From the TUC

Unions call on Commonwealth to get tougher on human rights

25 Sep 2012, By

Commonwealth logoThe Commonwealth’s Foreign Ministers are meeting this weekend in New York (no, the US hasn’t returned to the Empire, it’s common for Commonwealth meetings to happen in the margins of UN events!) A major piece of business will be approving the draft Charter of the Commonwealth, a summary of the values that bind the Commonwealth together.

The Commonwealth Trade Union Group (part of the ITUC), is calling for the Commonwealth to get tough on member states who abuse workers’ and other human rights. Trade unionists across the world will be lobbying their Governments over the next few days – in particular in Australia, where Labour Senator Bob Carr is the Foreign Minister who will chair the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Western Australia in October 2011, an Eminent Persons Group made a series of recommendations about the future of the Commonwealth. Many – both structural and political – were not accepted, such as a human rights commissioner, and support for LGBT equality. But two of the key agreements were:

(a)    that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG, a sub-committee of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting, and the body with the power to suspend members of the Commonwealth) should be reformed to have a wider scope than democracy, ie covering human rights; and to have more powers to act, so that it could be more preventative; and

(b)   that there should be a Charter of the Commonwealth, bringing together existing documents such as the Harare Principles, and setting out the values of the Commonwealth.

We believe that the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers should mandate the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group at the very least to take the Charter into account when determining whether to take action regarding member states in breach of the principles of the Commonwealth – like Swaziland. And we further believe that the Action Group should be empowered to consider submissions not just from member states of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Secretariat, but from the Commonwealth Associations – such as the Commonwealth Trade Union Group – who represent civil society.

We welcome the Draft Charter and its commitment to international peace and security, democracy and human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in particular to the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights (Section III). We also welcome the commitment to freedom of expression (which we hold to include freedom of speech), the support for inclusive growth, promoting social equity and removing wide disparities and unequal living standards (Section IX), and especially freedom of association and assembly (Section XVI).

However, we believe that Foreign Ministers should make the following changes to the Draft Charter:

(a)    in Section III on Human Rights, we believe that the Commonwealth should also commit itself to oppose discrimination on the basis of disability and of sexual orientation (over the past week, unions around the Commonwealth have been backing a joint initiative of LGBT and HIV/AIDS activists to get the Charter reformed to outlaw homophobic laws which are preventing Commonwealth member states from tackling the pandemic);

(b)   in Section IX on Sustainable Development, we believe that the Commonwealth should commit itself to the right to work as a fundamental human right vital to the promotion of sustainable and inclusive development; and

(c)    in Section X on Protecting the Environment, we believe that the recognition that “effective action will only be possible with the willing support of the Commonwealth population” should include a reference to just transition, to protect livelihoods in the transition to a low-/zero- emission economy.

The Commonwealth can take a major step forward for human rights and democracy this weekend. If Foreign Ministers listen.