The role and future of the Commonwealth - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Principles and Values

1.  The strength of the Commonwealth's commitment to its principles and values, including the promotion of human and political rights, has helped to give it a substantial and distinctive role in the international community. However, in recent years the moral authority of the Commonwealth has too often been undermined by the repressive actions of member governments. We were disturbed to note the ineffectiveness of the mechanisms for upholding the Commonwealth's values, despite its efforts to improve governance and the conduct of elections in member states. We urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that the Commonwealth Ministers' Action Group makes full use of its new mandate and responds robustly whenever there is corroborated evidence of repression or abuse. (Paragraph 28)

2.  We conclude that continuing evidence of serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka shows that the Commonwealth's decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo was wrong. We are impressed by the clear and forthright stance taken by the Canadian Prime Minister, who has said he would attend the Meeting only if human rights were improved. The UK Prime Minister should publicly state his unwillingness to attend the meeting unless he receives convincing and independently-verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka. (Paragraph 32)

Commonwealth Charter

3.  We support the Eminent Persons Group's proposal for a Commonwealth Charter. However, the UK should only accept the Charter's final wording if it reflects the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth. Before signing the Charter, the Government should assure itself that substantial progress is being made by the Commonwealth towards compliance with international human rights norms. (Paragraph 36)

Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights

4.  We recognise that the Eminent Persons Group's proposal for a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights has not found favour right across the Commonwealth. There is clearly room for discussion and negotiation about the nature of the role, including its title. It is important that it should not duplicate the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the Ministerial Action Group. However, the intention behind the recommendation for a Commissioner is an important one, and goes to the heart of what the Commonwealth is about. (Paragraph 40)

5.  The UK Government should insist that the key elements of the EPG's recommendation for a Commissioner are accepted and implemented. In particular, we believe that it is important that the mechanism that emerges from the negotiations should reflect the EPG's recommendation that the Commissioner should provide "well researched and reliable information" on "serious or persistent violations of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in member states," and "indicate approaches for remedial action." (Paragraph 41)

Reforming the Commonwealth Secretariat

6.  The Commonwealth has in the past often launched influential initiatives on key global issues. However, it has appeared less active and less publicly visible in recent years and there is disturbing evidence that it is missing opportunities to influence events. The Commonwealth Secretariat must sharpen, strengthen and promote its diplomatic performance—along the lines proposed by the Eminent Persons Group—if the Commonwealth is to realise its full potential as a major player on the world stage. (Paragraph 52)

7.  It is now nearly a year since the acceptance of many Eminent Persons Group recommendations at the 2011 CHOGM. The lengthy period of consultation and discussion over the EPG since October 2011 must not cause a loss of momentum in the process of implementing those recommendations. The FCO should monitor implementation closely, and should continue to press for action on all key recommendations, reporting back to this Committee on progress every six months. (Paragraph 54)

A cornerstone of foreign policy?

8.  As Minister of State, Lord Howell worked very effectively to raise the profile of the Commonwealth in the UK and overseas, and he deserves considerable credit for his contribution. (Paragraph 57)

9.  Despite Lord Howell's enthusiastic advocacy, we are concerned that the UK Government as a whole has not had a clear and co-ordinated strategy for its relations with the Commonwealth. The several Government departments with an interest in Commonwealth matters should work together to develop a strategy for engagement with the Commonwealth, aimed at ensuring that the UK makes the most of the opportunities presented by the Commonwealth. The FCO needs to ensure its 'warm words' are substantiated by its actions. (Paragraph 62)

10.  We conclude that the treatment of the Eminent Persons Group report by a number of Heads of Government at Perth has damaged the Commonwealth's reputation. (Paragraph 67)

The role of Ministers

11.  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be much more proactive across Whitehall in ensuring that Ministers participate in Commonwealth meetings where there is a clear UK interest in the outcome. (Paragraph 71)

