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Governance Area: Policy and legislative reform

Power to the People: the Commonwealth Foundation at CHOGM 2022

After two years of delay and postponement, of anticipation and frustration, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings (CHOGM) finally took place in Kigali in late June.

For the Foundation, this was the culmination of years of preparation and planning, most especially for the People’s Forum—the largest gathering of civil society in the Commonwealth system that has been a fixture of the CHOGM calendar for almost two decades.

The Foundation also took the lead in convening a half-day of roundtable discussions between Foreign Ministers and members of Commonwealth civil society. An outcome video of the Forum, which was broadcast at the official CHOGM Foreign Ministers Meeting, and also played at the Roundtable itself, can be accessed here.

‘What role could—or should—the Commonwealth of Nations play in these vital steps towards a better world for all its people?’

The People’s Forum 2022: Our Health, Our Planet, Our Future

The People’s Forum 2022 set itself the ambitious task of asking—and trying to answer—the biggest and most important questions of our age: how do we harness the best of humanity—the forces of love, compassion, equality and justice­—to advance our common future and protect our planet? How do we work together to build or re-fashion our institutions so that they support a world that leaves no one behind? And what role could—or should—the Commonwealth of Nations play in these vital steps towards a better world for all its people?

Along with our partners at the Rwanda Governance Board, the Foundation took advantage of the two-year delay to shape a strong and streamlined programme that focused on what is front and centre for so many people of the Commonwealth: health, climate and freedom of expression. The Critical Conversations online event series, launched by the Foundation in 2020 after the first CHOGM postponement, proved to be a gamechanger: giving us experience and confidence in new formats and approaches and expanding our network of activists and leaders across all Commonwealth regions.

‘In a time of growing debt burdens, especially across low and middle-income countries, who should be paying for better primary health care and the other elements of UHC?’

In relation to developing the Forum sessions on climate for example, the Foundation was able to draw on several different events  organised as part of the Critical Conversations series, including one on small states and climate justice held in September 2021 just before COP26, and another on the difficult issue of reparations for climate damage, held in February of this year. Our main climate session at the People’s Forum was explicitly practical: looking ahead to COP27 in November and to what the Commonwealth could and should be doing to advance the interests of those most affected.  Leaders and advocates from the Commonwealth’s small island developing states left the Forum in no doubt about the urgency of the challenge and the moral duty of the Commonwealth, its member countries and its institutions, to demonstrate genuine solidarity through concrete commitments.

The Forum’s sessions on health also benefited from multiple Critical Conversations events the Foundation has convened since early 2020 which shed a bright light on the parlous state of so many national health systems and the apparent incapacity of international systems and institutions (including, disappointingly, the Commonwealth itself) to deliver practical support. At the Forum, the issue of universal health coverage (UHC)—the guarantee that people can access quality health services without facing financial hardship—was front and centre, with panellists interrogating the role that civil society might play in pushing for UHC and the strong, resilient, and equitable health systems that must be at its heart.

Any useful discussion around health and climate must address the thorny question of finance: how do we get the money needed to fund desperately overdue measures aimed at protecting countries and communities from the worst effects of climate change? In a time of growing debt burdens, especially across low and middle-income countries, who should be paying for better primary health care and the other elements of UHC? In the case of climate, Forum participants strongly took up the cause of the Commonwealth’s smaller and more vulnerable Member States, for whom the loss and damage caused by climate change is presenting unique—and in some cases existential—challenges. Across both issues participants were united in their conviction that the Commonwealth has a unique role to play in bringing together those who hold the power to deliver support, relieve debt burdens, and provide restitution. A failure to take up that role with determination would be, in the eyes of Commonwealth civil society, a clear rejection of the very ideas that the Commonwealth stands for.

‘a vibrant and principled Commonwealth is critical to the future of its citizens’

The Commonwealth Charter affirms that freedom of expression—including media freedom—is essential to the flourishing of democratic societies and a basic condition for development. Sadly, this is an area where too many Commonwealth countries are slipping behind. Building on a previous Critical Conversations event, the Forum engaged in a vigorous, at times tense discussion of freedom of expression: why does it matter and how can it be protected? What can the Commonwealth, its member states and institutions, do to support and advance free and responsible media? There was clear agreement that no country can afford to be complacent: direct threats to journalists and freedom of expression are real and growing. Civil society has an important role to play in championing the proposed Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression that could help shore up freedom of expression and break the culture of silence that provides cover for its steady erosion.

