Charting a new path

Vijay Krishnarayan

The core principles and values of the Commonwealth are reflected in the various declarations, projects and plans of action the member states have agreed to – so why does the Commonwealth need another guiding text? A Commonwealth charter would entrench these ideals, writes Vijay Krishnarayan, by institutionalising the commitment of governments to engage with civil society and by serving as a rallying call to all stakeholders in the Commonwealth.

Top of the list of proposals made by the Emi­nent Persons Group (EPG), a high-level panel established by Commonwealth heads to con­sider the association’s reform and renewal, was the establishment of a charter. The EPG made this recommendation because they saw the need for what they called “a Commonwealth spirit” that is shared – not just among mem­ber states, but between member states and the peoples of the Commonwealth. Indeed, they believed that such a charter would entrench the premise that the Commonwealth’s purpose is driven by the aspirations of its people. This is powerful stuff for an association that has for too long focused on seeking consensus be­tween governments while neglecting to realise the potential of its civil society.

The early responses to the idea of a charter were mixed, with the fundamental question being: Is it needed? After all, the Commonwealth has a rich list of guiding texts. Some of these are generated by heads of government, such as the 1991 Harare Declaration (the nearest thing the Com­monwealth has to a constitution), while others emanate from civil society, such as the 2003 Latimer House Principles (on the relationship between parliament, the judici­ary and the executive in Commonwealth countries). Some see the charter as a means of consolidating these various documents, but this would be a missed opportunity. Here we have the chance to bring the or­ganisation up-to-date and enable it to look to the future, rather than edit existing tracts.

But who has a stake in a new charter? Clearly the EPG had civil society at the forefront of their minds when they made the recommendation. They envisaged a ‘Peoples Charter’ as a means of institutionalising the commitment of Commonwealth member states to engaging with local groups and as­sociations. There are good examples from across the Commonwealth where this has worked well through compacts or social dia­logue. These instances show that it is not just civil society that has a stake in formalised structures but governments too have bene­fited from closer working relationships, ena­bling them to make use of additional compe­tencies and capacities. The charter would do the Commonwealth a favour by challenging the perception that the two sides are always pulling in opposite directions.

A forward-looking document would also serve as a rallying call to all stakeholders in the Commonwealth – whether they come from government, the private sector or civil society. An aspirational charter would enable each and every sector to see itself in it and identify the contribution they can make to a contemporary international voluntary association.

In terms of content, the charter will en­able the Commonwealth to update its view on issues it has helped bring to the world’s attention, and in doing so, once more ad­vance the international agenda. For exam­ple, the Harare Declaration made a progres­sive statement on sustainable development, which in the early nineties was a relatively new concept. The need for a Commonwealth perspective on the future of development is pressing as we approach the 2015 deadline for the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. This vision must cham­pion an equitable global trade regime. The fact that small states find a unique interna­tional multilateral space in the Common­wealth must be acknowledged and a com­mitment made to assist their development.

It is also the place for a statement of be­lief in the universal right to development, alongside civil and political freedoms. All forms of discrimination must be con­demned. In this vein, the Commonwealth has also made important statements on the importance of respect for human dignity and diversity as well as the understanding of people’s multiple identities. The charter can give the Commonwealth’s work in this area impetus and encourage the family of Commonwealth organisations to take it up.

Equality is a central tenet for the Com­monwealth. The association has produced a plan of action on gender equality, but early drafts have proved disappointingly brief on the subject. The drafts recognised the cen­trality of gender equality and women’s em­powerment to development and the observance of human rights, but stopped short of making any promise to address the issues in the way, for example, that a pledge is made to investing in young people and promot­ing their development. A Commonwealth charter must enshrine a commitment to the equal treatment of women and girls.

Above all, the charter represents an op­portunity for the Commonwealth to ac­knowledge that its potential is not bounded by the resources available at headquarters. The charter can and must articulate an am­bitious set of aspirations that inspire and bring us together as Commonwealth people – diverse as we are.

About the author:

Vijay Krishnarayan is Director of the Commonwealth Foundation


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