The Commonwealth and Democracy

As an association, the Commonwealth embraces diversity and firmly rejects discrimination on the basis of race, culture, size or level of development. Where members hold different perspectives on issues, there is agreement to disagree but to continue dialogue, and efforts are made to pursue peaceful reconciliation of disputes.

The Commonwealth works to ensure that democratic arrangements are characterised by gender equality, full and equal participation of both women and men and a genuine and effective partnership between them. In emphasising the importance of representative democracy, the Commonwealth urges member countries to review and repeal structural and/or legal obstacles and discriminations that are likely to perpetuate cultural, social, economic and political marginalisation of women in political processes, and ensure that international legal standards are incorporated into their national laws.

Critics have suggested that the Commonwealth’s support for democracy has been inconsistent, particularly since there have been military governments and one-party states in several Commonwealth countries in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific, during the 1980s.

Yet since the Harare Declaration of 1991, there has been a dramatic increase in the Secretariat’s operational support for democracy, including:

  • sending teams to assist with preparations for elections and then acting as observers during the election period: by 1997, 18 countries in three of the four Commonwealth regions had benefited: many more have benefited since
  • the publication of manuals on the mechanics of free and fair elections
  • training for election officers and policy-makers
  • assistance with constitutional and legislative document drafting
  • providing emissaries to countries facing political crises and the possible breakdown of democracy
  • training for lawyers and judges on international human rights law.

There has also been an increase in the number of democratic states, and a reduction in military governments among Commonwealth members. For a brief period in 1999, all Commonwealth countries were classified as democracies. In strengthening their commitment to democracy, Heads of Government have also strengthened their political and diplomatic machinery to support such a stand. The Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme on the Harare Declaration, endorsed in 1995, outlines the range of actions that the Commonwealth will take when faced with violations of the Harare Principles by a member state, from public expression of disapproval to suspension from the Association.

As we have seen in this unit, democracy is all about being able to make informed choices. Democratic decision-making processes aim to ensure that all people have a voice and that they feel some responsibility for any final decisions.

We have discussed here the principles that underpin this view, as well as the procedures and strategies that are used to ensure that these principles are upheld.