by Mandy Banton, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

The question of whether the Commonwealth is relevant invites others:

– What do we understand by ‘the Commonwealth’?
– Relevant to whom?

If we consider the Commonwealth as an umbrella organisation of nations ‘freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’, we may be unsure of its purpose. We may wonder how effective the Secretariat is, and how appropriate its base in a royal palace at the heart of the former British Empire. We may be convinced by a media view of the biennial CHOGMs as ineffective talking shops. But perhaps we should instead consider the grass roots. The Secretariat lists 82 ‘accredited organisations’ representing a range of interest groups – from engineers to parliamentarians, accountants to paediatricians. Their web-sites show the dedication of their largely voluntary officers, the effectiveness of their work, and their very real relevance. Let’s look at two – different in many ways but linked by recognition of the importance of good archival practice and public access to information. This is certainly not an issue which hits the headlines in the broadsheets, but it is one of the unseen foundations of modern democracy.

The Association of Commonwealth Archivists and Records Managers (ACARM) was founded to link archival institutions sharing a common history and language, a common heritage of legal and administrative systems, and hence common record-keeping practices.  ACARM uses its network to develop and share strategies for solving increasingly complex problems, to promote professional education and training, and to hold regular symposia – most recently on ‘Government Secrecy in the Era of Openness’, and ‘Imaging Imperialism’ which focused on audio-visual materials as sources for the study of British imperialism, the end of empire, and the birth of independent nations.

In November 2017, ACARM adopted a position paper on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘Migrated Archives’, the records of former colonial governments removed by the UK at independence. Members are encouraged to follow the Code of Ethics of the International Council on Archives, which states that ‘Archivists should co-operate in the repatriation of displaced archives’.  If repatriation continues to be unacceptable to the British Government, ACARM asks it to demonstrate transparency by making public the legal opinion of 2011 that is the basis of its decision to retain the records, and to demonstrate goodwill by providing free copies to the countries from which the records were removed.

ACARM is an entirely voluntary organisation, no longer receiving annual funding from the Secretariat (responsibility for funding has been transferred to the Commonwealth Foundation, which requires project applications to be submitted – an increased burden on voluntary officers). In contrast, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is sufficiently well-funded to have a permanent staff.  Its objectives are ‘to promote awareness of and adherence to the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other internationally recognised human rights instruments, as well as domestic instruments supporting human rights in Commonwealth member states.’ Its work is split into two core themes: Access to Information and Access to Justice.

CHRI believes that the right to information is fundamental to the realisation of economic, social, civil and political rights.  Informed participation by all citizens depends on increased access to official information, and the right to such access must be guaranteed by effective legislation.

CHRI works to raise public awareness of the value of the right to information.  It collaborates with community groups and encourages the development of networks of concerned civil society organisations.  It researches the specific information needs of the people, and communicates them to policy makers.  In an article for a special issue of The Round Table, CHRI staff outlined the commitment of the Commonwealth and its institutions to a public right to official information, its promotion of the enactment and effective implementation of freedom of information legislation, and the progress made in member states. They identified obstacles to more widespread legislative development, and described CHRI’s advocacy for the adoption of relevant laws, its training of bureaucrats, lawyers and parliamentarians, and collaborations with civil rights organisations, coalitions and activists.  They stressed that engendering a regime of transparency is more complicated than merely enacting legislation.  Citing successes of the Indian grassroots movement in promoting the right to information, and successfully encouraging the use of enacted statutes, they called for capacity building in both civil society and the media to facilitate successful outcomes elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

Neither ACARM nor CHRI limit their focus rigidly to the Commonwealth or individual member states. ACARM, for example, is closely linked with the Africa Programme of the International Council on Archives, and through its membership collaborates with ICA regional bodies such as CARBICA (the Caribbean Regional Branch) and the various African branches. CHRI collaborates with the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, which works in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa, and it has an interest in access to information in Nepal.  It is clear, however, that focusing their attentions on a group of nation states which largely retain common legislative and bureaucratic processes simplifies their work plans and makes them more effective and relevant.  In contrast, for example, the newly appointed ICA Expert Group on Shared Archival Heritage faces an up-hill task in working to a fully universal remit.