The ‘Commonwealth, Human Rights and Democracy’ conference was held on 11-13 March 2011 at Cumberland Lodge.

Flickr Photos from the conference are up on Flickr

Conference presentations

Balancing democracies (opening keynote speech) – Professor Tim Unwin (Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D and Professor of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London)

Professor Unwin talked about the nature of human rights. He questioned whether we should see these rights as inalienable and absolute suggesting that perhaps the notion of them was in itself a selfish one leading to a self-serving individual. He acknowledged their importance in certain aspects of life but argued that should not see these values as being something due to us but as general values of behaviour which we should exercise toward one another. He also challenged the understanding that they are central to democracy and even the underlying value of democracy itself.

The main themes of his presentation as drawn out by the conference delegates were:

  • human responsibility should take precedence over the concept of human rights
  • there is no one notion of democracy but rather many pluralities specific to regions, nations and even individuals
  • we are often told that capitalism is a necessary prerequisite for economic growth but looking at countries such as China we can see that this is far from the truth
  • human rights should not be endowed simply because we are human but should be viewed as a value system common to societies as a whole demanding reciprocity of behaviour from all to each other
  • state institutions should look toward consensus building to create an optimal society

Irregular migration in Malta: A human rights approachDaniela De Bono (2007 Commonwealth Scholar from Malta, DPhil Migrations Studies, University of Sussex)

Daniela began by introducing us to the notions of migration and its varying forms (economic, forced etc) and explaining how human rights have started to play a huge role in issues of migration. She demonstrated throughout her talk that the competition for resources within a state generates a self-perpetuating conflict between the rights of the indigenous peoples and those of the migrants.

The specific focus of her degree is to consider human rights in relation to the detention of migrants within states. Malta is a small island and as well as being a Commonwealth state is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. Its size and geographic location are factors which combine to make migration a huge issue and Malta’s ability to meet its obligations under the convention is restricted by resources.

Human rights can be described as those ‘morally irreducible standards’ by which we as humans should live. However, if resources are not managed effectively (in terms of migration this may be the ability to house people rather than keeping them in detention, or providing them with food and a fresh start), there is no conducive environment in which society can create a reciprocal system. Where resources are stretched, all those involved will compete for them, for their right to them and competition invariably leads to winners and losers.

Democracy Transition in Sub-Saharan AfricaDr Leo Zeilig (Assistant Director, Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit)

Dr Zeilig considered the lessons to be learned from patterns of political protest in Africa, arguing that the history of the region could show that through consensus building we can construct a much more sustainable version of democracy.

In the 1970s it was a belief held in the region that state-led intervention would produce higher living standards. Failures of policy led to the collapse of cotton prices in 1977 and the loans that had been offered prior to these crises to facilitate growth became debts as the economy entered a downward spiral. The IMF provided loans to cover the costs of these debts on the condition that economies would be restructured.

In the years that followed the economic climate was cause for a series of protests and riots in which people were keen to voice their disagreement with the restructuring programme. The Bread Riots were the first wave of political challenge followed by protests in 1984 by the National Association of Nigerian Students.

Throughout the 1980s, regimes fell across Africa encouraging democracy and discussion as opposition took place with historians arguing that it was the end of history. The notion of democracy promoted by the West, a mix of capitalism and liberalism, had or was becoming hegemonic. A second wave of protests challenged these notions and caused regimes to fragment.

We are currently experiencing a third wave of protests as a result of the 2007 recession. The complications surrounding derivatives and speculative money being channelled into soft commodities has greatly increased prices and destabilised markets. The language of human rights is seen by some as hypocritical as the differing standards expected internationally from those oil rich nations are exposed.

The ripple effects from current protests in Egypt, Libya etc could be huge and give remaining dictatorships cause for concern and these movements of popular struggle could yet create political reform that is more sustainable than ever before.

The Role of the Commonwealth in Human Rights Policy/PracticeDr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan (School of Advanced Studies, University of London)

Human rights often mean very different things to individuals; their meaning can often be lost in translation. Some tend to see them as innate aspects of human life whereas others would see them as something that is earned through your behaviour and others as protections which are afforded you by the state. Is the Commonwealth a more suitable arena in which to discuss human rights? Is there some understanding between this Commonwealth of Nations that has generated this communal understanding?

It was argued that human rights are aspirational – that if they were truly inviolable why do states not intervene to stop all atrocities occurring around us? Is it that we feel that a ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention can legitimise war or at the very least invasion – aren’t all states, after all, sovereign?

The UN and EU have more formalised institutions but as the Commonwealth is based on a shared history and voluntary membership based on shared values, shouldn’t ‘human rights’ be better upheld here? It seems as though the Commonwealth understanding of human rights is much more values based. This is reflected in the Harare Declaration and the Eminent Persons Group in South Africa.

