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Children in Ghana can be criminalised from the age of 12, subjected to corporal punishment as discipline in detention and can be prosecuted for consensual same-sex sexual activity, all thanks to a shameful legacy left by Britain in Commonw::ealth countries.

Such harmful laws, which have their origins in the colonial era, are present in a huge number of the Commonwealth’s 53 countries, where more than a third of the world’s children live.

Across these countries, the average minimum age at which a person can be held legally responsible for their actions is just ten years old, while some States set it as low as seven.

In 32 Commonwealth countries child marriage is legal, and in 18 of them it is not a crime for a husband to rape his wife.

Of the 67 countries left in the world still allowing children to be sentenced to life in prison, 45 are in the Commonwealth. Out of 71 that still have laws allowing prosecution for blasphemy, 38 belong to the Commonwealth. The same number of countries also criminalise consensual same-sex acts.

While the legacy of the Commonwealth is usually touted as one of unity and mutual benefit, the truth is that those States grappling with Britain’s colonial legacy 70 years after the London Declaration do not often have legal systems that uphold children’s human rights.

Rather than celebrating this legacy, the British government should apologise for it. But because we do not expect it to, we have written the kind of apology it ought to issue this Commonwealth Day. For the full apology and the data we have gathered on children’s rights in the Commonwealth.

More than a third of the world’s children, 862 million young people, currently live in Commonwealth countries. From Antigua and Barbuda, to Zambia, the Commonwealth has left a shameful legal legacy of discrimination and violence.

Laws legalising the corporal punishment of children, punitive criminal justice systems with low minimum ages of criminal responsibility and life imprisonment, blasphemy laws and the criminalisation of consensual same-sex acts in these countries have their roots in British colonial law.

While the legacy of the Commonwealth is usually touted as one of unity and mutual benefit, the truth is that those States grappling with Britain’s colonial legacy 70 years after the London Declaration do not often have legal systems that uphold children’s human rights.

Rather than celebrating this legacy, the British government should apologise for it. But because we do not expect it to, we have written the kind of apology it ought to issue this Commonwealth Day.


The Commonwealth: An apology

It can be hard to find the right words for big occasions, but at CRIN we’re team players, so we’re saving the Commonwealth the effort and providing some appropriate remarks to honour its 70th anniversary.

Commonwealth Secretariat
Marlborough House
Pall Mall
London
SW1Y 5HX
United Kingdom
11 March 2019

Dear people of the Commonwealth,

On the 70th anniversary of this organisation it would be easy to celebrate vague notions of a “connected Commonwealth”, but to do so would be dishonest.

The shared experience of the Commonwealth is one of empire, violence, racism and exploitation. The British empire left a legacy of lasting damage to the legal systems of the 54 countries that make up this organisation. Acknowledging this is not simply a question of regretting wrongs committed in the past, but recognising the lasting damage that persists today and committing to make amends.

This process must begin with an admission of responsibility, a recognition of the damage caused and an unreserved apology. And so today, on the 70th anniversary of the Commonwealth, I apologise without reserve.

I apologise for the scars of colonial law on the criminal justice systems of Commonwealth countries. That 70 percent of these countries allow life imprisonment for children, that half allow whipping and flogging of children as a criminal sentence, and that 40 percent allow corporal punishment of children as a disciplinary measure in detention centres is just part of the cruel legacy left behind.

Britain exported a punitive criminal justice system around the world that continues to cause irreparable harm. Members of the Commonwealth still retain many of the lowest minimum ages of criminal responsibility, bringing children as young as seven before courts and sentencing them to lengthy periods of detention. While much of the world has moved on, raising this age and directing children towards rehabilitation in its place, the British juvenile justice tradition has left its indelible mark.

I apologise for imposing laws that still criminalise consensual same sex relationships in half of the countries of the Commonwealth. These laws have not only ruined lives, they have cost lives.

I apologise to the 166 million children who live in countries where child marriage is legal as a result of laws with their origins in the colonial era. These laws have particularly harmed girls who are forced to marry young when they are not physically or emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, harming their education, hampering their economic opportunities and leading to lives often lived in poverty.

I apologise to the women and girls living in the 18 countries where it is still legal for a husband to rape his wife because of the legacy of British law.

An apology is not enough, but it is a necessary start.

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