Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from the Commonwealth Secretariat


This submission is a response from the Commonwealth Secretariat to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s request for information on the “The Role and Future of the Commonwealth”.

It offers some observations on:

The purpose and value of the Commonwealth, particularly as encapsulated by the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles.

The scope and criteria for membership of the Commonwealth, particularly the accession of new members and the role and status of Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and self-governing jurisdictions.

The continuing process of reform through evaluation and evolution, particularly following the momentous decisions taken at the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) of 2011, that ensure the institutions and mechanisms of the Commonwealth reform, adapt and upgrade to remain effective in the constantly changing context of international and multilateral cooperation.

Particular benefits accruing to the UK through membership of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Secretariat

1. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is Head of the Commonwealth and Kamalesh Sharma, current Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, is the principal global advocate for the Commonwealth and Chief Executive of the Secretariat.

2. The Secretary-General is appointed by Heads of Government for a maximum of two four-year terms. The two Deputy Secretaries-General and one Assistant Secretary-General, who serve for a maximum of two three-year terms, support the Secretary-General in the management and executive direction of the Secretariat.

3. The Secretariat is one of three intergovernmental organisations established to build and sustain the association: the Commonwealth Secretariat supports governmental business; the Commonwealth Foundation supports professional groupings and civil society; and the Commonwealth of Learning supports education programmes across the membership. There are around ninety Commonwealth professional bodies and other forms of civil society groupings.

4. The Secretariat has thirteen divisions and units which carry out programmes of work based on mandates set by Commonwealth Heads of Government at their biennial summit (CHOGM). The responsibility for delivering these programmes rests with specific divisions and units. The Secretariat currently employs under 300 full time staff from around three quarters of its 54 member states.

5. The Secretariat’s mission statement is:

“We work as a trusted partner for all Commonwealth people as: a force for peace, democracy, equality and good governance; a catalyst for global consensus-building; a source of assistance for sustainable development and poverty eradication”.

Purpose and Value of the Commonwealth

6. There is no other international organisation that can match the pedigree and record of the Commonwealth in striving for the progressive goals of strengthened democracy, sustainable development and respect for diversity.

7. Building on their shared institutions, and mutual support for each other, Commonwealth states have forged a voluntary association, founded in 1949, unparalleled in the history of the world. The Commonwealth today brings together 54 countries united by a shared sense of purpose and practical cooperation around shared values and also core principles of consensus and common action, mutual respect, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, legitimacy, and responsiveness.

8. Drawing on the ties of friendship and trust that bind its members together the Commonwealth has shown a particular aptitude for taking innovative practical action that advances progress towards its shared values and principles, agreed on a consensual basis, so that the lives of Commonwealth citizens are changed for the better, regardless of the size, location, endowment, or stage of development, of the country in which they live. For instance Commonwealth countries worked together and devised a way of ameliorating the crippling effects of debt, as an impediment to growth and development, through a combination of advocacy in proposing and achieving the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative at the global level, buttressed by practical debt recording and management software that is now used in more than sixty countries, including non-Commonwealth states such as China.

9. The Commonwealth has a history of building progressively to achieve and consolidate political commitment to its fundamental values – the glue that binds the modern Commonwealth. The Singapore Declaration of 1971 and the Harare Declaration of 1991 have now been advanced further by the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, which includes the following statement:

“We reaffirm that the special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the diversity of its membership, bound together not only by shared history and tradition but also by an ethos of respect for all states and peoples, of shared values and principles, and of concern for the vulnerable.”

10. The Affirmation includes specific commitments to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, sustainable development, separation of powers and freedom of expression.

11. The Commonwealth embraces within its diverse membership states that are among the largest and smallest, the richest and poorest in the world, and that together are home to two billion citizens of all faiths and ethnicities—of whom around 60% are under 29 years of age. The Commonwealth is primarily a group of countries with young populations.

12. Member countries span six continents and oceans: 19 in Africa, eight in Asia, three in the Americas, 10 in the Caribbean, three in Europe and 11 in the Pacific.

13. Commonwealth member states seek consensus and are committed to working together in a spirit of co-operation, partnership and understanding. Openness and flexibility are integral to the Commonwealth’s effectiveness.

14. Emphasis on equality has helped it play leading roles in decolonisation, combating racial and cultural divisions, and advancing sustainable development in poor countries. The Commonwealth believes that vibrant progressive democracy is best achieved through partnerships – of governments, business, and civil society.

15. As well as Heads of Government, ministers responsible for education, environment, finance, foreign affairs, gender affairs, health, law, and youth also meet regularly. This gives Commonwealth governments a better understanding of each other’s goals in the compacting world of the twenty-first century and ensures that Commonwealth policies and programmes accord with the consensus among all members.

16. Citizen-to-citizen links are as important to the Commonwealth as the contacts between member governments. The Commonwealth’s worldwide network of around ninety professional and advocacy organisations, most of which bear its name, continues to flourish with a third of these based outside the UK. They work at local, national, regional and international levels playing crucial roles in policy, political or social aspects of Commonwealth life.

17. As well as working with each other, member countries and organisations have also built alliances outside the Commonwealth. Commonwealth ideas on Small States have been taken up by the World Bank, and on the migration of doctors and nurses by the World Health Organization, and on the migration of teachers by the International Labour Organization. Its support and expertise has been enlisted by the European Union, African Union, Pacific Islands Forum on such work as strengthening governance and building capacity in public services.

