the change that they want to see within their countries.
  • Using its extensive expertise and comparative knowledge of small states by providing technical support to develop institutional and legislative arrangements that are tailored to the size and context of small island jurisdictions and giving suggestions and support for reform.
  • Helping SIDS to develop and amplify their voices so that the human rights of their people are central to their international work on combating climate change and developing resilience – the timing of CHOGM just two weeks before the Bonn Climate Change Conference makes this an ideal opportunity.

The Commonwealth will only be able to achieve its full potential and live up to its values with the political and financial support of its Members. Island Rights Initiative calls on the participants at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to ensure that the Commonwealth Secretariat is adequately resourced and has the political backing to take forward this important work.

The Commonwealth with its high proportion of small island member states and Secretary General who understands very well the small island context is uniquely placed to promote human rights in small island populations across the world.  A fairer future for all can only be achieved when human rights are truly universal in every corner of the Commonwealth.

Angelique Pouponneau and Susie Alegre