Making the case for the Commonwealth

The new Commonwealth Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland outlines to Elizabeth Stewart what the family of nations can offer to the world in the 21st century

Baroness Patricia Scotland has always been a trailblazer. A talented barrister, she went on to achieve a number of firsts for black women in Britain: the first to be appointed Queen’s Counsel, government minister, and then the UK’s first female attorney general since the post was created in 1315. In April this year she chalked up another milestone as the first female Secretary General of the Commonwealth, the 53-nation international organisation of mostly former British colonies.

It’s a post tailor-made for Scotland. Hailing from the island of Dominica, and having lived in the UK for most of her life, she embodies what the Commonwealth represents: a mix of nations, both large and small, developed and the developing. The tenth of 12 children, she understands family dynamics and she sees the Commonwealth as one big, diverse family of nations with common values, language and heritage.

Making a case
But in a world with more ‘targeted’ groupings based on region, security or defence, religion or level of development, how does the lawyer-turned-Secretary General make the case for the Commonwealth?

It is precisely because of the Commonwealth’s diversity that it remains relevant to the global challenges of the 21st century, argues Scotland. “We are living in this interconnected, troubled and troubling world, which can only be made easier by us joining together. We have all colours, all faiths, all cultures, five different regions and that melding is a great platform for us to have some hard-edged conversations so we, as this eclectic family, can offer to the world answers to difficult and complex questions.”

Always the lawyer, Scotland offers evidence to back up her argument. Take the case of climate change. The Commonwealth was first to articulate this existential threat at the Small Islands Developing States conference (SIDS) in Barbados back in 1992. “The small nation states in the Caribbean and the Pacific were the drivers of this agenda. Because they were in the Commonwealth they could get the attention of their bigger brothers and the larger countries began to understand the threat it poses.”

In the run-up to the COP21 Summit on Climate Change last December, the small island states from the Pacific and the Caribbean used the Commonwealth as a springboard to demand a reduction in global emissions to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees, when the overwhelming opinion was that even 2 degrees was too ambitious. “People said we will never make it happen but I said yes we will – and we did,” grins Scotland.

When the world committed itself to a global warming target “well below” 2 degrees it was a major victory for small island states.

Small islands champion
The Commonwealth has always championed its 32 small member states, whose fragile economies are especially vulnerable to external shocks.

“Our smaller countries are like our canaries,” says Scotland. “They are affected by poison a lot quicker. So if our policies are good for the canaries – the smaller islands – then it will be good for the rest of us.”

Some small island states, who are low-tax jurisdictions with offshore finance industries, will find themselves under increased scrutiny following the leak of financial documents known as the ‘Panama Papers’ detailing tax evasion and avoidance on a grand scale. Some commentators have even called for so-called tax havens to be shut down.

In an interview with the BBC, the Secretary General said the Commonwealth members, as part of signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, had already taken steps to improve tax transparency. The problem of tax havens will require careful examination, but as a self-confessed “techie lawyer” the Secretary General said it was important to look carefully at the facts before rushing to make policy recommendations.

Cutting corruption
Tax evasion and corruption go hand in hand and rooting this out where it occurs in the Commonwealth will be a key feature of Scotland’s term in office.

“Corruption robs all of our countries of billions and billions of dollars that we could invest in making our countries better and the citizens have more opportunities. Cutting that corruption is essential to all of us,” she stresses.

Scotland wants tangible instruments to tackle the problem. One idea is to establish a Commonwealth kitemark which signifies that the company or government conforms with anti-corruption best practice. “In choosing to buy services from that Commonwealth entity you are supporting good governance.”

The Commonwealth could pool its talents to create a fair ‘Commonwealth contractual model’ that protects the interests of the nation state but at the same time offers reassurances to investors to give them more confidence to invest in a Commonwealth country.

“That is a cheaper, easier, transparent and enforceable way of doing business,” says Scotland who argues that the Commonwealth is ideally placed to make an important contribution to discussions at the upcoming Anti-Corruption Summit in May.

