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Basic rights of citizens must be upheld

Basic rights of citizens must be upheld

This ensures quality life lived in dignity, justice and freedom, says Commonwealth official

Human rights should not only be enshrined in every country’s constitution, but they must be made real in order to safeguard the rights of citizens, said Dr Purna Sen, Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

She said making human rights real is fundamental for every person to lead a life of dignity, justice and freedom.

Dr Sen urged governments in the Commonwealth who have yet to sign up to two key charters – the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights – to do so. Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these two Covenants comprise the Bill of Rights which set out the essential elements of the rights to which all are entitled and which all should enjoy.

To date, 38 Commonwealth countries are party to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with 35 being party to the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights.

“We encourage governments to begin by accepting international standards and to follow up by bringing them home to their citizens, regardless of political systems or cultural practices,” said Dr Sen. “Our task is to work with governments in the Commonwealth and other institutions within our member states to help bring about changes that improve the protection of human rights.”

Dr Sen said she is aware of the burden posed by the reporting obligations that come with accepting international treaties. Human and financial resources are needed to fulfil such tasks which some states, particularly developing countries and small states, find arduous. She said the Commonwealth Secretariat stands ready to assist member countries in helping them deliver on their commitments to the UN Conventions as these are critical in democracy and development.

Signing any convention is a first step towards upholding the relevant human rights principles, said Dr Sen. The support of the country’s parliament is needed to agree that promises made internationally are accepted by the government and thus enable local laws and policies to reflect the commitments made to human rights.

“Not only do States have to accept international law but their own parliaments and governments must to do so too,” she explained. “The second step is critical – it is action on the ground at policy level, at service delivery level to implement those commitments that bring real change for the people at home.”

Sometimes the ratification of international conventions – that is the part where the domestic system agrees to accept international standards - can be delayed. But Dr Sen said there are few if any acceptable reasons for such delays.

“I’m not persuaded that commitments to human rights and to international standards are party political nor are they culturally bound. I do believe that the values of human rights are much more humane and fundamental than that. The right to life is fundamental and so are the rights to equality, education, to maintain a family, to have good health, to have the ability to work – the right to development, in fact. The international human rights conventions state the values, the objectives and the goals to which countries must aspire. They have been negotiated by governments of all political persuasions and are applicable equally widely,” said Dr Sen.

She also emphasised the close relationship between human rights and democracy, pointing out that civil and political rights are related to democracy, which involves every adult citizen being given a say in selecting those who govern them and the policies they employ.

“If people don’t enjoy those rights, if they cannot vote for their governments and remove them through the ballot box, then they are not able to choose the sorts of policies that are to be applied to them. If citizens are denied these rights, there is a risk that more unstable and perhaps violent options could be used instead.”

Dr Sen noted that the ability to vote – and to do so in safety – as well as to participate in peaceful political activity and to receive a range of information about political choices are some among the many civil and political rights guaranteed to us all. All these being key elements of democracy, she said the Commonwealth has an interest in strengthening democracy in member countries to enable human rights to thrive.

Dr Sen said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which enjoys its 60th anniversary this year on 10 December is a milestone in the lives of all people, including Commonwealth citizens.

“It reminds us of our shared humanity and the need to strive together to live a life of dignity so that we can reach our potential,” said Dr Sen.


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