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On the Commonwealth’s charter of values

by on October 25, 2012

Professor Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (home of the project) wrote the following letter published in the Times (original here, paywall):

Sir, anyone familiar with the recent history of the organisation will sympathize with the demand by three Nobel prizewinners that Britain refuse to endorse any new Commonwealth charter of values if this is not matched by a credible mechanism to identify and address abuses (“Nobel trio attacks Commonwealth rights charter plan”, Sept 27). The Commonwealth has, indeed, been woefully poor at matching warm words on democracy and human rights with actions.

Nevertheless, the charter could still serve a useful purpose. The “Arab Spring” has demonstrated that repressive governments have most to fear from their own people. By contrast, it is difficult to imagine an enhanced international enforcement process capable of responding adequately to the complex problems faced by Commonwealth states, particularly since many are now turning to China as an alternative source of economic and diplomatic support. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 was signed by a number of governments which had little or no intention of respecting its endorsement of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Yet it inspired a series of popular movements across Eastern Europe dedicated to holding those states ot account.

A Commonwealth Charter with clear commitments on human rights, democratic values and the rule of law might serve as a similar manifesto for popular activism. Rather than simply being another example of the Commonwealth’s “repetitive rhetoric” it could potentially inspire a wave of grassroots “Charter Watch” movements capable of turning that rhetoric into reality.


Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

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