The final session of the Forum, A Commonwealth for All’, set itself the ambitious goal of provoking deep discussion and personal reflection about where we are now, and how the Commonwealth—its Member States, its institutions, and its people—can help inspire real and meaningful change. It was aimed at all those who care about the Commonwealth; those who have a perspective on its past; and those who have a stake in its future. The Forum Chair participated in the event alongside the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Both were asked to comment on a provocative video of highlights from the Foundation’s three-part mini-series on the future of the Commonwealth. The passion and conviction of speakers at this final event—and of the many participants who contributed to the discussion—left no doubt that a vibrant and principled Commonwealth is critical to the future of its citizens. The ten-year anniversary of the Charter, which will be commemorated next year, was singled out by many as an opportunity to galvanise action for a reinvigorated Commonwealth.

Weaving together all Forum sessions was the idea of participatory governance: the idea that the involvement of people in their governance is critical to democracy and democratic legitimacy; the idea that citizens have a central role to play in helping to shape policies and decisions that affect their lives. Forum participants acknowledged that participatory governance is a work in progress right across the Commonwealth. We can learn from examples of innovation that have delivered tangible results. But we must be brave in pushing for more meaningful involvement of citizens across every area of public life.

‘How can we measure progress? And how can we push for meaningful action as global economic headwinds turn against us?’

Civil Society and the Foreign Ministers’ Roundtable

The roundtable between participants of the People’s Forum and Foreign Ministers is now an established fixture on the CHOGM calendar: a powerful embodiment of the Commonwealth identity as an organisation of people—and not just of states. For the Foundation, it is an unambiguous exercise in participatory governance—the unifying thread of the People’s Forum.

The 2022 Roundtable was widely proclaimed to be a huge success with the largest-ever number of Ministers in attendance, including a substantial contingent of Foreign Ministers and excellent representation from Commonwealth civil society and accredited organisations. The event was Chaired by the Rwanda Foreign Minister and moderated by me. The seating arrangement, large round tables where government and civil society sat together, and the moderator’s insistence that each take turns in contributing, guaranteed a lively and at times passionate debate. Among the wide range of matters discussed, gender equality and freedom of expression stood out as issues that everyone in the room—government and civil society alike—cared deeply about.

Towards the Future

On the current schedule, we now have less than two years to go until CHOGM 2024. While our future is uncertain, we must brace ourselves for the likelihood that many of the challenges discussed in Kigali will be unresolved. How can we measure progress? And how can we push for meaningful action as global economic headwinds turn against us?

The CHOGM communique—which sets out a bold and ambitious plan of action—should be front and centre. However, many participants in the Forum pointed out the danger of the Communique becoming irrelevant unless Member States commit to measuring their actions against the goals they have set before reporting to CHOGM 2024. Our analysis of the sentiment coming out from the Forum indicates that progress on climate could be usefully measured by the practical steps that Commonwealth countries and institutions take to protect small island developing countries. Progress on freedom of expression is even easier to measure: the Commonwealth must take the final step to adopt a robust set of principles on media freedom that comply with current international human rights standards and put in place mechanisms to monitor implementation. Progress on health requires concerted action to break the debt deadlock that is strangling efforts to deliver universal health care in so many of the Commonwealth’s low and middle-income countries.

So much more could and should be done. But we must start somewhere if the Commonwealth is to hold its head high. Let us decide to hold ourselves—and each other—to account. The people of the Commonwealth deserve no less.

Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Patently necessary: taking health into our own hands

At long last, the World Trade Organization is slated to open formal discussions on intellectual property waivers to help developing countries in the fight against Covid-19.

This pragmatic and humane idea was first proposed 18 months ago at the height of the pandemic. The proposals have since been woefully diluted: indeed—in their current form—it would seem the WTO has finally achieved the consensus it was looking for, since, apparently, everyone hates them. Hidden in the folds of this fiasco, however, is an important lesson for the developing world.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, monopolies on the production of tests and medicines were a part of the problem of surviving it. We went from a situation in 2020 during which tests and treatments were in short supply to a situation in 2021 in which vaccines were being made in far smaller quantities than was possible. This led to shamefully unequal access to these essential tools of survival. While vaccine access generally improved towards the end of 2021, there are still glaring disparities. To date, 93% of all contracted mRNA vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and BioNtech have gone to rich countries, according to data from Airfinity, a health analytics company. Promising new treatments such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid which are now standard treatments in rich countries are almost completely unavailable in poor countries.

‘Promising new treatments such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid which are now standard treatments in rich countries are almost completely unavailable in poor countries.’

The TRIPs waiver—named after an obscure but powerful rule that obligates WTO member countries to uphold pharmaceutical monopolies—was meant to solve this problem. As the initial proposal was deflected, objected to, or just outright blocked by rich countries over a period of 18 months, people around the world suffered and died. The international community should be ashamed of this failure. Nevertheless, we find ourselves where we are, on the eve of discussions regarding proposals that have been dramatically watered down. What are we to make of this moment?

