Background information: Commonwealth Ministers of Foreign Affairs Meeting

The Alliance fears that the Commonwealth has brushed human rights and health issues under the carpet in advance of the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting in New York on 29 September 2012.

This is very disappointing, as previously it seemed that the Commonwealth was making great strides towards improving the human rights and health of people living in Commonwealth countries, and proving its relevance.

In 2009 an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) of respected experts was established to examine the Commonwealth’s future and relevance. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) the EPG presented their recommendations. As a result of intense advocacy, including by the Alliance’s ‘What’s Preventing Prevention?’ campaign, most of their recommendations on HIV were adopted.

However, other key recommendations were deferred. These recommendations could have a huge impact on the lives of people in Commonwealth countries, particularly key populations at higher risk of HIV, such as sex workers, people who use drugs and LGBT people, for whom criminalising laws are a major barrier to accessing HIV prevention, treatment and support.

Key recommendations were:

– For the Commonwealth to “take steps to encourage the repeal of laws that may impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic”.

– The creation of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.

– The development of a new Commonwealth Charter, which should underpin core human rights principles and the commitment of the Commonwealth to fight HIV and other major health challenges.

These recommendations were passed to a Ministerial Task Force to develop further and present at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Meeting. Rather than accepting the above recommendations, the Alliance understands that the Task Force has requested further guidance from the Ministers at the September meeting on how to pursue them – potentially opening the issues up to further delay, and possible dismissal.

A lack of transparency and commitment

We’d hoped that the discussions by the Ministerial Task Force would exemplify the core Commonwealth principles of transparency, accountability and civil society participation. That has not happened. Discussions on the new charter, which should have involved every Commonwealth country, only happened in the UK, Canada and Australia to our knowledge.

And now everything seems to be done and dusted. The draft Charter which representatives of the task force have agreed to present contains no mention of freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Nor does it include the creation of a Commonwealth Democracy and Human Rights Commissioner or refer to HIV and other public health threats.

The task force has also subscribed to the Commonwealth Secretariat’s approach to its Strategic Plan 2013-2016, described in the Secretariat’s First Discussion Paper. The paper proposes health to be an “area of diminished focus”. This is in spite of health being prioritised profusely in the CHOGM Perth Communiqué, including a commitment to universal health care. Was this all just empty rhetoric?

The task force is also going to request further guidance from the Ministers at the September meeting on how to pursue the recommendation to take steps to repeal discriminatory legislation undermining the HIV response – potentially opening the issues up for further debate, and possible dismissal.

Don’t miss this opportunity !

There is still time for the Commonwealth the do something to address the key human rights and health challenges it’s citizens are facing. Ignoring the recommendations that the Commonwealth leaders themselves have made will simply add to the ever growing questions among Commonwealth citizens about the impact and added value of the institution.

The ‘What’s Preventing Prevention?’ campaign has launched an action for the Commonwealth ministers of foreign affairs, who meet on 29 September, to approve the recommendation to “take steps to encourage the repeal of laws that may impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic”. Take action here

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