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The UK and the Commonwealth: Leading the rights path

Article by Sanjoy Hazarika and Sneh Aurora

December 16, 2020

The UK and the Commonwealth: Leading the rights path

With the COVID-19 pandemic battering the world socially and economically, both the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, cautioned against the damage being done to human rights across the globe. In separate but similar statements, they sounded the alarm on attacks on human rights and fundamental freedoms, the targeting of the marginalised and most vulnerable, parallel pandemics of gender and child violence, and the abuse of governmental power.


Dr. Ghebreyesus poignantly painted a stark picture of the reality so many have witnessed over the past year: “The pandemic has brought out the best – and worst – of humanity…[it] exposes the fault lines, inequalities, injustices and contradictions of our modern world. It has highlighted our strengths, and our vulnerabilities.”[1] According to Mr. Guterres, “…in many places around the world, participation is being denied and civic space is being crushed. A global pushback on human rights has placed participation in its crosshairs.” [2]


Despite these and other warnings by international leaders, we continue to see adverse effects on human rights that have been amplified by economic contraction, as well as social inequalities and instability. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an international NGO with offices in New Delhi, London, and Accra, has been monitoring many of the human rights implications of the pandemic. The Commonwealth, a diverse group of 54 nations, has seen extensive direct and indirect adverse impacts of either indifference or acute prejudice by State or non-State actors on vulnerable, voiceless, and virtually invisible groups. CHRI’s research, engagement and advocacy work in the areas of access to justice, contemporary forms of slavery, and access to information throughout the world has revealed key challenges for Commonwealth countries.


The UK has the responsibility to act as a strong international leader on core areas of protection of and support to human rights and the imperiled open, participative civic spaces of which Guterres spoke. Since the start of the pandemic, CHRI has monitored many of the emerging human rights situations throughout the Commonwealth. Rights violations were extensive under restrictive conditions, with serious punishments meted out for breaching regulations.


In Bangladesh, enforced disappearances continue to take place even during the COVID-19 pandemic, targeting opposition political activists and individuals who are critical of the Government’s response to the pandemic. Nationwide lockdowns and severe punishments in numerous countries for breaking restrictions allowed law enforcement agencies to act with impunity. Enforcement came at the cost of rising police brutality in many countries. In response to vivid accounts of police violence and arbitrariness across India during the initial months of a nationwide lockdown, CHRI framed a set of guidelines to assist police departments to enforce the restrictions with care and within the Constitutional framework.[3]


Across the world, outrage and demonstrations against police abuses surged after the brutal killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a police officer in Minneapolis, US. Among these agitations is the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, against a special police unit known for arbitrary violence.


In addition, COVID-19 has caused major, visible disruptions in criminal justice mechanisms as courts and legal systems struggled to minimise physical contact. The alternative of video conferencing has been slow to develop in many countries as a result of creaky infrastructure and poor connectivity. Consequently, there are fewer recourse options in the face of human rights violations and abuses. Yet, there is hope in the pioneering role of pro-active higher courts such as India’s Supreme Court, which has ruled positively on issues of same sex relations and the need to video record conditions at police stations.[4]


Human rights assaults against highly vulnerable groups have persisted. Economic hardship, lockdowns, border closures and increased government authority have worsened the situation. In many countries, the rights of migrants have been largely ignored during the pandemic. Border shutdowns, travel restrictions, quarantine measures and lack of access to services in host countries have placed migrants and their families in conditions of great risk. COVID-19 has also highlighted gaps in protection such as lack of access to sick leave or health care, forcing migrant workers to choose between making a living or going to work while ill.


In May 2020, a member of the Commonwealth 8.7 Network in Bangladesh found that undocumented migrants were at risk of being deported and also reported high infection rates among migrant workers.[5] Restrictions on movement have also increased the vulnerability of migrants to trafficking and exploitative smugglers. In the UK, recent months have seen an increase in dangerous Channel crossings; reports of abuse at the hands of smugglers are widespread.[6]


Among those facing the greatest harm as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are over 40 million men, women and children worldwide who live in conditions of contemporary forms of slavery, including people who are vulnerable to human trafficking.[7] The Global Slavery Index reports that 40 per cent of those living in conditions of modern slavery reside in the Commonwealth, yet not nearly enough is being done to identify, assist and protect victims and survivors.


Exploitation and conditions of slavery within supply chains have been significantly exacerbated and highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased demand for the production of certain goods such as personal protective equipment and hand sanitisers has resulted in workers being forced to work longer hours without adequate physical distancing measures and other protections against the virus. Conditions of slavery have recently been brought to light in the production of PPE sourced by the UK from China.[8] In sectors such as the garment industry, workers have been left without income as large retailers such as British-owned Primark have cancelled orders and refused to honour payments for goods that have already been produced.[9]


Lack of regulation of labour risks in supply chains have made conditions worse. Only the UK and three other Commonwealth countries have laws or policies in place to address the risk of modern slavery within public procurement or business supply chains.[10] No Commonwealth country has yet enacted legislation imposing a mandatory human rights due diligence requirement on businesses.[11] The British Government must lead by example by better regulating international supply chains and addressing potential risk. The UK has an opportunity to use its position within the Commonwealth and its soft power as a global leader for human rights to press for further supply chain regulations abroad and hold countries to account.


