Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau (CA/B)

Executive Summary

Key Recommendation

The Foreign Affairs Committee should recommend that the UK government develop a Commonwealth engagement strategy for the period 2012–17 (covering the next three Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings).

The evidence, opinions and recommendations that follow seek to support this recommendation.

CA/B would like to provide oral evidence to the Committee.

CA/B would be available to advise the Committee or the Government on the proposed engagement strategy under the CA/B “Maximise Your Membership” advisory scheme. See:

Two supplementary documents can be accessed:

Annex 1: “The Commonwealth in Denial” by Daisy Cooper (CA/B Opinion, October 2011).

Annex 2: “Selecting the Commonwealth Secretary-General” by Stuart Mole and Daisy Cooper (CA/B Policy Briefing for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2011).

Introduction to CA/B

The Commonwealth Advisory Bureau is the independent think-tank and advisory service for the modern Commonwealth. CA/B is part of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.

This submission was prepared by CA/B’s Director, Daisy Cooper. Daisy is a well known figure within Commonwealth circles. She has been the strategic and technical advisor to two Commonwealth high-level groups: the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding, chaired by Nobel-laureate Professor Amartya Sen, and the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, chaired by former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and including former UK Foreign Minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP. Before joining the CA/B, Daisy was the Strategic Planning Officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat for four years where she spearheaded major change management processes. She has also worked for CA/B before (then the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit) as a Project Officer where she worked with Commonwealth countries to secure a mandate for the Commonwealth to help develop a consensus on reforming the UN development system. Daisy is also on the Editorial Advisory Board of Britain’s oldest journal, the “Round Table” (Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs). Daisy holds an LLM in Public International Law from Nottingham University, an LLB Hons in Law from Leeds University, a Foundation Certificate in Psychotherapy and Counselling and is also an SPC Accredited Mediator.

Evidence, Opinions and Recommendations

1. What is the future of the Commonwealth and what reforms are needed if the Commonwealth is to be successful?

2. The Commonwealth’s comparative advantages lends the association to being used in four ways:

(a)Its diverse membership and political networks (of leaders and Ministers) enables countries to use the Commonwealth to help build consensus on otherwise divisive national and global political issues.

(b)The shared history of Commonwealth countries gives rise to a living legacy of similar political and legal systems, enabling the sharing of best practice in a limited number of areas of genuine similarities (ie Commonwealth countries have Westminster style democracies, and most have common law systems).

(c)The Commonwealth’s technical assistance programme is small and responsive so its interventions can have a catalytic effect for bigger projects.

(d)The modern Commonwealth is ideally placed to tackle the remnants of colonial laws that are incompatible with present-day human rights commitments (such as the laws that criminalise homosexuality, and arguably those that provide for the death penalty).

3. The future of the Commonwealth depends on:

(a)the willingness of Commonwealth member governments to use the Commonwealth as a political instrument to solve national, regional and global problems;

(b)the willingness of the Secretary-General to play a strong leadership role; and

(c)the ability of Commonwealth institutions to deliver results.

4. The following reforms are needed to deliver these three goals:

5. Member governments. Government must start to use the Commonwealth as a political tool to help solve global problems. Historically, Commonwealth’s governments have deployed small Action Groups at the level of Heads of Government or Cabinet Ministers, for example, to help quiet diplomacy in Cyprus, and to help close the Uruguay round of trade negotiations. Commonwealth governments could take similar initiatives in 2012 to develop a second stage of the Kyoto Protocol; to facilitate the Doha trade talks; to assist the rapidly closing UN negotiations in Cyprus; and/or reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka (due to host the 2013 CHOGM).

6. Secretary-General. The current Secretary-General should be encouraged by all governments, including the UK, to initiate such action groups, at Ministerial or Head of Government level. Looking forward, it is imperative that the next (sixth) Secretary-General has the requisite leadership skills to do so. By the time of the selection of the sixth Secretary-General, the informal system of “regional rotation” will be complete. There is an opportunity in the next few years to develop a transparent, merit-based selection system, drawing on best practice in other international organisations, in order that the Commonwealth can choose the best candidate from right across all 54 countries. Our CA/B Policy Briefing for the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has a chapter on the Selection of the Secretary-General and makes practical recommendations in this regard (see pp 29–34 There is an opportunity for the UK to work with a representative group of other Commonwealth countries to advance this proposal.

