From the TUC

Queen signs up to union rights across the Commonwealth

11 Mar 2013, By

Queen Elizabeth II at the TUC

The Queen addresses a TUC centenary event in 1968.

Today, the Queen will sign the new Charter of the Commonwealth. It doesn’t imply personal endorsement because of her ‘apolitical role’ (ok, so I stretched the headline a bit!) But her signature indicates that all 54 countries of the Commonwealth have endorsed the Charter, developed over more than two years to bring together a range of existing declarations, and to refresh the way the Commonwealth approaches human rights.

I’ve blogged before – eg here and here – about the development of the Charter, and it doesn’t include everything that the Commonwealth Trade Union Group (CTUG) asked for – more detail follows below. What we don’t yet know is how the Charter will be enforced, and whether the cosy club of Foreign Ministers who currently decide on measures like Commonwealth suspension will be opened up to bodies like trade unions and others in civil society. But as a short summary of the human rights that the Commonwealth stands for, it is a step forward in terms of clarity, scope and maybe even implementation.

And it does mean the Queen will sign a document committing the Commonwealth’s governments to free and fair elections; economic and social (as well as civil, political and cultural) rights; opposition to all forms of discrimination (although LGBT rights are not mentioned); sustainable economic growth and social equity; freedom of expression, assembly and (ok, it’s not until the 16th of 16 clauses) freedom of association, ie trade union rights.

Some coverage has concentrated on LGBT rights, and that’s clearly the main form of discrimination omitted from the list in Clause 2, which does single out gender, race, colour, creed and political belief. Given the Commonwealth’s unique prevalence of homophobic laws and the campaigns to get the Commonwealth to outlaw homophobia, that’s a rather pointed omission, despite being “implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination” (my emphasis) which may or may not be merely weasel words. The clause doesn’t mention disability, either, as the CTUG wanted.

In the drafting process, while we got the clearer language on free and fair elections that we sought, we lost a commitment to equality of income, and we failed to secure reference to the core conventions of the ILO (which also means no reference to child or forced labour or free collective bargaining), although that specific reference to freedom of association was added in line with our demands.

But there’s a lot of good, if rather generalised, text in the Charter. Clause 9, for example, says (apologies for quoting at length):

“We stress the importance of sustainable economic and social transformation to eliminate poverty and meet the basic needs of the vast majority of the people of the world and reiterate that economic and social progress enhances the sustainability of democracy.

“We are committed to removing wide disparities and unequal living standards as guided by internationally agreed development goals. We are also committed to building economic resilience and promoting social equity, and we reiterate the value in technical assistance, capacity building and practical cooperation in promoting development.”

Overall, I reckon it’s more of a social democratic statement of principles than a neoliberal one, although you can read some such impulses into the trade passages and access to ‘affordable’ rather than ‘free’ health care (but we’ve always stressed that the NHS isn’t totally free, paid for as it is by taxes.)

The main issue still to be decided is how it will be implemented. Currently, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG, a committee of a handful of Foreign Ministers chosen from among the membership) is the only disciplinary mechanism the Commonwealth has, and it decides whether to suspend member states who have breached the Commonwealth’s previously rather confused codes and practices. That tended to mean that countries which suspend or overthrow democratically elected governments get suspended, which is a fairly blunt tool to deal with just one offence.

The new Charter – although enforcement will still be in the hands of CMAG – throws up the possibility of early warning measures which can be escalated as the breaches mount up, and action to deal with other breaches than suspending democracy. As I blogged over the weekend, Swaziland has escaped Commonwealth sanction so far because it never had a democracy to overthrow! Now that might not be the loophole King Mswati must be hoping for, especially with elections pending and political parties banned, freedom of expression, assembly and association denied.

The other issue which needs to be tested is who can raise breaches of the Charter. Thus far, the Commonwealth Secretariat and CMAG have been the only bodies able to initiate action. But the Charter says:

“We support the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to address promptly and effectively all instances of serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values without any fear or favour.”

That’s my emphasis, but note that it doesn’t restrict CMAG to instances that it or the Secretariat choose to address, but all of them. We shall see.