With that in mind, the Commonwealth Secretariat will be hosting a pre-summit conference called Tackling Corruption Together in partnership with the UK government as well as civil society and business.

Wealth in common
Corruption is a deterrent to trade and investment, but so is red tape. So one of the aims of the Secretary General is to put the “wealth” back into the Commonwealth by reducing the bureaucratic barriers to trade. “The data shows that there is a 19% advantage from trading with another Commonwealth country simply because we share common law and that makes it cheaper and easier. So what more can we do to enhance the commercial, operational advantages of trading with each other?”

The problem is not willingness, but the lack of institutional capacity. “Talking to justice ministers around the Commonwealth, the problem is they lack parliamentary draftsmen to draft these laws,” she says. “So I am looking at whether we can form templates for different contracts, sharing best practice in legislation to make it easier to trade with each other.”

A bridge to Europe
The ambition to facilitate trade between Commonwealth nations will be music to ears of those campaigning for Britain to exit the EU and refocus its historical links with the Commonwealth.

But Scotland is singing a different tune. “I have not heard any member of the Commonwealth saying it would be in their best interest for the UK to leave the EU. Most of the Commonwealth countries, particularly the small member states, need a friend with a powerful voice in Europe. Each individual country would have to speak for themselves but from what I was hearing, our members were indicating that the UK was their bridge into Europe.”

Conversely, European nations see Britain’s membership of the Commonwealth as a major advantage because of its links to some of the world’s fastest growing and dynamic economies, she continues. “Europe is trying to connect more with Asia and Africa which they see as the new emerging markets. One of the things the EU finds attractive about the UK is its membership of the Commonwealth which links them to these markets.”

Women and youth
As the first female Secretary General it is not surprising that Baroness Scotland will be using her extensive experience as a family and human rights lawyer to support the rights of women and girls in the Commonwealth.

Domestic violence is the biggest killer of women and girls globally, she says, and by using the common law and institutions in the Commonwealth, she hopes a common approach can be found to curbing this social ill. “I led a lot of the work here in the UK to confront domestic violence. We managed, by coming together and creating a multi-agency, multi-risk approach, to reduce domestic violence in the UK by 64%. Can you imagine what the Commonwealth would look like if the women in every single country had the same level of protection? If we gave the opportunity for women to participate in education, in business, in development, in political life it could be transformational.”

Supporting the Commonwealth’s youth is another focus. “By 2030, 60% of the Commonwealth will be under the age of 30 so that presents real challenges and opportunities. They are our future and they have to be our primary concern,” says Scotland. “How do we reduce the levels of dysfunction that we are seeing in so many of our countries? How do we respond to this thirst for something spiritual that leads them to nihilism?”

Bringing youngsters together to participate in sports or the arts under the Commonwealth banner is a great way to engage them, says Scotland. Supporting the leaders of tomorrow through the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, which seeks out 60 exceptional youngsters from across the Commonwealth every year has also been an inspiration, she adds.

Common for all
An inclusive Commonwealth – one that does not discriminate against race, religion, gender or sexual orientation – is not only important from a human rights point of view, but it is common sense, says the Secretary General. “No country can afford to discriminate against any group because if you do that you rob yourself of the talent of those people.”

Extending equal rights to LGBT communities remains a divisive issue among some member states, admits Scotland, but she points out that the Commonwealth is constantly evolving. When the modern Commonwealth began, most members were not democracies. Today most of them are. When the Commonwealth campaigned to end apartheid, few thought it would happen, but it was abolished.

“We have all signed up to the Commonwealth Charter and we are on a journey,” says Scotland. “This is another journey that we are going to walk together.”

Photo ABOVE: Baroness Scotland takes up office at Marlborough HousE

Baroness Scotland gives her inaugural address

A rapt audience listens to actor Hugh Quarshie as he welcomes the new Commonwealth Secretary General

Baroness Scotland spent her first day in office opening the Dominica Disaster Resource Centre