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The Commonwealth is an international association of 56 countries (29% of the UN’s membership), with a population of 2.5 billion (around 32% of the global population), and a collective GDP in the region of US$13 trillion (2021 data).

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 2021 the Commonwealth accounted for 9.4% of the UK’s total trade.

This Commons Library briefing sets out the Commonwealth’s work to promote human rights. Section 5 provides further reading on the association more broadly. Other Library briefings 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 association to strengthen its ability to promote and protect democracy in member countries (PDF).

In 1995, the association established the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) under the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme to address persistent violations of Commonwealth principles. In 1995, Nigeria was the first country to be suspended (PDF) from the Commonwealth for violating these standards.

Democracy in Commonwealth countries

The UK Government has raised concerns for political rights in several states.  Four Commonwealth countries—Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—are human rights priority countries for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). In 2022, it cited concerns for freedom of assembly and speech in each, among other human rights issues.

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—32 of the 56—criminalise same-sex acts between consenting adults. Many of these laws were introduced in the colonial era. UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, acknowledged and apologised for these laws in 2018. In 2022, four member-states decriminalised consensual same-sex relationships: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Singapore, and St Kitts and Nevis.

The UK Government has announced funding to support legislative reforms in Commonwealth states, most recently in 2022.

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 the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, 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 issues.

If this is unsuccessful, CMAG then meets to considers the country’s democracy. Measures it can consider include collective action or statements on the part of the Commonwealth, suspension of membership, or expulsion. Since its foundation in 1995, CMAG have recommended seven suspensions (PDF), concentrated in 1995 to 2000 and 2006 to 2009, against Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, and Fiji. All have returned to the Commonwealth.

Update log

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

March 2023: Updated sections on LGBT+ inclusion and human rights in specific countries in advance of Commonwealth Day 2023

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