The first thing to understand is that critics of the current proposals are right: the ideas first put forward 18 months ago were more comprehensive and would have enabled us to turn the tide on the pandemic far sooner. The original proposals asked for intellectual property rights on all crucial aspects of our survival—namely tests, treatments and vaccines—to be waived for the whole course of the pandemic. These demands would have covered our immediate need to ramp up testing and would have delivered far greater quantities of treatments to those in need much faster. Consider the case of Bangladesh, where Pfizer’s patent on Paxlovid does not extend. Beximco—a pharmaceutical company based there—was able to manufacture and deliver the drug a mere ten days after the US Food and Drug Administration approved it, saving thousands of lives.

‘By limiting the waiving of patents to vaccines, rich countries have ensured the WTO plan will have a limited effect on the availability of treatments and tests that are so desperately needed.’

But, alas, the revised waiver proposal now under discussion at the WTO covers vaccines alone. This is perverse. By limiting the waiving of patents to vaccines, rich countries have ensured the WTO plan will have a limited effect on the availability of treatments and tests that are so desperately needed.

No matter how flawed the revised TRIPS wavier proposal is, the potential it holds to prompt a wider discussion among WTO member countries is probably a good thing. For the first time in eighteen long months, there has been a measure of agreement, however inadequate, between key WTO players to move forward: an essential prerequisite for the WTO to move the proposal into formal multilateral discussions. So far, discussions on potential waivers have been bilateral, or between groups of similarly-inclined countries, which is to say they have been unproductive and unaccountable to the international community.

The outcome at the WTO next week is almost certain to disappoint public health activists. Some rich countries are intent on further watering down the proposals and perhaps suppressing them altogether. A wide section of international civil society believes the proposal at the WTO has no value, even as a starting point. They argue that the WTO is in effect supporting a global protection racket: formal permission from the world’s richest countries to the rest of the world to allow them—without fear of reprisals—to do what they are in fact legally entitled to in order to survive an emergency.

‘But it’s also vital that we—those living in developing countries, the majority—begin to understand and use our own sovereignty to arrive at solutions.’

So, what if a decision could be taken at the level of the nation-state to simply roll back or even temporarily suspend patents, regardless of what’s decided at the international level? This would bring the immediate relief that developing countries need and arguably increase their bargaining power at the WTO. In September 2021, one country did exactly that: Brazil passed a law that went beyond even what the original TRIPs waiver proposal had asked for, and it did so with an overwhelming domestic majority and cross-party support. Even though the law was ultimately diluted by a Presidential veto, it remains in effect today and is perfectly permissible under the WTO’s own rules. This option, to create a legislative framework that supports increased supplies of tests, treatments and vaccines, and moreover, encourages their manufacture everywhere, is one that is open to all developing countries today.

Through this pandemic, we have heard much of the unfair way a majority of the world is being treated by a much smaller and wealthier minority. This situation deserves our outrage and attention. But it’s also vital that we—those living in developing countries, the majority—begin to understand and use our own sovereignty to arrive at solutions. The mRNA vaccine technology of today will define the future of global health. Many in the developing world understand that suspending pharmaceutical monopolies is an integral part of securing our present and future wellbeing. But what is less widely understood is that developing countries can do a lot to fix these problems on their own—or better still in concert with others—without having to wait endlessly for permission to do so.

Achal Prabhala is the coordinator of the AccessIBSA project which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa.

A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform

Commonwealth Heads of Government decided to create an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to advise them on reform of the association at their meeting in Port-of-Spain in 2009.

This decision by Heads of Government was taken at a time when the world was – as it now still is – in the midst of an economic crisis. The old order of economic power was changing. Climate change showed signs of endangering global economic activity and the safety and livelihood of millions of people. It posed threats to the very existence of a number of countries. Terrorism, too, threatened the security of states and presented a serious challenge to international peace.

Heads of Government decided that in such a world, it was important to build a stronger, more resilient and progressive Commonwealth and to make it more relevant to its times and to its people in the future. They made it clear that they wanted the Commonwealth to continue to be an important player in the world, drawing on its rich diversity to help build global consensus around the Commonwealth’s core values including peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality, economic development, and freedom of expression.

Download the report

Reforming mental health legislation in Nigeria

Many countries have not addressed mental health law reform for a woeful number of years. In Nigeria, where I live, the ‘Lunacy Act’ is the central Federal law governing mental health. Its origins lie in the Lunacy Ordinance of 1916 which underwent only minimal reform in 1958; it is a legal framework that is effectively 100 years out-of-date. 

The Lunacy Act applies federally, and across the vast majority of States. It does not once mention treatment and uses pejorative words like ‘lunatic’ and ‘idiot’. It also permits magistrates to order the detention of the mentally ill, including those who attempt suicide or engage in self-harm.