Indeed, the UK as current Commonwealth Chair-in-Office should press for the implementation of all commitments previously made by Commonwealth States to uphold human rights. At the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), States reinforced their commitment to achieve SDG Target 8.7 to take effective measures to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking.[12] Yet, for the most part, very little has been done across the Commonwealth to implement these promises.[13]


In addition to working with foreign governments to protect human rights, the UK must also do more to support civil society both at home and abroad. CIVICUS, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries, has found that in 2020 there has been a contraction of civil society freedoms.[14] Government travel restrictions, border closures, localised lockdowns and curfews have been obstacles to civil society organisations (CSOs) from delivering vital services and have restricted their operations when their services are most in need. CSOs and service providers are having to quickly learn to respond to issues in their new working circumstances. Due to physical distancing and the reprioritisation of public resources, these organisations and services are facing challenges in the provision of essential care. Disappointingly, the majority of governments have failed to provide direct financial assistance to CSOs to enable them to continue providing essential support services and continue their effort to protect human rights. Funding cuts and budget deficits that will extend far beyond the end of the pandemic will further undermine human rights across the world by weakening the CSO networks which depend upon them.


In this time of COVID-19, the free flow of accurate and reliable information is more essential than ever, as well as a need to ensure journalists and the media can perform their professional duties to exchange vital information and support open dialogue, without fear or intimidation. Yet, journalists on the frontline face restrictions from both state and non-state actors while going about their daily work. These pressures include arrests, detentions and criminal investigations; restrictions on access to information; censorship of COVID-19 news; excessive fake news regulation; and direct verbal or even physical attacks.[15] The culture of transparency and access to information has been eroded and the struggle to contain ‘fake news’ has legitimised measures used to stifle independent media and critical journalism.


While restrictions on human rights and freedoms were imposed in the name of public health, many human rights violations have resulted from the deliberate opportunistic use of the pandemic as a cover to restrict human rights and freedoms. Thus, it is critical for the UK to support the promotion of human rights everywhere by taking a stronger leadership role at the Commonwealth and through UN mechanisms. Though the Commonwealth is a collective and voluntary association of states, the Queen and the UK Prime Minister both currently serve in key governance roles as the Head of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, respectively.


To fulfil its duties to the Commonwealth, the UK must not only lead by example, but actively advocate for protection of human rights and freedoms. Raising awareness of human rights at meetings of Heads of Governments and Ministerial Groups, and agreeing joint action is a start. Pushing for implementation of commitments and action plans, and follow up is vital to ensure that intentions do not remain only on paper. There is an urgent need for the creation and resourcing of a monitoring mechanism at the Commonwealth Secretariat to ensure implementation of commitments to uphold human rights in accordance with Commonwealth and international frameworks. This too is a key area where leadership must be demonstrated. These are essential steps if we are to make progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 to which all nations have committed.


As the UK wraps up its technical leadership of the Commonwealth and hands over to Rwanda at the Kigali Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), it is incumbent upon it to address these issues on a time bound basis for all Commonwealth members. The UK must flag its determination to pursue these goals and raise them, even if inconvenient to fellow members – for human rights are not hemmed in by national boundaries. They are fundamental to enable hundreds of millions of ordinary people to live with and in dignity.


Sanjoy Hazarika is International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in New Delhi.


Sneh Aurora is Director of CHRI’s London office. The authors would like to thank Willow Ross, Research and Advocacy Intern at the CHRI London office, for her contribution to this article.


Image by FCDO (CC).


[1] Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the World Health Assembly, WHO, May 2020,

[2] Antonio Guterres, We are all in this Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery, UN, April 2020,

[3] Respecting Human Rights while Enforcing the Lockdown: Guidelines for Police, CHRI, March 2020,

[4] India court legalises gay sex in landmark ruling, BBC News, September 2018,; India Legal, Supreme Court directs installation of CCTVs in all police stations and Central probe agencies [Read Judgement], India Legal, December 2020,

[5] Founded by CHRI, the Commonwealth 8.7 Network is a group of 60+ civil society organisations that share a common vision to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery and human trafficking. Commonwealth 8.7 Network –

[6] Alan McGuinness, Channel migrants brought ashore in UK for unprecedented 10th day in a row, Sky News, August 2020,

[7] More specifically, the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery and the Global Slavery Index states that there are 40,293,000 people living in modern slavery, with 15,710,000 of those living in Commonwealth countries.

[8] Pete Pattisson, Ifang Bremer and Annie Kelly, UK sourced PPE from factories secretly using North Korean slave labour, The Guardian, November 2020,

[9] Annie Kelly, Primark and Matalan among retailers allegedly cancelling £2.4bn orders in ‘catastrophic’ move for Bangladesh, The Guardian April 2020,

[10] Eradicating Modern Slavery: An assessment of Commonwealth governments’ progress on achieving SDG Target 8.7, CHRI, July 2020,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Communiqué “Towards a Common Future, The Commonwealth, April 2018,

[13] Eradicating Modern Slavery: An assessment of Commonwealth governments’ progress on achieving SDG Target 8.7, CHRI, July 2020,

[14] CIVICUS, ‘People Power Under Attack 2020’, December 2020.

[15] International Press Institute,

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