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Reform or diminish: The Commonwealth challenge


On October 12, as a member of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) established by Commonwealth Heads of Government to advise them on reform of the Commonwealth, I delivered a keynote address in the British House of Parliament, at a conference arranged by the several Commonwealth organisations.

This article is a very much shortened version of that address, which reflected on the challenge that Commonwealth Heads of Government will face when they meet from 28 to 30 October in Perth, Australia.{{more}}

There is no doubt that the Heads of Government meeting will be a defining occasion for the Commonwealth. As a result of their decisions, the Commonwealth will either go forward, re-invigorated and resolute as a values-based organization intent on making a difference to its people and the wider international community; or it will limp along, as a much devalued grouping, to a future of disregard, deterioration, and disappearance.

If the Commonwealth continues with its business as usual, it will lose its moral authority and international respect, providing little benefit to its member states, particularly the small ones. It is in that context that the Group made 106 recommendations for reform covering the full range of Commonwealth activities.

Uppermost in our minds was a determination to draw a map for the consideration of Heads of Government that, in a practical and realistic fashion, could lead the Commonwealth from the cross-roads at which it is presently marking time, to a path that allows it to march forward to renewed significance for its people, and importance in the global community.

In recent years, a few Commonwealth countries have strayed away from the collective values of the association, and, except for the unconstitutional overthrows of governments, the Commonwealth has not spoken out, as a body, or acted jointly to bring errant countries into compliance.

At the heart of this problem has been an absence of reliable and verifiable information in a timely manner that could allow both the Commonwealth Secretary-General and CMAG to engage a government before its violation of the Commonwealth’s values becomes serious or persistent.

The EPG has recommended the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. The post has been set at the level of “Commissioner,” not because the office-holder would be a “policeman” armed with “punitive” powers, but precisely because it is envisaged that the occupant would be a person of sufficient standing, and possessed of significant diplomatic skill and sensitivity, as to be able to engage any government in a respectful and beneficial manner.

It will not be within the Commissioner’s remit to recommend the suspension or expulsion of a country; this responsibility remains with CMAG or Heads of Government themselves.

The post of Commissioner should be embraced by all Commonwealth governments precisely because the Commissioner will be a very senior officer with the capacity to gather reliable information in a way that directly involves governments facing difficult circumstances.

Further, for the Commonwealth to continue to advocate for development funding, for money to militate against Climate Change, for reform of the criteria under which small states are unfairly graduated from concessionary financing, it has to be credible in relation to democracy.

On the recommendation of a Charter for the Commonwealth, there appears to be a belief that this idea was imposed on the EPG by the governments of Australia, Canada and Britain. Nothing could be further from the truth; the idea originated with the EPG Chairman, Tun Abdullah Badawi – the former Prime Minister of Malaysia – whose country had pioneered work on a Charter for ASEAN.

The further incorrect notion that seems to have arisen is that the Charter will become a binding constitution for the Commonwealth. This is also a fallacy. We should all recall that the Commonwealth is not a treaty organization. Its members have not signed on to legally-binding rules and obligations. It is an association of sovereign states that voluntarily work together in their common interest and for their common good.

The EPG’s recommendation of a Charter is to do no more than weave the many declarations into one document, and then only after consultation with the people of the Commonwealth, through public meetings across the Commonwealth, with the involvement of civil society organisations.

Over the years of its existence, the Commonwealth has expressed its shared values in several declarations. The Charter would have no greater legal force than the many declarations now have, nor will it bind any member government in any greater way than now exists. Heads of Government themselves have decided that these values are the measure by which a government can maintain membership of the Commonwealth. When governments violate these values in a serious or persistent manner, they can no longer enjoy the badge of honour that membership of the Commonwealth represents.

The matter of funding the EPG’s recommendations has also been raised. Figures in excess of £9 million have been suggested as the cost of implementation. But, those figures are not the EPG’s.

Throughout its work, the Group was acutely aware that this is not the time to ask governments to put up huge sums of 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, we 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. The re-allocated funds will pay for the necessary reforms.

The bottom line is simply this: without these reforms the

Commonwealth will decline as an instrument of value to its member states and as an influence for better in the international community.

The greatest priority was placed on the urgent issue of the damaging effects of climate change on small island states and coastal states. The EPG has also made firm recommendations on helping developing countries to deal with burdensome debt created, in part, by the overwhelming financial crisis in whose creation they played no part, but of which they are now among the worst victims.

We also recommended strong advocacy by the Commonwealth, collectively, to reform processes in the World Bank that wrongly “graduate” small states from concessional financing on the basis of their per capita income only. We proposed practical methods to fund entrepreneurial schemes for youth and to tackle youth unemployment; and we suggested ways in which inter-Commonwealth investment could be promoted, trade increased and jobs created.

Some observers are already saying that the meeting will be characterized by a North-South divide; that there is tension – if not animosity – between those who favour greater attention to democracy and the rule of law, and those who reject it, arguing instead for more resources for developmental issues.

In reality, the EPG has argued for far more resources – human, financial, inter-governmental, and civil society supported – to be put into ensuring development than into maintaining democracy.

In an era of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge of 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.

But, for that potential to be achieved giving economic, social and political benefit to its 2.1 billion people, urgent reform is imperative.

The challenge at Perth is for Heads of Government, collectively, to seize the moment and to authorize the proposed reforms.

(The entire address can be read at: )