‘The twin forces of stigma and superstition strip those living with mental health problems of their dignity’

Without legal protections, the twin forces of stigma and superstition strip those living with mental health problems of their dignity. Access to essential services, including education, health, and employment, are denied. Mental illnesses are then construed as spiritual problems which result in sufferers being detained in so-called ‘spiritual healing homes’ and other mental health facilities. Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and others indicate that shackling, chaining, starvation and flogging are rife.

Those who are driven to the edge of despair and attempt unsuccessfully to take their own life are shown little mercy. Attempted suicide is an offence in Nigeria under the Criminal and Penal Codes. When charges are brought against a person, time spent in prison and severe bail conditions are virtually guaranteed, even where magistrates are willing to discharge.

This lamentable situation points to a clear need for law reform. Nationwide legislation must be established to recognise and uphold the rights of persons with mental health conditions. I’ve been proud to provide technical support for a new Mental Health Bill which is currently being considered by the Nigerian National Assembly. But I am also aware that new legislation and the drafting process that precedes it, must be carefully designed if people living with mental health problems are to have their rights fully realised.

‘The Bill died after many years of advocacy simply because legislators didn’t demonstrate enough interest’

In this task, we can learn from other Commonwealth countries. The Seychelles stands as a shining example. The Government of the Seychelles, working closely with health professionals and advocates, undertook a careful process of reform that paid close attention to international human rights standards including the International Convention on Persons with Disabilities, to which Nigeria is also a party. The principles of dignity and quality of life were at the forefront. They ensured that persons living with mental health conditions were part of the law reform process and that their views were heard and understood.

A Mental Health Bill was presented in Nigeria in 2002, almost twenty years ago. The Bill died after many years of advocacy simply because legislators didn’t demonstrate enough interest. It is now time for them to take up the mantle of human rights and human dignity and ensure this new bill sees the light of day.

Dr Cheluchi Onyemelukwe is Associate Professor of Law at Babcock University and Executive Director at the Centre for Health Ethics Law and Development. She facilitated the Foundation’s Health Rights Learning Exchange in 2019.

Commonwealth: pragmatism and ideals

The creation of the modern Commonwealth is one of the most curious and extraordinary developments in world affairs since the end of the Second World War. The British Empire comprised a third of the globe: the biggest empire in history where famously ‘the sun never set’.

Colonialism had been brutal, crippling, humiliating and deeply unwelcome to many of the people who lived under it. The early and mid-twentieth century saw many movements that argued strongly for independence and with it the end of British rule. Almost until the end, this was resisted by Britain, sometimes violently. The fall of Britain’s Indian Empire, and with it the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan in August 1947, was a momentous occasion.  Undivided India was the most important possession in the British Empire and its loss signalled the beginning of the end.

After years of deep colonialism that inflicted subservience and deprivation on so many people, and where countless men and women had fought for freedom, why would a country like India join an organisation like the Commonwealth, which was indelibly tied to the empire that caused its subjugation?

‘In Nehru’s pragmatic view, a new state like India needed allies and international influence in its post-independence existence’

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was a strong believer in internationalism. But the British Commonwealth of Nations, as it was known at the time, was anything but international: an exclusive group comprised of the ‘old Dominions’: countries like Australia, Canada and South Africa, that were led and dominated by white settler communities. In fact, before Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart joined in 1947 there were no non-white Prime Ministers in the group. But Nehru believed that the Commonwealth could be a force for good. His idealism inspired him to see the Commonwealth as something that could help humanity come together.

In Nehru’s pragmatic view, a new state like India needed allies and international influence in its post-independence existence. After the devastations and divisions of the Second World War and the late colonial years, in particular, Nehru believed the Commonwealth could bring to the world ‘a touch of healing’. Several leaders from across the old Commonwealth were deeply apprehensive about India’s inclusion due to racial and political reasons, but eventually, the advantages were seen. The freedom fighters voluntarily joined the coloniser in what was then, something utterly new.

‘The freedom fighters voluntarily joined the coloniser in what was then, something utterly new’

India’s powerful example would soon be followed by states from across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, creating a unique modern organisation built from the ruins of empire, but enhanced by the principles of equality and freedom among former colonial peoples. In London in 1949 the eclectic mix of States declared themselves to be ‘united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’.  No longer a white man’s club, the Commonwealth in those early days, recognised the need to adapt to the new circumstances or face extinction.

Taking the Commonwealth’s story to the present day, the ideals that surrounded the inclusion of India have not always been lived up to. More than 70 years after that idealist moment, the Commonwealth finds itself in very different circumstances. Its relevance is widely doubted. Its political powers are supine. Its presence is routinely ignored. In fact, there are near-constant calls for the Commonwealth to be wound up due to both perceived and real failures.

It is, however, premature to pen the Commonwealth’s obituary. Making a difference does not always mean generating headlines. The Commonwealth’s strengths have been in education, practical training, sport, and sharing expertise on everything from agriculture to law. These attributes are enhanced by the wealth of experience and the variety of cases within the Commonwealth that are underwritten by a common history.

