Dear people of the Commonwealth,
On the 70th anniversary of this organisation it would be easy to rehearse pompous cliches and platitudes. It would be easy to speak in unintended ironies of a “connected commonwealth”, leaving it unspoken that the connection is one of empire, violence, racism and exploitation.
Instead, on this day I pledge to no longer proclaim the gift of English law to the world, while hoping that no one notices the scars that colonial law has left on the criminal justice systems of Commonwealth countries. I apologise that the true impact of this gift has been that two thirds of the world’s countries that allow life imprisonment for children, half that allow whipping and flogging of children as a criminal sentence, and 40 percent that allow corporal punishment of children as a disciplinary measure in detention centres are members of the Commonwealth. This is just part of the cruel legacy left behind.
I apologise, too, that this gift is one that keeps on giving, that it has created and maintains justice systems with many of the lowest minimum ages of criminal responsibility in the world, bringing children as young as seven before courts and sentencing them to lengthy periods of detention. I apologise that this has been the indelible mark of the British juvenile justice tradition.
I apologise that I have presented my country as a world leader in human rights without blushing at the memory of the poisonous laws it imposed, laws that still criminalise consensual same sex relationships in half of the countries of the Commonwealth. I recognise that these laws have not only ruined lives, they have cost lives.
I apologise to the 166 million children who live in countries where child marriage is legal as a result of laws with their origins in the colonial era. I apologise that these laws have particularly harmed girls who are forced to marry young when they are not physically or emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, harming their education, hampering their economic opportunities and leading to lives often lived in poverty.
I apologise to the women and girls living in the 18 countries where it is still legal for a husband to rape his wife because of the legacy of British law.
I apologise that the extent of this damage has not been limited to criminal law and that the British empire has generated a third of the world’s most secretive financial jurisdictions enabling the rich and powerful to hide their wealth and avoid contributing to the countries that made it possible for them to succeed.
Finally, I apologise that pride, political posturing and and a poor grasp of history have prevented me from making this apology before now. An apology is not enough, but it is a necessary start.
Yours in a rare moment of self reflection and unguarded honesty,
For more details about the Commonwealth’s dark legacy, visit: https://home.crin.org/commonwealth