Commonwealth could do better on rights – especially at work
The Commonwealth – 53 nations with over a third of the world’s population – demands democracy from its members and often suspends them for lapses. This commitment to principles as well as the shared history and language that derives from that least democratic of institutions, the British Empire, makes the Commonwealth unique. The EU and OECD also require members to be democracies, but have never suspended one. The TUC is part of the Commonwealth Trade Union Group, with 30 million members in 50 Commonwealth countries, and we have consistently argued that Commonwealth countries should implement all eight core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Now, the Commonwealth is considering a Charter for the Commonwealth, and the TUC is pressing the British government to include the ILO’s core conventions in it.
Last year, the Commonwealth decided that its principles needed a refresh, to make the institution more relevant: an Eminent Persons Group was established, and reported to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth last October, proposing in particular that the Commonwealth step up its game on the rights of its citizens. Several people pointed out at the time the irony that the Eminent Persons Group report, designed to improve the rights of Commonwealth citizens, was a private document seen only by Heads of Government, debated in private and only the decisions of CHOGM made public. Enough of those who drew up and received the report acknowledged that by leaking the conclusions profusely, and we therefore know that Heads of Government refused to accept radical recommendations like the creation of a Commonwealth Commissioner for human rights, freedoms and the rule of law.
There were some very sensible proposals that were agreed, such as improving the functioning of the Commonwealth body which enforces those democratic principles (the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, CMAG). Its first outing was to take action over the Maldives. And now, the Commonwealth has started a limited and faulty process of consulting over a Draft Charter for the Commonwealth, bringing together in one place the Commonwealth’s various commitments to human rights and freedoms.
The TUC has sent its comments on the Draft Charter to Foreign Secretary William Hague, in particular arguing for the fundamental human rights set out in the ILO’s core conventions. Brendan’s letter says:
“We are … pleased to see references to equality of income as well as gender, and to the right to work. But we feel that the references to work highlight the lack of reference to the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), such as freedom of association and freedom from child or forced labour. And we feel equality needs to be more generally expressed to outlaw discrimination based on disability and sexuality.”