‘Such a scheme would see the exchange of ideas, the meeting of souls, the forging of partnerships and collective ambitions for the future’

In order to revitalise interest and relevance in the Commonwealth, the focus must be on the fact that one in three young people age 15-29 on this planet live in the Commonwealth. The future is theirs. In an uncertain world, the Commonwealth can help this group realise its potential. Substantial investment and pathways must be established to foster opportunities for the young.

The UK and other wealthy members still provide dedicated scholarships for students to study and train in their countries. But these important bonds of friendship and connection are woefully limited, while a key institution is under serious threat of closure: the respected Institute of Commonwealth Studies founded in London in 1949.

A new Commonwealth education scheme needs to be established: a scheme that would not only support bursaries but also encourage the Commonwealth’s young people to think imaginatively. Like Europe’s Erasmus education exchange programme, the Commonwealth could create a scheme to answer the needs of its own youth. A Commonwealth-wide scheme, named after Nehru who himself benefitted from studying abroad and whose ideals are in harmony with the idea, would encourage students to not only study in each other’s countries but also to engage culturally, socially, athletically and professionally.

The scheme would also demonstrate that the Commonwealth is more than just London and foster appreciation of the matchless nexus the Commonwealth creates—drawing together places and peoples from Johannesburg to Jaipur and beyond. Such a scheme would see the exchange of ideas, the meeting of souls, the forging of partnerships and collective ambitions for the future and would have the potential to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and change the world for the better in subtle, but worthwhile ways.

At the very least it is worth remembering, as the Historian Anthony Low put it, the Commonwealth ‘provides the readiest means available to use for orienting ourselves sensibly to the most of our fellow humans’. It is time for the Commonwealth to engage in pragmatic idealism once more.

Dr Harshan Kumarasingham is a Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Edinburgh. 

Space for change?

Often, when I talk about striving to make human rights progress within the Commonwealth, I’m met with raised eyebrows. The Commonwealth? I’ll hear, is that really the right place to be pushing for progress?

It’s a healthy scepticism I come across time and time again, especially from those who are well-versed in the long-lasting impact of the British Empire on its former colonial subjects. The Commonwealth, for many, feels like a vestige of a foregone time, a time in which certain countries were under the thumb of others, a time where the imposition of British law and values upon a litany of diverse and distinct cultures went largely unscrutinised by the global community. And so, the Commonwealth’s origin story, and the fact that its existence cannot be uncoupled from the legacy of empire, continues to ring loud in the ears of many. Especially those who are still dealing with inherited colonial laws that expressly discriminate against certain communities.

‘For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens’

It was in this light that the Commonwealth Foundation held the first of its Critical Conversations series, bringing together a diverse array of thinkers and doers to examine the Commonwealth’s past and reimagine its future. It was a chance to have an honest conversation about the legacy of the Commonwealth while also discussing its potential as a space for progress, where decision-makers and activists can come together and challenge each other to create a fairer and more positive future.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to some, the Commonwealth has proven itself as a useful space for civil society organisations to come together and advocate for positive change. This wasn’t necessarily a view shared by all panellists, but it is a truth I have seen in action. As Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, the United Kingdom’s leading international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) human rights organisation, I have found that the organising done to create awareness and advocate on LGBT+ human rights issues at Commonwealth-specific fora, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), has often had a resounding impact.

The work of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), a network of 62 LGBT+ organisations across the Commonwealth, for which Kaleidoscope Trust acts as Secretariat, is a testament to this. TCEN aims to create a positive and more equal future for LGBT+ citizens in the Commonwealth, in a context where 34 of 54 Member States criminalise homosexuality as a direct result of inherited colonial-era laws. For LGBT+ activists in the Commonwealth, an acknowledgement of the past was the first step toward envisioning a more equal future. And so TCEN went about advocating for this exact thing—a statement of acknowledgement and regret from the UK government.

The network achieved this primarily by centring the voices of young grassroots activists in our advocacy both before and during CHOGM 2018, which was held in London. This simple act, of creating opportunities for the lived realities of LGBT+ people to be heard in high-level diplomatic spaces, was enormously impactful.

It included creating a platform for Melusi Simelane, a young gay man from eSwatini, to talk about the safety and security of LGBT+ people in his country at the Committee of the Whole, during an event for Commonwealth accredited civil society organisations to present priorities relating to CHOGM to high-level Commonwealth officials. It also included working with the Commonwealth Foundation to ensure Zeleca Julien, a lesbian activist from Trinidad and Tobago, was able to speak about her experiences fighting for equality at the opening plenary of the Women’s Forum at CHOGM 2018, the first time an LGBT+ person was granted the opportunity to do so.