Human rights can be seen as aspirational concept, are they a legal right of claim or a moral principle?  Once they are made to be legally enforceable does this not alter the character of the right? As in natural competition for resources in a legal battle about rights one must naturally triumph over or infringe another. Therefore there must be a hierarchy of rights. The legal aspect these rights have acquired has given rise to several issues. If rights exist innately, their safeguarding depends upon their enforceability. If a person is not able to fight for their rights, either through problems of accessibility of legal recourse, or status or regulation, what use are they?

We should accept, therefore, that the natural twin of a right is a duty, that these rights and values are inextricably linked to responsibilities, that without strong values underpinning these rights, their enforcement will inevitably become a tick box exercise.

In concluding, Dr Chandrmohan explored why the Commonwealth is better suited to promote human rights over other institutions. The nature of the association of the Commonwealth is a powerful safeguard. These nations have come together voluntarily under the shared values of the Commonwealth; once countries had gained independence there was no compulsion to remain associated with this entity. The notion of equality amongst Commonwealth people was instilled when Queen Victoria gave a speech saying that all subjects of the Queen will be treated equally wherever they are in the world and this idea is recognised in the CHOGM structure where all states have a voice.

Protecting human rights and building democratic institutions in ZimbabweRindai Chipfunde Vava (Director, Zimbabwe Election Support Network)

Zimbabwe has endured turbulent political and diplomatic times of late. The 2002 elections were deemed by Commonwealth Supervisors to have not been ‘free and fair’ and Zimbabwe was retroactively suspended from the Commonwealth following a withdrawal by Mugabe. Zimbabwe is currently still suspended from the Commonwealth but the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission and the Association of Commonwealth Universities have maintained links. The effects of the economic crash of 2008 means that the currency is still suffering in Zimbabwe and the 2008 elections, which culminated in violence, led to a declaration from South Africa that there was indeed a problem in Zimbabwe.

It was argued that the protection of human rights in Zimbabwe can only be assured through the creation of strong political institutions. Human rights are protected by the Zimbabwean constitution as well as in several international treaties. However, human rights abuses are said to occur on a daily basis in the country and there are several laws in existence in Zimbabwe which themselves impinge on human rights. See for example the public order laws and the recent case of Munyaradzi Gwisai, who was arrested alongside 53 other activists charged with organising protests to challenge the incumbent government.

Violations of justice occur with a poor application of the law, no right to fair trial and bribery. There are violations of freedom of expression which can be evidenced in such policies as those charging foreign correspondents $32,000 to register, which can be prohibitive for some outlets and limits access. Although constitutional reform is underway, the speaker urged caution, noting that it was already a flawed document with the consultation process already having been politicised.

A process of national healing is required and institution building is vital to developing a sustainable model of democracy where human rights are protected in substance as well as in name. Currently there has been a militarisation of nearly all institutions which has cost them their independence and legitimacy.

Democracy in the Nigerian ContextOnyekachi Wambu (AFFORD – African Foundation for Development)

It was argued that given the resources available, Nigeria should have a trillion dollar economy but minimal development, and problems surrounding democracy, security and human rights have prevented this. Nigeria’s political history demonstrates that the country has had to fight its way through this quagmire to find its own version of democracy.

National and local political restructuring processes over the last few decades have resulted in systems of power rotation and sharing, the development of the federal character principle, a rejection of military rule, an integrated market and multiple, workable levels of the rule of law.

The amalgamation of several regions into a greater state has resulted in a multi-cultural Nigeria. Following independence in 1960 the government contained representatives from each of the three strong regions: Prime Minister (Hausa), Opposition (Yoruba) and Governor General (Igbo). Nigeria quickly moved from this parliamentary system to a republic but there were still threats to democracy amid fears of corruption. Several coups led to a confederation of states, which it was hoped, would lead to greater compromise amongst leaders. However, central power still increased.

Nigeria has a colourful political history, where generally the press has been lively and notions of free speech have been central. Democracy here seems to be inextricably linked with free and fair elections but so much money is required to run in an election in Nigeria that accessibility is a problem. A potential solution would be to set up a system of state financing for elections and lowering the financial threshold for entry which would negate any potential bribery of political leaders in the future.

Student presentations

Water Governance – When Policy Meets Practice: Challenges to Water Governance (Experiences from India)Shilpi Srivastava (2010 Commonwealth Scholar from India, DPhil Water Governance, University of Sussex)

It is said that people have a basic human right to water as it is necessary as a resource for life, people should not have to pay use it. Understanding of the nature of water as a resource, the social structures within which water is currently distributed and the people involved is necessary in order to establish effective governance at the micro level.