7. Commonwealth institutions:

(a)As a matter of urgency, the Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth Foundation must become “fit for purpose”. As an immediate and first step, the Secretariat must be given the necessary resources to recruit high-quality international talent. Last year, the Secretariat benchmarked its terms and conditions of service. A comparison with other international organisations showed that at middle and senior levels, the remuneration package offered to international members of staff in the Secretariat’s professional and diplomatic category would need to be increased by more than 30% to reach parity with similar staff in the UN family of organisations (about the poorest paid group of international organisations, save the Commonwealth Secretariat). The Secretariat needs approximately £4 million to rectify this. As the Secretariat’s largest contributor to assessed contributions, the UK government should be at the forefront of ensuring that governments agree to this modest investment (in real terms) in return for results.

(b)Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Foundation needs to maximise its unique position as an intergovernmental organisation with a mandate to strengthen civil society. It should re-position itself as an interlocutor between governments and civil society (it should also be encouraged to discontinue activities that fall outside this remit). Its three strategic objectives should be: to support governments to create space for civil society; to strengthen and professionalise the civil society sector through capacity building; and to act as a trusted interlocutor at times of acute tension between the two sectors.

8. The UK government should announce its intention to invest in both organisations, and/but to link that investment to demonstrable improvement and results. (See our CA/B Opinion “The Commonwealth in Denial” for a view on why withdrawing funding is not a politically viable strategy. Available ).

9. UK government officials, MPs and Ministers need to spend considerably more time understanding the institutional reform agenda. Also, the UK government should invest more senior diplomats in Commonwealth affairs: whilst most Commonwealth countries send High Commissioners to Commonwealth institution Board meetings, the UK tends to send less senior officials.

10. Does the Commonwealth retain a purpose and value? How has the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting impacted upon this purpose and value?

11. The Commonwealth will only retain a purpose and value if member governments use it as a political instrument to help solve national, regional and global political problems. Unlike other international organisations, the Commonwealth was not established with a remit for a specific sector or region. Rather, it is, as the first Secretary-General Arnold Smith said “a tool to be picked up and used when the time is right and the issue is appropriate.” Therefore, governments – and especially Commonwealth leaders – must give the Commonwealth purpose and value by using it as a tool to achieve foreign policy and development objectives.

12. Despite the rhetoric that the CHOGM would deliver on “reform, relevance and resilience”, it achieved little. In many respects, the Perth CHOGM was a disappointment, but there is an opportunity for the UK to host a 2012 Special Commonwealth Summit (in the wings of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee) which could provide a “second bite at the cherry” to kick-start a revitalised Commonwealth.

13. In Perth, the final Communiqué reference to Zimbabwe showed no progress since 2009 and made no offer to assist the country with its elections next year. Nor did it include any reference to decriminalising homosexuality – an issue that many had hoped would be discussed by Commonwealth leaders for the first time. More than ever before, the Communiqué reflected the national interests of the host country—the responsibilities of the extractive industry (Australia’s largest industry), piracy in the Indian Ocean (damaging to Australia’s new trading links with emerging economies), and an initiative on UN Security Council reform (to support Australia’s bid for a non-permanent seat this year). The Perth Declaration on Food Security was effectively a launch pad for the announcement of new national development commitments: the $100 million Australia-Africa Food Security Initiative and the establishment of a $47 million Australian International Food Security Centre. Arguably, this sets a dangerous precedent for the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka – currently boasting about defeating terrorism on home soil, whilst standing accused by others of only doing so through gross human rights abuses, possibly tantamount to war crimes.