Beyond these specific examples, we also aimed for as much LGBT+ civil society representation as possible at Commonwealth events. CHOGM, for example, is a unique opportunity for LGBT+ organisations to come face to face with diplomatic or parliamentary representatives from their countries or regions, an opportunity that few other diplomatic spaces provide. Where they might not be able to safely do so in their own countries, representatives of TCEN organisations were able to hold their national-level parliamentary representatives to account within a Commonwealth space.

TCEN is one of many examples of how the Commonwealth can be used as a force for good, particularly for the LGBT+ community. But TCEN is only the beginning. As our work has continued, we have sought to ensure we are building a more intersectional human rights movement in the Commonwealth, working with youth organisations and those fighting for women and girls rights to make sure that the progress we achieve can also support the aims of other marginalised groups.

For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens—and that includes examining the mistakes of the past, mistakes that have led to staggering inequalities, and aiming to rectify them accordingly. So long as the Commonwealth can continue to create spaces for the likes of TCEN to make their voices heard, it deserves to be championed as a promising avenue for real progress.

Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah (Lady Phyll) is Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust.

Health and disability rights: using legal frameworks

The Foundation recently convened learning exchanges with civil society leaders working on health and disability rights—particularly the rights of vulnerable populations who have been ‘left behind’. The participants, who hailed from 11 Commonwealth countries and had each received support from our grants programme, shared strategies and approaches to realise these rights by making governments more accountable; this is the third in a series of blogs profiling the case studies our partners shared.

The evidence is unambiguous: vulnerable and marginalised groups—including women and girls, the poor, and persons with disabilities (PwDs)—are very far from achieving the promise of universal health coverage. And much remains to be done before we come close to realising the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring healthy lives and wellbeing for all. It is significant that the estimated one billion PwDs in the world continue to be denied equitable participation in society due to prevailing material and attitudinal barriers. They face higher rates of multidimensional poverty, lower educational attainment and rates of employment, and poorer health outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities.

Civil society plays a critical role in promoting and protecting health and disability rights. Civil society groups can, for example, hold their governments to account in respect of rights enshrined in national legislation and the constitution. International treaties can also provide a valuable framework for advocating for improved protection of rights including through changes to domestic law and policy.

Alternative reports to the international treaty bodies

The Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre (SMRC) has been gathering grassroots data on disability for years in partnership with civil society organisations throughout India. Their data is consistent with the UN’s findings: women with disabilities face more obstacles than their male counterparts and struggle to access ‘adequate housing, health, education, vocational training and employment’.

In 2019, SMRC and its partners submitted an alternative report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This is a process which enables civil society to provide an alternative point of view to the official reports submitted by governments under international treaties. The report, which was presented by a group of women with disabilities, contained 33 recommendations. It detailed what they were seeing on the ground in relation to Article 6 of the Convention on Persons with Disabilities, which relates specifically to women. They also included data on 15 other articles that intersect with Article 6, on the Right to Life, Access to Justice, Education, Health and Employment, and Freedom from Violence.

The Women with Disabilities India Network deliver the alternative report in La Salle des Emirates in the Palace of Nations, Geneva

Their data identified nine major barriers faced by women with disabilities including discriminatory attitudes and low standards in service provision, challenging the Indian Government’s data on this point. Many of the report’s findings and recommendations were cited when the CRPD reported back to the Indian Government at the conclusion of the review process.

The report, along with the remarks of the committee, were later disseminated to communities and disabled persons organisations in India. SMRC provided training on how to use the documents for advocacy purposes, thereby helping to create a groundswell of grassroots campaigning. Hundreds of people with disabilities are now reaching out to officials in their own states and pressing for change. Some trainees have even approached the courts where they feel government action is either not forthcoming or too slow.

Review and reform

Research that took place in 2012-13 found that mental health legislation in the Seychelles and Botswana was outdated and ignored advances in care and treatment, denying those living with mental health problems their basic rights. The Commonwealth Nurses and Midwives Federation and its partners established a National Mental Health Advisory Committee (NMHAC) in each country that involved civil society representatives and government officials. The job of these committees was to review existing legislation, prepare guidelines for law reform, and educate stakeholders and the public on mental health issues.

‘the central mental health law was focussed on keeping the mentally ill in custody and excluding them from society’

In the Seychelles, the government had ratified the Convention on Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The job of the newly-formed Committee was, therefore, to help ensure domestic legislation was up to the new standard agreed to by the government through its ratification of the treaty. The Committee’s review revealed substantial gaps and weaknesses and it confirmed that new domestic legislation was required. A new mental health act went before Parliament in 2018 and was enacted into law in the National Assembly in May 2020.

