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The Commonwealth is an international association of 56 countries  (29% of the UN’s membership), with a population of over 2.5 billion (around 32% of the global population), and a collective GDP estimated to be US$ 13 trillion in 2020.

The UK has significant historic and trading links with the Commonwealth. All but four of its members (Rwanda, Mozambique, Togo and Gabon) were formerly part of the British empire, and in 2020 the Commonwealth accounted for nearly 9% of the UK’s total trade—around the same as the UK’s trade with Germany.

This Briefing sets out the work of the Commonwealth to promote human rights and the challenges it faces. Section 5 provides further reading on the Commonwealth more broadly. Other Library papers describe how the Commonwealth works as an association, its work on climate change, and trade with the UK.

Commonwealth principles

The 1971 Singapore and 1991 Harare Declarations by Commonwealth heads of government set out the Commonwealth’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

The 1971 declaration sets out 12 principles that Commonwealth states must abide by (PDF). These include respecting the equality of all citizens and the recognition of racial prejudice and discrimination as an “evil of society.” The 1991 Declaration went further, in committing the Commonwealth to strengthen its ability to promote and protect democracy in Commonwealth countries (PDF).

In 1995, the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme saw the Commonwealth establish the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to tackle persistent violations of Commonwealth principles. Nigeria became the first country to be suspended (PDF) from the Commonwealth in 1995 for violating these principles.

Democracy in Commonwealth countries

The UK Government has raised concerns for political rights in several states.  Five Commonwealth countries—Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Tanzania—are human rights priority countries for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). In 2021, it cited concerns for freedom of assembly and speech in each.

Women and girls

The Commonwealth also works to promote women’s economic empowerment and leadership, and to end violence against women and girls. Progress on these varies widely across the organisation. For example, at September 2020, only 70% of girls in the Commonwealth attended school (PDF) and in 2018, only 20% of parliamentarians across the Commonwealth were female (PDF).

LGBT+ rights

Most Commonwealth states—36 of the 56—criminalise same-sex acts between consenting adults (as of November 2020).  Many of these laws were introduced in the colonial era. UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, acknowledged and apologised for these laws in 2018. Since 2020, two further member-states have said they will decriminalise consensual same-sex relationships: Antigua and Barbuda and Singapore.

The UK has subsequently announced funding to support legislative reform in Commonwealth states.

Freedom of religion or belief (FoRB)

The UK has also raised concerns about FoRB across the Commonwealth. In 2019, 26 Commonwealth states had blasphemy laws. The UK Government has raised concerns directly with governments including India and Pakistan and hosted international conferences on FoRB, with the most recent in July 2022.

Modern slavery

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) estimates around 16 million people in the Commonwealth are in modern slavery (1 in 150 people).

Through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the UK has provided support to Commonwealth countries to reform their legislation to address modern slavery. In 2022, Commonwealth Leaders pledged to eliminate modern slavery and child labour.

Suspending Commonwealth members

In the event of a country’s decline in human or democratic rights, the first step is for the Commonwealth Secretary General to seek to engage with the member state to address any decline.

If this is unsuccessful, CMAG then meets to considers the issue. Measures it can consider include collective action or statements on the part of the Commonwealth, suspension of membership, or expulsion. CMAG have recommended seven suspensions.

Update log

August 2022: Updated sections on LGBT+ inclusion and freedom of religion and belief. 

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