Resources for the diplomatic effort

12.  We believe that the Government already makes a good return on its modest investment in relations with the Commonwealth. Given the unrealised potential of the Commonwealth, the UK could usefully invest more. In its programme of reopening posts across the world, and in the plans for the staffing of Whitehall departments, the Government should maintain and strengthen links with the Commonwealth. The Committee praises the recent announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK and Canada will share premises and services at missions abroad. (Paragraph 76)

13.  We urge the Government to make the fullest possible use of the Commonwealth's informal networks. Although formal diplomatic processes will always be important, the highly developed and well-established networks of "the people's Commonwealth" offer excellent opportunities for the exercise of "soft power", which can also be more cost-effective than the work of the official institutions of the Commonwealth. We would welcome a clear statement of the UK Government strategy for engagement with the informal Commonwealth. (Paragraph 78)

Accountability to Parliament

14.  Parliament, and especially this Committee, can play a part in a more serious and sustained UK approach to Commonwealth issues. After every CHOGM and other major Commonwealth meeting, we will invite the Foreign Secretary and FCO Permanent Under Secretary to report on the outcome of that meeting and to report on what governments, the Secretariat and other Commonwealth agencies have done to implement previous Commonwealth decisions. (Paragraph 80)

BBC World Service cuts

15.  We stand by the conclusions of our previous report on the BBC World Service. The Government needs to see the big picture when considering the funding of the BBC World Service, not least the fact that the vacuum left by departing services could quickly be filled by others. Modest savings achieved through ill-thought-out cuts could lead to a damaging loss of influence in highly important countries, including a number of Commonwealth countries. (Paragraph 84)

Losing credibility on development

16.  The Commonwealth's performance as a provider of development aid has been disappointing in recent years, and needs to improve substantially if its reputation is to be restored. We look to the UK Government to keep the development performance of the Secretariat under close scrutiny and to keep to its stated intention to provide further funding only on convincing evidence of improvement. (Paragraph 88)

Enabling trade and investment

17.  The evidence for the existence of a special "Commonwealth factor" in trade and investment is not conclusive, despite the sustained and vigorous growth in many of the Commonwealth's emerging markets, but the potential for this to develop in the years ahead is enormous and should be given a high priority by H.M. Government. (Paragraph 92)

The UK interest in trade and investment with the Commonwealth

18.  We are not convinced that member states are making the most of the economic and trading opportunities offered by the Commonwealth. There may not be a distinctive "Commonwealth factor" in trade and investment, but the Government should do more to help create such a factor. In particular, we agree with Lord Howell's remark that the UK should "concentrate ... very much more" on seeking finance for infrastructure projects in the UK from sovereign wealth funds, including those in fast-growing Commonwealth countries. (Paragraph 98)

19.  We also note with concern the doubts about the current value to the UK of the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC), and welcome the FCO's intention to take the opportunity of the appointment of a new Director General of the CBC to explore the possibility of a closer and more fruitful relationship. However, we do not believe that this limited initiative will make the most of the economic opportunities offered by the Commonwealth. We recommend that the Government should set out, by the end of 2012, a five-year strategy to increase the benefits to the UK of trade and investment with Commonwealth countries. (Paragraph 99)

A Commonwealth Free Trade Area?

20.  There is currently much debate about a possible re-evaluation of the relationship between the UK and the EU, and the economic opportunities presented by the Commonwealth certainly play a part in that debate. However, many other considerations, including for instance economic relations with such countries as China and the United States, will undoubtedly play a bigger role. It is clear that the creation of a free trade area with Commonwealth countries would require a fundamental and potentially risky change in the UK's relationship with the European Union, and the benefits may not outweigh the disadvantages. (Paragraph 102)

Education and Scholarships

21.  We note that part of the funding for Commonwealth Scholarships now comes from institutions of higher education. We are concerned that this could develop into an unsustainable burden on the limited funds available to those institutions. We recommend therefore that, recognising the importance of the Scholarships for the achievement of the UK's objectives, the Government should guarantee to maintain at least the current level of funding in real terms. (Paragraph 109)

