A clear statement of intent

Danny Sriskandarajah

What do you get when you bring together 250 grassroots leaders in six consultations across the Commonwealth’s regions to discuss their wants for CHOGM? The answer, writes Danny Sriskandarajah, the Interim Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, is a new and improved Civil Society Statement. 

Contrary to what the cynics may say, when leaders arrive in Perth in October, they will have before them a powerful and challenging document that is a clarion call for an ambitious Commonwealth that does more to uphold the principles on which the association is founded. 

The clarity that emanates from the 2011 Civil Society Statement is stark. There is no messing around as grassroots leaders from around the Commonwealth make it very clear to their governments that they need to shape up. Combined with the conclusions of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), and the strong recommendations that will be presented to heads during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), this puts governments in more of an accountable position than ever before. 

CHOGM has been accused of being a talking shop where countries, which have ratified this or that convention or statement but appear not to adhere to them, come to partake in some luxury rhetoric. While I believe this argument is fundamentally flawed, it does, however, put the onus back on leaders to demonstrate to their people that membership of the Commonwealth stands for something. 

The Statement allows civil society to speak strongly and directly to governments about where the shortfalls are and asks them for clarity on those issues. In the 2011 Statement, they are particularly vocal. There is general outcry about the state of human rights in the Commonwealth, with particular attention drawn in paragraph 19 to the shameful statistic that 41 out of 54 member states criminalise sex between men. Paragraph 20 goes on to urgently call for all laws that make homosexuality a crime to be repealed. 

Another key concern that emerges from civil society is the need to preserve and nurture diverse cultures, including those of indigenous peoples. In the face of globalising forces in so many aspects of life, the Commonwealth has the potential to promote inter-cultural dialogue at the national and global level. 

These are examples of why I believe in the power of this Civil Society Statement. It offers another way, a different way, in which to reach governments. It may seem soft on the outside, but the content is every bit as hard in sentiment as a petition from Avaaz, the web-based community of campaigners. 

In the context of recovery from multiple global crises, civil society has the potential to be both pest and partner, setting out demands for change but also providing new avenues to gain popular engagement for those changes. The Statement also supports the Eminent Persons Group’s (EPG) call to establish a Commissioner on Democracy and the Rule of Law as an independent institution reporting to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). This is not just the usual table-thumping demand for more rights, it is also an offer to be part of a constructive dialogue on how to translate universally held principles into practice across 54 very different member states. 

The Commonwealth has come under fire in recent years for not being outspoken enough on human rights violations, nor for taking charge in a timely manner when countries act in ways that breach the 1991 Harare Declaration, which sets out the association’s core principles and values. CMAG has been seen as tardy and ineffectual, and its weaknesses have been recognised by the EPG. The Group’s initial recommendations for CMAG are to grant it more authority to help it react in a timely manner when these values are infringed. 

If the world does not believe that the Commonwealth will uphold its values by taking measures against its members if they violate the association’s principles, then the world will ultimately not believe in the value of the Commonwealth. I know that the Commonwealth is a valuable institution and that is why there are so many people working passionately to reignite it. The Civil Society Statement is the illustration and the proof that the ‘Commonwealth of the People’ is just as important as, and perhaps more vital than, the association of member states. Those 250 delegates who attended the consultations were as eager to help fight the good fight as they were angry about the shortcomings they saw around the Commonwealth. 

Here’s to CHOGM signalling the start of a new relationship between state and civil society under the Commonwealth banner.

About the author:

Danny Sriskandarajah is Interim Director at the Commonwealth Foundation


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