14. The Secretary-General’s renewal for a full four year second term in office was announced without any sense from leaders of their expectations of their CEO, and Sri Lanka was confirmed as the host for the 2013 CHOGM – reportedly with only one leader, the Prime Minister of Canada, threatening to boycott.

15. Newcomers to the Commonwealth Peoples Forum expressed their disappointment with the lack of engagement with governments compared with other international forums; whilst those who had attended several CHOGMs felt that the dialogue with Foreign Ministers was the best attended (with around 20 Ministers and around another 15 government reps) since the dialogue had begun in 2005.

16. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s (CMAG) new mandate will only be meaningful if members use their new powers, and the most important recommendations of the EPG face an uncertain future. Some of the Commonwealth’s largest contributors were already sceptical about the value of the organisation: this CHOGM should have done very little to convince them otherwise.

17. However, a possible 2012 Special Summit could take place just two weeks before the Rio+20 Summit (or “Earth Summit”). Based on precedent, Commonwealth leaders could a) issue a Commonwealth consensus statement ahead of the meeting (like they did at the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, just weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Change summit) and b) deploy a Commonwealth Action Group of Heads of Government or senior Cabinet ministers to advance their consensus position by touring major capitals before the Rio + 20 Summit (as per the Commonwealth Action Group which toured key capitals over eight days which helped close the Uruguay trade round after 7.5 years of negotiations).

18. How does membership of the Commonwealth help the UK achieve its diplomatic objectives?

19. The Commonwealth provides many opportunities for political action and interaction through its biennial Summits and numerous Ministerial Meetings. Yet, governments – including the UK government – do not have a comprehensive strategy for maximising the opportunities that these meetings afford – such as advancing bilateral relations, and advancing foreign policy objectives. If the UK is about to enter into tricky negotiations on any global issue, it could work with other key and influential Commonwealth governments to call a meeting of Commonwealth Ambassadors/High Commissioners in the relevant capital to hear all the major arguments and build consensus. This could be supported by the creation of a Secretariat post at the Commonwealth Small States Office in New York, with the remit and powers to convene such meetings on issues of importance. The UK government should also make a commitment to send Ministers (not just their representatives) to all Commonwealth Ministerial Meetings.

20. What benefits does the UK’s membership of the Commonwealth bring in terms of:

(a)Trade. Commonwealth meetings provide the UK with access to leaders and Ministers from potential trading-partner countries, but Commonwealth fora do not offer that exclusively (many other international meetings offer that too). Historical ties play a limited role in the modern trading system. Some organisations have claimed that trade is higher between Commonwealth countries (due to a shared language of English, and/or similar trading systems) but these claims have been disputed, and would, we suggest, require further empirical research. Given the diversity of the Commonwealth’s membership, the UK can play a very important role in consulting with other Commonwealth countries on their trade needs, and then taking those views forward in the G8, and the G20 etc.

(b)The promotion of human rights. The current UK government has expressed its commitment to supporting the efforts of other countries seeking to advance human rights. Some of the most egregious criminal policies to which the UK is opposed – such as the criminalisation of homosexuality and the death penalty – are legacies of colonial legislation. The UK could use every major Commonwealth Ministerial Meeting to make steady diplomatic progress on these issues in the coming months and years, as part of a longer-term “Commonwealth engagement strategy”.

(c)The promotion of “soft power” and a positive image of the UK?

   Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of 16 sovereign states including the UK and Head of the Commonwealth, has arguably done more to promote a positive image of the UK than any other individual. Following her reign, there will be no constitutional or democratic reason to retain the post of “Head of the Commonwealth” which she enjoys as a named individual (the post is not hereditary). The UK should plan ahead on how to deal with the absence of its most effective promoter of a positive image of the UK.

   At a political level, it is CA/B’s view that there are some internal contradictions between UK domestic government policies and the promotion of “soft power” and a positive image overseas. For example, the cap on immigration including from Commonwealth countries has had an impact on the number of overseas students and professionals coming to the UK (who have traditionally maintained links and an “affinity” with the country on departure). Moreover, the UK is no longer regarded as the only Commonwealth country with first-class Universities. In recent years, the UK has closed down embassies in smaller Commonwealth countries (eg in the Pacific) and it has downsized the BBC World Service. Also, the UK is no longer the “aid provider” of first choice for many countries, given the competitive offers from China and other new donors. The UK could use the Commonwealth to promote soft power and a positive image of the country but to some extent this is undermined by domestic policies, which arguably warrant re-examination.

