From the TUC

#BAD13: Commonwealth needs to get serious on human rights at work

16 Oct 2013, By

commonwealth flags

Commonwealth country flags  in London last week for Queen’s baton relay. Photo Commonwealth Secretariat


The Commonwealth’s ‘Committee of the Whole’ is meeting in London this week. That means the foreign ministers (or in some cases High Commissioners) of all Commonwealth countries. Today they’re meeting civil society representatives, including two excellent trade unionists from East Africa (Kkamati Mugalla from the East Africa Trade Union Council) and Tonga (Mele T’Amanaki – General Secretary of the Public Service Union). Their task is to draft the communique that will be formally adopted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka next month. And trade unionists will be demanding that the Commonwealth puts its commitment to human rights into practice, in a series of measures, set out in detail in the Commonwealth Trade Union Group submission.

First and foremost, we want to see the Commonwealth commit to decent work. The CHOGM theme is about the world’s development goals after 2015, and we want to see decent work (more and better jobs, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue) getting appropriate priority in those goals and the strategy that will underpin it. Growth on its own is not good enough, as the rising inequality within and between nations around the world has shown: to be meaningful and sustainable, that growth has to result in working people getting better wages, and the ILO decent work strategy is aimed at precisely that.

Second, we want to see the Commonwealth put more pressure on countries like Fiji and Swaziland which are simply not living up to the Commonwealth commitment to democracy, human rights and freedom. Fiji is already suspended, so the formal action the Commonwealth can take has been taken. But recent years have seen a progressive debate about other steps the Commonwealth can take, and, in particular, we want Fiji’s fellow developing countries taking the same firm line that the Commonwealth itself, and countries like  Australia, Britain and New Zealand have taken.

Swaziland is another matter though. Before the Charter for the Commonwealth was adopted, raising the bar on democratic freedoms was adopted, we were told by officials that their power to suspend countries that flout democracy didn’t apply to Swaziland, as, unlike Fiji, there had been no recent transfer from democracy to dictatorship – Swaziland was used to being a feudal autocracy! Well the Charter is much clearer, and in the view of the Swazi trade union movement and the ITUC, Swaziland is clearly in breach of many of the Charte’s commitments – free and fair elections, freedom of association and assembly, free speech and so on – and should be suspended.

And third (although there’s a much longer list in the Commonwealth Trade Union Group’s statement – a ten point plan, in fact), we will be backing the call of the Commonwealth HIV-AIDS Alliance and others for a stronger line on LGBT rights, starting with a clear commutment to eradicating the criminalisation of homosexuality that is more prevalent in Commonwealth countries than in the rest of the world (some people blame the Victorian values on which the Commonwealth is founded.)