The Commonwealth Charter recognises the vital role of civil society in promoting values and achieving development. But, does the organisation do enough to foster and support the relationship?

CHRI’s 2015 report Civil Society and the Commonwealth: Reaching for Partnership, while highlighting the very real advances made by the Secretariat, calls on the Commonwealth as a whole to take action to improve civil society ability to engage and participate. Speaking at the launch of Reaching for Partnership in November CHRI Executive Director Maja Daruwala (@majadhun) said, “We cannot rely on a dicey colonial past to keep us together. We must leverage civil society if we want it to be relevant in the future. We want to pass a strong message to the Commonwealth that we expect it to engage with and protect civil society and its spaces.”

The Commonwealth can take pride in huge successes in supporting civil society, particularly in times of crisis — from fighting apartheid in South Africa and political oppression in Zimbabwe to renouncing a Nigerian military coup, but there is much still to be done. Reaching for Partnership identifies four main difficulties for CSOs when engaging with the Commonwealth: a general lack of transparency, insufficient information or access to it, inconsistent formats for active contribution, and the sparse opportunities for contact and engagement. Compounding these problems, considerable confusion remains about how best to make concerns known to the Secretariat, and the circumstances surrounding the use of the SG’s Good Offices.

The report outlines a number of important, and practical recommendations:

Commonwealth Heads of Government should have the Human Rights Unit report regularly on changes in civil society spaces in the Commonwealth, as well as on actions taken by the Secretariat to promote and defend these spaces. They should also make efforts to expand opportunities for dialogue with civil society, including at CHOGM, and work towards abolishing the restrictions on civil society space across the region.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group should fulfil their mandate to ensure members committing human rights violations are taken under consideration. Greater transparency of meetings and agendas, and greater openness in accepting civil society submissions, require considerable improvement: in the past dates of meetings were either not provided, or at too short notice for CSOs to make submissions.

The Commonwealth Secretariat should assist ministerial meetings in adopting inclusive practices allowing maximum civil society input. It could also provide CSOs with a channel for individual submissions at ministerial and pre-CHOGM meetings through its own procedures. The report further suggests the appointment of a senior official with a specific mandate to advance civil society engagement and report on progress to the SG, and the creation, in consultation with civil society, of a new specific policy for engagement. CHRI’s survey of CSOs, in fact, showed almost three quarters of respondents are in favour of a separate set of guidelines for engagement. Similar support is shown for a definitive disclosure policy to eliminate confusion or frustration for CSOs trying to access information.

The full set of recommendations is available here.

The report attracted attention on Twitter, with organisations like the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Doughty Street Chambers commenting on the day of publication. The Commonwealth Foundation referred to a “groundbreaking” report which serves as a valuable resource not only for policymakers, but other civil society organisations (CSOs) such as the Commonwealth Equality Network. Between now and CHOGM 2018, Baroness Scotland (@PScotlandQC) has an opportunity to make her mark on the Secretariat, and the Commonwealth, hopefully developing and protecting the relationship with civil society’s will be foremost in her mind.

Further reading: