Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

By Richard Bourne, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

The Eminent Persons Group, set up in Trinidad to forge a more compelling future for the association, is proposing two new instruments – one which could be important for journalists, the other which could make them yawn.

The proposed Commissioner on Democracy and the Rule of Law could help journalists under attack, either by governments or non-state actors. It depends how this office will work, what resources it will have, and how it will interact with the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group ( CMAG ) – which has the capacity to suspend governments – and the Commonwealth Secretary-General. But it could be significant.

Back in 2003 the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit had recommended that CMAG, a body of foreign ministers, should have a qualified, independent, human rights adviser. The idea was not adopted, but the then Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, did arrange for the Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit to advise CMAG in confidence.

The Eminent Persons have now gone further. Initially they were thinking of a Commissioner for the Rule of Law. They are currently recommending a Commissioner for Democracy and the Rule of Law. If the Commissioner is properly funded and publicised, he or she could speak out against abuses of media and of journalists which damage democracy and freedom of expression.

More yawn-making, however, is the proposal for a “Charter of the Commonwealth”. This would involve citizens and civil society in drawing up a charter of values. But it is less than two years since Commonwealth leaders agreed to the “Trinidad and Tobago Affirmation”, which has not obviously altered the lives of two billion citizens since.

The Affirmation built on a series of Commonwealth assertions, from Singapore in 1971 to Harare in 1991. The Harare principles of 1991 led to the establishment of CMAG, an enforcement mechanism, four years later. But the 2009 Affirmation has not led to any new efforts at implementation, although the relatively inactive CMAG is now the subject of a reform process.

While civil society may enjoy debating Commonwealth values there is a severe danger that, without agreed methods of implementation, such values will be seen as mere motherhood and apple pie, and add to the perception of a marginal body which talks big and acts little. The charter is unlikely to stop a front page anywhere.