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Commonwealth Secretary-General remarks on Human Rights Day

10 December 2015

High Commissioners, distinguished guests, Commonwealth friends and colleagues,

Good morning and welcome to Marlborough House on this very special day. I am honoured to open our Commonwealth observation for Human Rights Day 2015.

The promotion and protection of human rights is a calling and an obligation of the highest order.

Human rights are fundamental to the dignity inherent in being human. They are universal and to be enjoyed by everyone, irrespective of nationality, gender, religion, race, language, sexual orientation, age or political opinion. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.

Human rights are not just the embodiment of aspirational intentions—they are tangible norms that offer real promise to each and every individual, promise of respect and of a more meaningful and secure life. These rights are all inter-related, interdependent and indivisible. One right cannot be fully enjoyed without the promotion and protection of the others.

The Commonwealth Charter reaffirms human rights as core values and principles of the Commonwealth. Indeed, the development of human rights and the rule of law has been a cornerstone of the liberty and democracy we enjoy and central to the work of the Commonwealth.

The Charter notably affirms that we are ‘implacably’ opposed to discrimination in all its forms. Discrimination undermines the dignity, equality and rights of individuals and groups, and as has been emphatically affirmed, discrimination has no place in the Commonwealth, and we should work to uproot it wherever it may find itself.

Two weeks ago, the Commonwealth Heads of Government, at their meeting in Malta, reaffirmed the importance of human rights. They recognised that freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of religion or belief are cornerstones of democratic societies, and important for the enjoyment of all human rights, including the right to development, and are fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Crucially, they emphasised the need to protect individuals from all forms of violence and discrimination.

While there is much to celebrate today with regard to the gains in human rights, we also know there is a long road ahead of us. The challenges still confronting us are enormous and we must be determined to overcome them.

Our discussion today seeks to raise awareness about an abhorrent practice that undermines human rights for girls and women—that is, child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

It is well recognised that child, early and forced marriage ‘violates, abuses or impairs human rights’, and its widespread effects are plainly evident. The prevalence of the practice hindered achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Sustainable Development Goal 5 seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all girls. Ending child, early and forced marriage is an integral part of this vision, making it a priority concern for the next 15 years.

Should current trends be allowed to continue, more than 14 million girls under 18 years of age will be married every year, approximately half of them in Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth has wholeheartedly joined the international movement to end child, early and forced marriage.

In each CHOGM Communiqué since 2011, Heads have formally attached great importance to addressing the issue, and have directed the Secretariat to work with members to prevent and eliminate this practice, while also supporting victims. You will shortly hear from our Human Rights team about the Kigali Declaration and the body of work which we have been doing to end child marriage, as well as participate in a focus group with boys and young men.

In closing, I appeal to our common humanity. It cannot be allowed to be business as usual as long as the shadows of social injustice, repression, discrimination, deprivation, poverty, climate change, violent extremism and the various other ills afflicting the world are cast on us.

Although the challenges to ensuring human rights are daunting, they are not insurmountable if the spirit is willing, which we must summon as an indivisible human community. The responsibility to uphold human rights is ours collectively. We are determined in confronting them, and will remain resolute in our determination to ensure a decent and dignified life for each and every individual in the Commonwealth.

Thank you.