In a league of its own

Commonwealth Week offered a chance to reflect on how an organisation born out of a colonial past could have relevance for the future. Elizabeth Stewart attended the debates and spoke to some of the main players

With the upcoming XX Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the theme of Commonwealth Week was, appropriately, Team Commonwealth.

But that led to the inevitable question – in which league? The Champion’s League, Premiership or Third Division?

Speaking at a Young Diplomats meeting, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma made the point that the organisation – representing nations large and small, from every region of the world, with representatives in every major multilateral and regional organisation – was in a league of its own.

In fact, to take the analogy a little further, it’s more like the FA Cup, where small nations compete at the same level as the very largest and most developed.

The leaders of small Pacific or Caribbean states sit around the same table as powerful nations with seats on the UNSC, OECD or G8 – and that helps with their international integration. Their concerns can be articulated at the highest level.

“This gives us credibility; it’s the reason states are queuing up to join,” said the Secretary General.

A global asset

And while some may question the colonial legacy, Sharma praised the founders of the modern Commonwealth for having the vision to realise that a global family of nations with a common heritage, language and institutions would be an asset. There is a Commonwealth shorthand that makes it easy for members to offer each other technical assistance and share best practice.

The Commonwealth’s regional reach also means it can act as the bellweather for global issues. Sharma pointed out that the Commonwealth can boast a number of firsts: the Langkawi Declaration on sustainable development pre-dated Rio by three years; by creating the Commonwealth Foundation in 1966 it was an early adopter of the role of people and civil society have in a democracy; and the Commonwealth was first to recognise the paradox of development aid and debt, which later led to the HIPIC initiative. The organisation led the way in drawing attention to the effects of skills migration – especially in healthcare and education – but also the untapped potential of diaspora groups.

“We are a microcosm and therefore a template of what the world can accept,” said the Secretary General.

Human rights debates

But being such a diverse club of nations can lead to disagreements. Just recently Canada, one of the Commonwealth’s largest donors, decided not to play ball and withdrew its funding from the Secretariat for the duration of the Sri Lankan chairmanship because it felt the Government of Sri Lanka should have been red carded for its alleged human rights abuses during the civil war.

The Commonwealth has a Charter signed into being in 2012 which enshrines the values of democracy, good governance, rule of law and human rights yet some of the member states fall far short of these ideals, something that makes its critics question its relevance.

Sharma took a different view: “The Commonwealth’s role is to come with a helping hand not with a wagging finger.”

The Commonwealth members should engage with countries like Sri Lanka, he said, and assist them with internalising the values of the Charter and indeed their own constitutions.

If there is a serious derogation from the principles, a state can be referred to CMAG (the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group) and if no progress is made, a member could face suspension or even expulsion.

Activist for the rights of women and girls Malala Yousafzai is the bright young face of tomorrow’s Commonwealth
She gave an inspirational speech at the Commonwealth Day service

Small states champion

While some question the organisation’s relevance there is a lobby strongly supportive of the Commonwealth’s role in development and as a champion of small states.

The Commonwealth has been proactive on international fora such as the IMF, the WTO and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, helping with institutional capacity building and assisting small states to get their voices heard.

The Commonwealth recognises that small states are especially vulnerable to external shocks and assists them in areas of finance, debt sustainability, trade finance, the environment, disaster management and resilience.

Future focus

Looking to the future, the Commonwealth has to become a leaner, efficient, more adaptable organisation that uses technology to its full potential.

Speaking to High Commissioner Dr Carl Roberts, who chairs the Board of Governors and has led the talks on the new financing formula, he said the Commonwealth now has its financial future on a firmer footing.

The Commonwealth will be focusing on three main areas: a citizen-centred approach to politics and development; a wide-reaching youth programme and the empowerment of women. An important issue on the immediate horizon is finding development strategies in a post-2015 world.

Sharma added that the Commonwealth was investing in the use of technology in a variety of fields, from election monitoring to an education and possibly even an environmental hub. Technology was also a useful way for heads of state and government to stay in touch between meetings. But Commonwealth veterans cautioned that this should never replace face-to-face meetings and that the organisation should not lose sight of its unique convening power, which small nations in particular, find valuable.

Having concluded this period of introspection, the Secretary General said he looked forward to the organisation rediscovering its “visionary” zeal. “To look far you have to stand tall,” he concluded. “We can do that because of our wide membership.”

The Queen at the Commonwealth Day service. She has been a
unifying force for the Commonwealth

Scottish dancing at Westminster Abbey gives a taste of what’s to
come in the XX Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma
gives a talk to the YD L on the future of the Commonwealth