21. What direct benefits does the Commonwealth bring to citizens of the UK and of Commonwealth countries?

22. The Commonwealth Secretariat and Foundation are not engaged in delivering direct benefits to citizens of any country, nor should they be; but they do deliver very important indirect benefits through their policy and technical assistance work to strengthen governments and civil society. (Of course, rightly, the technical assistance is directed to developing countries in the Commonwealth).

23. On the other hand, the Commonwealth’s 90+ professional and civil society organisations provide very direct opportunities for professionals from the UK and all other Commonwealth countries to engage in mutual learning; policy development and advocacy on a whole range of issues (from the separation of powers; judicial independence; forestry; urban planning etc).

24. What role and status should the British Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and self-governing jurisdictions have in relation to the Commonwealth?

25. No comment.

26. General observations on the timing and purpose of the inquiry

27. The Committee will be aware of other recent initiatives concerned with “the role and future of the Commonwealth”. These are: the Royal Commonwealth Society’s “Commonwealth Conversation” in 2009 (funded solely by the UK government); the report of the Eminent Persons Group, established to make proposals to reinvigorate the Commonwealth in 2010–11 (to which the UK government made a significant financial contribution and on which Sir Malcolm Rikfind MP served); and the Review of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in 2010–11. In 2011, the UK’s own Department for International Development (DfID) conducted a Multilateral Aid Review (MAR): the Commonwealth Secretariat’s development programmes were ranked joint last and the organisation was placed in “special measures” meaning that the UK government is demanding performance improvements as a matter of absolute urgency.

28. In launching this exercise, the Committee referred to the “disappointing” outcomes of the Perth CHOGM. Notwithstanding, some have questioned why the UK parliament has sought to run its own review now, rather than contribute to the EPG process from 2010–11. Others have expressed concern that, in light of the outcomes of the DFID MAR, the Committee may be looking for reasons to reduce funding to Commonwealth institutions and associations. Rather, CA/B hopes that the review is spurred by good intentions, namely that the Committee is looking for ways in which the UK government can more constructively engage and contribute to the Commonwealth, as well as maximise the benefits of Commonwealth membership for the UK. The prospect of increased financial backing to institutions and organisations that can demonstrate improvements and results should be on the table.

29. The UK continues to have an uneasy relationship with the Commonwealth. The UK government is still sometimes seen by other Commonwealth governments and commentators, as “clumsy” or worse, as a “bully”. The UK continues to send relatively junior-level officials to the governing bodies of Commonwealth institutions (unlike other countries most of which send High Commissioners); and the UK often doesn’t always send Ministers to Commonwealth Ministerial Meetings. As the UK government and the Commonwealth’s HQ are both in London, there has been at least one recent instance where the UK has convened a meeting on a Commonwealth subject, and has in effect “preached” to other Commonwealth governments, rather than consult with them.

30. Currently, the UK government is full of warm words for the Commonwealth, but it lacks any sort of engagement strategy, and has failed to back-up its warm words with practical action or financial commitment. Meanwhile, the Canadian government has appointed a “Special Envoy for Commonwealth Renewal” (in the form of Senator Hugh Segal, a member of the 2010–11 Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group).

31. CA/B would like to strongly recommend that the time for warm words is over, and that the Committee should propose a number of practical ways in which the UK government should engage more constructively with the Commonwealth over the coming years.

32. The various recommendations made throughout this submission, as well as those from other organisations, could be captured in a comprehensive Commonwealth engagement strategy that spans the next three Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

33. CA/B would be available to advise the Committee or the Government on the proposed engagement strategy under the CA/B “Maximise Your Membership” advisory scheme:

10 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012