Unlike the Seychelles, Botswana has not become party to the CRPD. However, Botswana’s constitution affirms the right to life, to personal liberty and freedom, as well as freedom from inhumane treatment and discrimination. The National Mental Health Advisory Committee’s analysis identified numerous violations of these fundamental rights. Because the central mental health law was focussed on keeping the mentally ill in custody and excluding them from society, the Committee decided that it could not be reconciled with a rights-based approach. In response, and using drafting instructions provided by the Committee, the Attorney General drafted a new mental health bill that will soon go before Parliament.

Strategic litigation

Where collaboration and dialogue do not work, civil society may use litigation to ensure governments implement their legal commitments. In 2015, the Kenyan government issued a Presidential directive for district education departments to collect the names of HIV positive school children and their guardians. Although the Directive was aimed at delivering more effective care, it exposed children to potential discrimination that could cause real hardship and adversely affect educational outcomes.

‘it exposed children to potential discrimination that could cause real hardship and adversely affect educational outcomes’

Community representatives wanted safeguards to be put in place to protect individuals from having their HIV status known in this way. Efforts to lobby the government to change the Directive were unsuccessful. The Kenya Ethical Legal Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN), alongside a child rights agency and the families of two children living with HIV, brought a case against the government arguing that the Directive violated fundamental rights and freedoms in contravention of the Kenyan constitution.

The High Court of Kenya ruled that the Directive did indeed breach the right to privacy and was in violation of the overarching guiding principle of the ‘best interests of the child’. It ordered all data to be anonymised so a person’s name could not be linked to their HIV status. In partnership with community leadership, KELIN continues to advocate for legal compliance with the court ruling, providing awareness-raising for schools and supporting schools’ efforts to help children living with HIV.

Next month in our blog series on health and disability rights accountability, we look at how our partners build multi-stakeholder coalitions to achieve their advocacy goals. 

Dr Shobha Das is a former Director of Programmes at Minority Rights Group International and Gillian Cooper is the Programme Manager of Knowledge, Learning, and Communications at the Commonwealth Foundation. 

Civil society responses in the wake of COVID-19

Without doubt, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the lack of preparedness among states across the global north and south for a disaster of this magnitude. Decades of underinvestment in health and education has been laid bare. The unravelling of the institutions that underpin these sectors has been spectacular, exposing fundamental deficiencies in their capacity to deliver. It is no exaggeration to say that vast sections of the global population face further exclusion unless governments affect far-reaching reforms. An assertive and engaged civil society can help governments find solutions to these challenges by drawing from the experience of their grassroots constituencies.

Civil society organisations have so far been involved in a range of interventions, from direct service provision to engaging lawmakers to reform the policies and guidelines that govern responses to the pandemic. Within the Commonwealth, there has been enhanced engagement in Commonwealth Ministerial Forums by civil society. At a recent Health Ministers meeting, the Commonwealth Civil Society Policy Forum made a presentation on how digital diagnostic technologies can be used to achieve universal health coverage (UHC). Members are advocating the One Health approach, which looks at finding ways for the civic, private and government sectors to better communicate and work together to achieve UHC.

‘in poor rural areas and especially in the global south, the infrastructure for digital learning is not in place.’

As a leading member of the Forum, the Commonwealth Health Professions and Partners Alliance has been at the forefront of advocating for the implementation of UHC. In the wake of the pandemic, the Alliance has scaled up its advocacy, making proposals for mapping the use of digital technologies in health service and medicines delivery; using technology for better deployment of human resources; and development of model regulation, policy and standards for the use of digital technology, including addressing privacy and other human rights concerns. Articulation of these priorities has been an important first step. The next is to ensure their systematic implementation.

The wide application of digital learning in place of face-to-face learning is clearly a vital innovation that, in our post-pandemic world, is here to stay. But the effects of these changes can only be understood by first acknowledging the fact that, in poor rural areas and especially in the global south, the infrastructure for digital learning is not in place. We do not yet know who–or how many—are currently excluded from these new digital technologies. But a ‘one size fits all’ approach is undoubtedly a recipe for entrenching that exclusion. During this time of systemic change, it is thus vital that the Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action is adhered to. This commitment recognises the role of education as a key driver of development and provides guidance for implementing Education 2030—an essential prerequisite for achieving the promise of Sustainable Development Goal Four: equitable learning for all.

‘Civil society must be—and must be seen to be—a partner and ally to governments: working together to forge a path towards a more positive future.’

Tackling the challenges ahead will require substantial policy and institutional reforms. Without change, there is a real risk that the Covid-induced health crisis will become something much more serious and enduring: that it will lead to even greater inequality and instability; that it will stall our progress towards the realisation of truly peaceful and inclusive societies. Civil society must be—and must be seen to be—a partner and ally to governments: working together to forge a path towards a more positive future. The Foundation is seeking to pivot its own programmes to ensure that it is able to make a meaningful contribution to Commonwealth civil society as communities and countries work to repair and recover from the global pandemic.