The Perceived Role of Corporate Governance in Zambia’s DevelopmentChanda Shikaputo (Commonwealth Scholar from Zambia, University of Dundee)

Stable and effective human rights occur from development in all forms. Development can only truly take hold within a context of good governance. There are several accepted principles which must exist to achieve a state of good governance and they include the following: participation of people; consensus building; adherence to the rule of law; effective and efficient processes; accountable government; transparent procedures and equitable laws.

As corporations themselves expand and have an impact on a wider range of interested parties it is more important than ever that these corporations reflect these values. This in turn will ensure that development is fostered within the private sector as well as emanating from the state as we surely cannot expect that governments have the capacity to fix every problem and provide opportunity everywhere.

Interactive session

This session was intended to be a demonstration in consensus building and to provide an insight into the workings of democracy. Members were split into 3 groups based on regions with 10 Africans having been ‘offered visas’ to developed Commonwealth countries to offset any imbalances.

Challenge: If the Commonwealth has been disbanded and you are charged with reinstating it, what three values would you choose to underpin this new community?


  1. No person may hold more than one role throughout the exercise and when in regional groups and in the main Commonwealth group, only those with allocated roles are allowed to speak.
  2. Each regional group was to split into three smaller groups and elected a spokesperson (i.e. 3 spokespeople per region). The small groups then decide on three values which the spokesperson will feedback to the regional group.
  3. Once returned to the regional group the following people are elected: a minute taker, a spokesperson to chair the regional group and present to the Commonwealth Group and a spokesperson to be put forward to act as chair of the Commonwealth Group.
  4. Three values are decided by the regional group, only the original three spokespeople and chairs are allowed to speak in this section.
  5. All regional groups return to the form the main Commonwealth Group.  The regional chair people form a panel of three. The nominees for Commonwealth Chair come forward and a chair is voted upon by all delegates.
  6. Members of the panel present their region’s values and the panel (aided by the Chair) will determine the three new values of the Commonwealth. Members outside of the panel are expected to observe but not participate.


  • A woman was elected to be the Commonwealth Chair
  • 75% of final panel were women
  • Regional values were relatively similar: Asia – equality, freedom, accountability; Africa – Rule of law, human rights, accountability; developed Commonwealth – accountability, equality, dignity
  • Final three values: accountability, equality, dignity
  • Human rights were not the first value but accountability – an understanding that we are responsible for and accountable to each other for our actions
  • Some members of the panel seemed to lose their voice in the last stage – does democracy belong to those who shout loudest?
  • Many observations were made on the difference between the expected and actual functioning of democracy.

Boundaries of Human RightsNatasa Mavronicola (2010 Commonwealth Scholar from Cyprus, PhD Law, University of Cambridge)

The research centred on Article 3 Convention of Human Rights which declares that freedom from torture or inhuman and degrading treatment is an inalienable human right. Starting with the premise that this right can never be lawfully violated, Natasa began to look at case law from the European Court of Human Rights and how this right has been interpreted. Some cases hold steadfastly to the principle within the 3rd article whilst others, particularly those involving state actors, are more creative in their reasoning to define a violation.

As an inalienable human right, Article 3 can be problematic. The example of the ticking bomb was discussed: there is a bomb in a building in the middle of city, you don’t know where it is but you know its detonation will cost hundreds of lives. You have the terrorist in custody and you know he knows exactly where the bomb is situated but you also know he won’t give you any information…unless he is subjected to certain persuasions or torture. Violate one person’s rights to preserve the right of hundreds of others to live – what do you do?

Promotion of Human Rights and Freedoms in the Commonwealth: The need for community empowerment and human rights educationKeneth Bamuturaki (2010 Commonwealth Scholar from Uganda, PhD Drama: Theatre as Development, University of Exeter)

This talk was also focused on the operation of Article 3 but this time more closely involved in what was termed ‘female genital mutilation’ in African culture. Keneth suggested that such rituals were troubling due to a lack of hygiene and the apparent absence of choice. It was argued that a greater educational drive was needed in order to empower these women so that they felt able to make a choice of participation themselves even if this resulted in some resisting.

The presentation seemed particularly controversial and drew forceful responses from delegates. In particular it was urged that Western notions of human rights should not be imposed upon countries where such rituals hold a particular cultural and social significance. Care must be taken when drawing generalisations about events to which there is limited exposure in the Western world. One delegate remarked that we should be cautious in adopting an imperialist approach of enforced belief in a country where the existing social structures it could be argued work more efficiently than in developed societies.

The above are summations of presentations given by the speakers over the course of this weekend. The content of these talks was not generated by and is in not intended to reflect the opinions of the CSC.