“The Commonwealth’s future – Part 2” by Sir Ronald Sanders

In 2009, recognising the dangers to the grouping, Commonwealth Heads of Government at their meeting in Trinidad and Tobago instructed that an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) be established to inquire into the association and provide a report to their 2011 meeting in Australia. I was a member of the Group and its rapporteur. Chaired by a former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdullah Badawi and including experienced and knowledgeable persons from Britain, Canada, Uganda, Australia, Pakistan, Ghana, Kiribati and Jamaica, we produced the report, A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, that dominated the Australia meeting and has since become a seminal Commonwealth document.

Among the factors that prompted the decision of Commonwealth leaders to look deeply at the Organisations were:

  • a decline in attendance at meetings by Heads of Government themselves;
  • the relevance and efficacy of the Commonwealth in a changing international system;
  • the impact of the Commonwealth on the lives of the people of its member states;
  • the credibility of the organisation which seemed to eschew the values for which its member states repeatedly declared their commitment; and
  • a lack of interest by the media and the general public in Commonwealth matters.

The EPG made 106 recommendations for reform of the Commonwealth, particularly the inter-governmental machinery, the role of the Secretary-General and the functioning of the Secretariat.

The recommendations were developed after 18 months of intense analysis of the organisation based on over 300 submissions from Commonwealth organisations and numerous other individual presentations as well as scrutiny of the Secretariat’s budget and work programme. Implementation of many of the original recommendations remains unfulfilled, but they are the core of a new agenda and purpose for the Commonwealth that would make the association relevant and beneficial to its members.

Having conducted the inquiry and confronting the challenges the association faces, the members of the EPG collectively stated: “In an era of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of the Commonwealth – as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development – is unparalleled. For that potential to be achieved giving economic, social and political benefit to its 2.1 billion citizens, urgent reform is imperative for the Commonwealth“.

The CHOGM that should have tackled a 'reform agenda' was controversially held in Sri Lanka in 2013 under the Mahinda Rajapaska regime which was subsequently voted out of office by the Sri Lankan electorate. Only 26 of the Commonwealth's 53 Heads of Government, attended. The 'retreat' - conceived in 1971 as a private meeting of Heads of Government only, and regarded since then as the heart and brain of the Commonwealth association - was even less well attended.

The CHOGM that should have tackled a ‘reform agenda‘ was controversially held in Sri Lanka in 2013 under the Mahinda Rajapaska regime which was subsequently voted out of office by the Sri Lankan electorate. Only 26 of the Commonwealth’s 53 Heads of Government, attended. The ‘retreat‘ – conceived in 1971 as a private meeting of Heads of Government only, and regarded since then as the heart and brain of the Commonwealth association – was even less well attended.

At the root of the current malaise and paralysis of the Commonwealth is a North-South divide that has crept into the association’s decision-making bodies at the inter-governmental level. Significantly, it is not a divide that is replicated in the more than 90 Commonwealth civil society groups. But, the divide has shifted the inter-governmental Commonwealth from the use of its greatest strength to wallowing in its greatest weakness. It is that shift that requires the most urgent attention.

The Commonwealth’s most powerful asset is that it is a grouping of countries from every continent of the world; its peoples represent every religion and ethnic group; its members are developed nations and developing nations; big countries and small islands. It is, essentially, a microcosm of the world. Its greatest strength is that it has strived to find solutions to the world’s problems, not to exacerbate them. It has done so on political issues, none more celebrated than fighting racism in Southern Africa. It has also done so on many economic issues through the work of groups of experts from Commonwealth countries who labored together to create blueprints that were advanced into the international community and encouraged necessary change.

It is those moorings from which the Commonwealth ship has come unloose and which it needs to re-fasten in the interest of the organization, its members and the global community.

The Commonwealth will never be a powerful organization – it is not a military or economic grouping. But it can be an association of considerable influence for its countries individually and collectively as well as for the international community, if its members accentuate the matters on which they find common ground on issues such as: fair and just trade; addressing terrorism; reform of the international financial system to boost economic development; promoting understanding and tolerance of the rights of minority communities; responding swiftly to disasters in poor countries; ending gender discrimination; tackling Climate Change and global warming; championing the interests of its small and vulnerable states; strengthening democratic institutions for economic and social development as much as for political stability.

Of overwhelming importance to the future of the organization, is to recognize that its great success in the past emanated from Summit meetings that were fully and regularly attended by Heads of Government themselves, and by the relationships they developed among themselves and with the Secretary-General as the Chief Executive Of?cer of the organization.

If the Commonwealth can remain cohesive, rooted in the values that authenticate it within its member states and in the international community, by managing and harmonising the diversity of its membership it can continue to play the vital role in the future that it did in the past.

For the Commonwealth to realign itself to these purposes, hard work is required to bring leaders on board to the ideas that the Commonwealth could be a catalyst for new and informed thinking that would benefit their countries and the world community.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London and Massey College, Toronto: Responses and previous commentaries - www.sirronaldsanders.com

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London and Massey College, Toronto: Responses and previous commentaries – www.sirronaldsanders.com

The next Secretary-General will be crucial to this process. The person has to have a vision and almost an evangelical zeal for the Commonwealth’s role for its member states and for the part it can play in global affairs. He/she also has to have the capacity to advise Heads of Government prudently but fearlessly, to heal rifts between governments, and to find and promote common ground to advance the Commonwealth. He/she also has to have an understanding of the business community and the capacity to devise ways in which to partner with multinational companies to increase the resources of the Commonwealth in crucial areas such as building resilience to disasters; creating development funding institutions; and financing studies that would derive practical solutions to debt.

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