Shem Ochola is Deputy Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Civil society organisations engaged in responses to COVID-19 in Commonwealth countries are encouraged to subscribe to our mailing list for updates on our forthcoming grants call.

Tackling youth violence: inclusion for a change

At the 1998 World Conference on Youth, the origin of International Youth Day, the late Kofi Annan made his famous opening remarks: ‘No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death.’

There is a fact that gives Annan’s sanguineous metaphor grim new meaning: violence is now the fourth leading cause of death in young people worldwide. Perhaps no other community of nations should seek to understand this fact more urgently than the Commonwealth; sixty per cent of our more than 2.4 billion citizens are under the age of 30. Here we explore three of our recently approved grants projects that are empowering youth so they can overcome this scourge.

‘Too often, discussions on violence in these communities are one-off events, occurring after policy decisions have been taken and without sufficient youth representation.’

In data released in 2017 by the UN, the murder rate in Jamaica stood at 57 per 100,000 of the population, the second-highest recorded rate in the world. Despite significant efforts to address this problem on the part of the Government of Jamaica, the young continue to be severely affected by violent crime as both victims and perpetrators. In a project that will last two years, Fight for Peace International will work in two of Kingston’s worst-affected neighbourhoods: Denham Town and Parade Gardens.

In designing this project, Fight for Peace focussed on how affected communities were being cut off from policy development and decision-making. Too often, discussions on violence in these communities are one-off events occurring after policy decisions have been taken and without sufficient youth representation. To counter this tendency, they will train 1000 youth and civil society leaders to formulate evidence-based recommendations during regular, specially organised meetings. This will provide youth groups with an opportunity to share their perspectives on security policies so, ultimately, these can be tabled at Jamaica’s Commission on Violence Prevention. Youth leaders will also be trained to deliver traditional and social media campaigns, giving them the tools to influence public discourse on the issue.

‘[In South Africa] an estimated 23 people are shot and killed every day, with the highest rates of death by homicide found among 15-29-year-olds.’

The same UN data that put Jamaica’s murder rate among the highest in the world ranked South Africa’s as eighth. Firearms play a significant role in the perpetration of violence in South Africa. The 2000 Firearms Control Act, which introduced measures such as stricter licensing, led to a significant decline in recorded shootings. Still, an estimated 23 people are shot and killed every day with the highest rates of death by homicide found among 15-29-year-olds. With a grant from the Commonwealth Foundation, Gun Free South Africa will support youth groups to deliver their input during the Control Act’s review in 2020. Young people with experience of gun violence will give oral presentations at public hearings to increase the impact of their recommendations. The organisation will also train youth groups to develop and implement safety initiatives in their communities, including the establishment of gun-free zones in schools and other public places. These initiatives will be coupled with awareness campaigns to mobilise support in favour of greater safety.

While young men are more likely to be the victims and perpetrators of violent crime both in Jamaica and South Africa, these projects will develop analyses and policy proposals that address the differing ways in which women and girls are affected, while ensuring they are fully represented at each stage.

Survey data collected in 2013 in Nigeria provides just a glimpse of the burden of violence shouldered by women: 28 per cent of women aged 15-49 have experienced some form of sexual violence. Of the woman surveyed, one in ten had experienced physical and/or sexual violence in the last 12 months alone. The Government of Nigeria has a clear policy framework in place to address the sexual abuse, violence and exploitation suffered by women and girls, including The Child Rights Act and the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act. But neither has been ratified in all Nigerian states and serious problems persist throughout the country. For example, there has been an alarming rise in reports of so-called ‘baby factories’, in which women are forced to give birth to children who are then taken from them and sold into illegal adoption and potentially also for exploitation. Other reports suggest a worrying rise in the normalisation of abuse in educational settings.

Nationwide ratification of the key laws and their effective application would go a long way in confronting this trend. Grants partner Youth Alive Foundation have identified what they believe to be the principal obstacles to the first step of ratification: a lack of coordinated advocacy, low public awareness, and prevailing cultural beliefs. Their project will create an alliance working across five target states made up of parliamentarians, students, and civil society and media organisations. The alliance will start by carefully mapping existing laws and policies to identify gaps, and, by gathering data in tandem, they will produce authoritative guidelines on how to bring nationwide ratification closer.

Constructive engagement between civil society and government lies at the core of the Foundation’s strategy, and in this new cohort of projects, there is a discernible sense of civil society cooperating with governments and building on their work. These projects do this by broadening and deepening participation of youth groups to strengthen national legislation. They are aimed at achievable and institutionalised change and highlight the importance of including the voices of the young from which there is much to learn.

Leo Kiss is Communications Officer at the Commonwealth Foundation.

For information on our next grant call and all other updates on our grants programme please sign up here. Profiles for each newly endorsed project will be available on the Commonwealth Foundation’s project pages soon.