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

1  Introduction

1. We decided to carry out this inquiry because we believe the Commonwealth is at a critical point. Just as H.M. The Queen celebrates her 60 years as its Head, the future direction of the Commonwealth is a source of contention and uncertainty.

2. In particular, the fate of proposals for fundamental reform of Commonwealth institutions and ways of working, considered at the October 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, is still subject to debate. The proposals were contained in a report from an Eminent Persons Group, pointedly sub-titled "Time for Urgent Reform".[1] In a final report containing 106 recommendations, the Eminent Persons Group concluded, among other things, that:

  • The Commonwealth must speak with greater unity in the international community;
  • there is a growing perception that the Commonwealth has become indifferent because it fails to stand up for the values that it has declared as fundamental to its existence;
  • on issues such as development, trade and investment, climate change and global pandemics, the Commonwealth is in danger of becoming immaterial as beleaguered nations look elsewhere for the help they need, and
  • the work programme assigned to the Commonwealth Secretariat requires critical review with the objective of concentrating on priority matters that will bring the greatest benefit to the people of the Commonwealth.

Two of the Group's recommendations were seen as especially significant by the UK and others: a proposal for a Commonwealth Charter, which was accepted and is now the subject of a public consultation, and a proposal for a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. The Secretary-General and CMAG were tasked "to further evaluate relevant options" relating to the proposal for a Commissioner.[2]

3. At the Perth CHOGM, after intensive discussions on the Commissioner and Charter, Heads instructed Foreign Ministers to discuss the remaining 104 EPG recommendations with a view to categorising those which could be adopted outright; those with financial implications but which could be adopted in principle; those on which member states wanted more detailed advice; and those which were inappropriate for adoption. Heads approved their Foreign Ministers' recommendations to:

  • adopt 42 recommendations (30 outright, 12 subject to financial considerations);
  • defer 43 recommendations for further deliberation by the Task Force of Ministers, and
  • reject the remaining 11 EPG recommendations.

4. Eight EPG recommendations were said to be consistent with reforms agreed and were therefore deemed have been superseded.[3]

5. There were other reasons for our inquiry. The Coalition's "Programme for Government" of May 2010 contained an objective to 'strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development'. We wished to assess how far the Government has achieved this objective. We also noted that the last Foreign Affairs Committee report on the Commonwealth was published as long ago as 1996; it was high time for a further inquiry into this important and neglected issue.

6. We launched our inquiry in December 2011, and we set out to answer the following questions:

  • What is the future of the Commonwealth and what reforms are needed if the Commonwealth is to be successful?
  • Does the Commonwealth retain a purpose and value? How has the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting impacted upon this purpose and value?
  • How does membership of the Commonwealth help the UK achieve its diplomatic objectives?
  • What benefits does the UK's membership of the Commonwealth bring in terms of:
    • Trade;
    • The promotion of human rights;
    • The promotion of 'soft power' and a positive image of the UK?
  • What direct benefits does the Commonwealth bring to citizens of the UK and of Commonwealth countries?
  • What role and status should the British Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and self-governing jurisdictions have in relation to the Commonwealth?

7. Although we have not attempted to replicate the inquiry carried out by the Eminent Persons Group, we have taken a great deal of evidence on the implications for the UK of the key issues raised by the Group. We also wished to evaluate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's policy towards and spending on the Commonwealth.

8. We received 34 submissions of written evidence and took oral evidence from 10 witnesses. As part of the inquiry small groups of the Committee visited Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Jamaica and Belize. We are grateful to all those who helped us with this inquiry.

1   Commonwealth Secretariat, A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform. The Report of the Eminent Persons Group to Commonwealth Heads of Government. Perth, October 2011. [Hereafter EPG Report, 2011]. The Eminent Persons Group was chaired by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a former Prime Minister of Malaysia. Other members were: Ms Patricia Francis (Jamaica), Dr Asma Jahangir (Pakistan), Mr Samuel Kavuma (Uganda),The Hon Michael Kirby (Australia), Dr Graca Machel (Mozambique), Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind (UK), Sir Ronald Sanders (Guyana), Senator Hugh Segal (Canada),Sir Ieremia Tabai (Kiribati). Back

2   The Commonwealth, Agreement by Heads of Government Regarding the Eminent Persons Group Proposals: A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, October 2011 Back

3   The Commonwealth, Agreement by Heads of Government Regarding the Eminent Persons Group Proposals: A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, October 2011 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 15 November 2012