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Urgent debt, development, environment issues at heart of Commonwealth report

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Tackling the problems of climate change, burdensome debt and reform of the international financial system to take account of the grave challenges that confront developing countries, particularly small states, lie at the heart of the recommendations being made to Commonwealth Heads of Government by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), appointed last July to advise on reform of the Commonwealth.{{more}}

While recent attention has focused on a misunderstanding of the role of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights that the EPG has also recommended, very important recommendations on the development issues faced by developing countries have received little attention.

There are two reasons for this. First, so far, it has been decided not to release the EPG report publicly before the Heads of Government of the 53-nation Commonwealth meet in Australia from 28 to 30 October. Consequently, details of the report are known only to specific government departments in Commonwealth countries. This absence of comprehensive information has led to misinterpretations. Second, a handful of government representatives have chosen to focus on the Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law, and Human Rights, wrongly suggesting that the holder of the post will be a “policeman” playing a “punitive role”. In fact, the post is meant to be co-operative and to be used as a tool to remedy situations before they escalate to serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values.

There is a precedent for the EPG report to be released publicly before the Heads of Government meeting. When the first EPG report was delivered to the Commonwealth Secretary-General twenty-five years ago, it was published four months ahead of the Summit meeting, allowing for a full discourse throughout the Commonwealth on its findings about Apartheid in South Africa. At the time, there may have been governments that would have preferred the report not to be made public, but in the end it was released in the interest of transparency. There is little doubt that public discussion of that report in the Commonwealth and beyond helped to mobilize strong sentiment against the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

On September 29, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, making a “statement of results” of his stewardship of the Commonwealth in his first term, said of the EPG: “It is encouraging to me that the Group has proposed a range of recommendations, and that they have paid close attention to the need for balance between the democracy, development and diversity pillars around which our association is built”.

The Secretary-General summed up succinctly what the EPG did in its report. A total of 106 recommendations were made. The recommendation on the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights, while very important, is only one of those recommendations.

The EPG was very conscious of the enormous financial constraints now being faced by every Commonwealth country without exception. The Group was acutely aware that this is not the time to ask governments to put up more money to implement all the recommendations in its report. For this very good reason, while the Group fulfilled its mandate to recommend urgent reforms that would make the Commonwealth “relevant to its times and its people”, as it was requested to do, no new funding was proposed. Instead, the EPG called for the retirement of some programmes in which the Commonwealth has no comparative advantage, which are duplicative of the work of other agencies, and which have displayed no particular benefit. It was calculated that, if these programmes are retired, the Commonwealth’s existing budget should allow all of the EPG’s recommendations for reform to be implemented over a phased period.

Without these reforms, including the Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights, the Commonwealth will decline as an instrument of value to its member states and as an influencer for better in the international community.

The choice before Heads of Government is stark. Either reform the 62-year old organisation to make it more respected, more effective and more dynamic, or preside over its slow death. The proposed reforms were informed by over 330 written submissions made by governments, trade unions, professional organisations and civil society groups that have been deeply involved with, and committed to, the Commonwealth. Many years of collective experience contributed to the final recommendations.

None of this is to say that the Commonwealth Secretariat is adequately resourced. It is not. As the EPG points out in its report, the staff complement at the Secretariat is smaller than the staff of the canteen at the United Nations. And, as the Secretary-General told the Board of Governors on September 29, the Secretariat is “struggling to recruit and retain international talent. We are paying around 40 per cent lower than the UN at professional and diplomatic grades, which is at the low end of the international market”. In a better international financial environment, there is no doubt that the EPG would have recommended more money for the Secretariat to carry out both the recommended reforms and the increasing work given to it by governments.

Among the 106 recommendations that the EPG has made, the greatest priority has been placed on one of them – the urgent issue of the damaging effects of climate change on small island states and coastal states. The Group has recommended that Heads of Government authorise the Secretary-General to convene an expert group to determine which countries are worst affected, in what ways, and how to deal with the issue, including locating the money to do so. Recognising that the Commonwealth, by itself, does not have the resources, the Group recommended the creation of strategic partnerships with international agencies and philanthropic organisations to tackle this crucial matter that threatens the very existence of some countries.

Beyond this, the EPG has also made firm recommendations on: helping developing countries to deal with debt; reforming processes in the World Bank that wrongly “graduate” small states from concessional financing on the basis of their per capita income only; practical methods to fund entrepreneurial schemes for youth and to tackle youth unemployment; and investment and job creation.

Throughout its report, the EPG makes the point that the Commonwealth is at the crossroads. Its credibility and its effectiveness are at stake. It is an indispensable instrument, for small states in particular, to get international action on national development and improvement in the lives of their people. It is time for urgent reform.

(The writer is a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group appointed to recommend reform of the 53-nation Commonwealth)

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