22.  We believe that Commonwealth Scholarships are a cost-effective way of widening opportunities for young people across much of the Commonwealth. They also help the UK to achieve some important diplomatic goals. If the Government's commitment to revitalising the UK's relationships with the Commonwealth is to mean anything, the numbers of Commonwealth scholarships should increase. A special new scholarship scheme would be a very fitting way to mark the Queen's Jubilee. The suggestions made for part-funding by the private sector are promising. We urge the Government to announce a competition for the first Queen's Jubilee Scholarships. (Paragraph 111)

23.  The suggestions made to us by Professor Dilks for strengthening the education and engagement work of the Commonwealth, through such means as medical, teacher and youth exchanges, and greater attention to the Commonwealth in school curricula, deserve serious consideration. They appear to be cost-effective ways of raising the public profile of the Commonwealth. The Government and the Commonwealth Secretariat should urgently examine their feasibility. (Paragraph 113)

24.  When considering its policy on immigration, the Government must bear in mind the possibly serious effects of a restrictive student visa policy on the wider interests of the UK, including the economic and diplomatic benefits brought to the country by Commonwealth students. (Paragraph 116)

The future membership of the commonwealth

25.  We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members, and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values. The UK Government must ensure that these membership criteria are fully observed with every application, if necessary employing its veto in suitable cases. (Paragraph 122)

Overseas Territories

26.  We conclude that there are substantial arguments in favour of stronger connections between the Commonwealth and the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, all of which can benefit from closer relationships, especially with the smaller independent states of the Commonwealth. We note the apparently increasing interest in the Crown Dependencies in stronger connections with the Commonwealth, in some cases including associate status. (Paragraph 142)

27.  However, we are also aware of the constitutional objections, both in the UK and in other countries across the Commonwealth, to the institution of a wholly new category of Commonwealth member. We are currently conducting an inquiry into the foreign policy implications of and for a separate Scotland, and some related issues will be considered during the course of that inquiry. (Paragraph 143)

28.  The main objective of Government policy towards the Overseas Territories on Commonwealth matters is clear; it wishes to strengthen the capacity of the Territories to run their own affairs and thereby to reduce their dependence on the UK and the financial and other liability that they incur. This is a reasonable objective, but it is disappointing that the Government's discussions with the Commonwealth over an enhanced status for Overseas Territories have continued for some time, with no concrete outcome as yet. The FCO should update the Committee on progress on these discussions by the end of December 2012. (Paragraph 144)


29.  We conclude that the Commonwealth benefits from the involvement of the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom benefits from its membership of the Commonwealth. The benefits emerge in many ways, ranging from strong trade and investment links to cultural contacts. Recent profound changes in the balance of global political, diplomatic and economic power have greatly enhanced the prosperity and political influence enjoyed by many Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth clearly could have a bright future. (Paragraph 145)

30.  But we are deeply concerned that, despite all these advantages, the Commonwealth is failing to realise its great potential. In recent years it has been too often both silent and invisible: silent on occasions when members flout its principles, and invisible to its people. Too many of the benefits of the Commonwealth are intangible, as we discovered from our evidence sessions and our visits to Commonwealth countries. (Paragraph 146)

31.  It is also difficult accurately to measure the benefits of the Commonwealth to its member states including the UK; it is not easy to assess increased influence in the world or to attribute that increase to the Commonwealth rather than to bilateral relationships. We conclude that the FCO's rhetoric about the importance of the Commonwealth is not being matched by its actions. The past closure of diplomatic missions, particularly in the Pacific, cuts to the BBC World Service and changes to the UK visa regime are prime examples. We urge the Government to address this gap between words and deeds. (Paragraph 147)

32.  We conclude that the Commonwealth must move quickly along the road to reform if it is to make the most of its natural advantages and demonstrate its value to its members. We expect the UK to play a prominent role in this process, and to show that it can match its pro-Commonwealth rhetoric with effective action. If the Commonwealth takes the right decisions in the next few months, we are confident that it can protect and promote its values and benefit the interests of all of its members, including Britain. (Paragraph 148)

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 15 November 2012