18. Membership—including the role and status of Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and self-governing jurisdictions

19. Questions relating to the status and participation of Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in the Commonwealth were considered in detail relatively recently by Heads of Government collectively when they accepted the recommendations of a specially appointed Committee that examined various issues relating to the criteria for Commonwealth membership.

20. The Report and Recommendations of the Committee on Commonwealth Membership, chaired by the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Most Hon. PJ Patterson, were considered by Heads of Government at CHOGM 2007 in Kampala.

21. Members of the Committee reaffirmed their conviction that the Commonwealth was fundamentally an association of sovereign member states who were equal in all respects. In these circumstances, there could only be one type of membership.

22. The “Patterson Committee” reviewed in detail the status of Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies observing in its Report that these territories have the option of achieving full sovereignty and applying for Commonwealth membership.

23. The Committee considered the possibility of using the term “Associate Member” for aspirant countries and dependent territories within the Commonwealth but felt that this idea to be fraught with difficulties as it would create another rung of membership.

24. The Committee also reviewed the existing practice of including dependent territories in various Commonwealth conferences. Participation in ministerial meetings and civil society and business forums follow different patterns for different dependencies according to arrangements with the administering power.

25. The recommendations made by the Committee in connection with the status and participation of Overseas Territories in the Commonwealth were endorsed by Heads of Government. These included the recommendations that:

(a)the practice should continue of Overseas Territories hosting and/or attending Commonwealth functional meetings, as well as contributing to and benefiting from the activities of the CFTC where relevant;

(b)so far as is possible, there should be consistent practices developed in the representation of Overseas Territories at Commonwealth meetings in consultations with their administering power;

(c)the Secretary-General should devise ways to enhance the profile of Overseas Territories in the Commonwealth family, especially in the civil society and business sectors; and

(d)applications from such territories for membership of the Commonwealth, when they attain sovereign independent status, need not await the next CHOGM for decision by Heads of Government.

26. Criteria for assessing applications for membership of the Commonwealth were also subject to comprehensive examination and review by the Patterson Committee and its recommendations on a process for considering membership applications were adopted by Heads of Government.

27. Rwanda is the newest member and was welcomed into the Commonwealth family at CHOGM 2009 in Port of Spain. An expression of interest in membership by South Sudan was received in August 2011. The Secretary-General now has remitted to him by Heads the task of making an appraisal of South Sudan’s eligibility and readiness for membership.

Reform of the CommonwealthA Continuing Process of Evaluation and Evolution

Expanding scope and deepening mandates

28. A striking feature of the Commonwealth is its continuing adaptability to changing times. This has been achieved through rigorous self-examination and has resulted, over the years, in a deepening of the Commonwealth mandate to encompass a wide range of cross-cutting issues, including democracy, economics, education, gender, governance, human rights, law, small states, sport, sustainability, and youth.

29. In order to fulfil its mandates and deliver its programmes, the Secretariat and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (with its special characteristics as a mutual development assistance fund) provide assistance to members in the form of policy development, technical assistance and advisory services.

30. Over recent years the Commonwealth has greatly expanded the scope of its advocacy role and collaboration with other international organisations, in particular with the United Nations and its component specialist bodies, and with other multilateral partnerships such as the G20 with whom it has the special advantage of overlapping membership.

31. The Commonwealth has had high level reviews of its purpose and sense of direction regularly, most recently in 1991, 2001–02 and 2011 (Eminent Persons Group). A series of key declarations agreed at recent CHOGMs have maintained momentum in this regard:

(a)2002 Coolum Declaration on the Commonwealth in the 21st Century.

(b)2003 Aso Rock Declaration on Development and Democracy: Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.

(c)2009 Port of Spain CHOGM Communiqué, including decisions:

(i)to review the mandate and working methodology of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG);

(ii)to form an Eminent Persons Group (EPG); and

(iii)to develop a Commonwealth Internet Platform (now known as Commonwealth Connects).

32. Continuing to move forward considerable work is currently being undertaken within the Secretariat and across the Commonwealth as a result of decisions taken at the landmark 2011 CHOGM in Perth where momentous decisions were taken:

(a)to reform the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), in order to strengthen adherence to the Commonwealth’s political values; and

(b)to implement a wide range of reforms arising from recommendations of the EPG aimed at sharpening the impact, strengthening the networks, and raising the profile of the Commonwealth.

33. Annexes A and B set out the collective position of Commonwealth Heads of Government as agreed at the two most recent CHOGMs, the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, made at Port of Spain, and the 2011 Perth Communiqué.

CMAG Reform

34. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was established in 1995 to consider and respond on behalf of the Commonwealth to serious or persistent violations of the association’s political values.

35. Decisions taken in Perth mean the threshold for CMAG engagement in upholding Commonwealth values and principles has been lowered. The range of indicators for engagement has also broadened to take into account aspects of public conduct such as the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the media and civil society, and the space available for diverse political views to be advanced.

36. Furthermore, the Secretary-General’s Good Offices work and CMAG agenda are now inextricably linked. This means that when Secretary-General engages on a Good Offices basis Heads of Government will now know that serious and convincing responses are needed, as the attention of CMAG may subsequently be drawn to the situation.

37. The extended range of criteria brings parallel need for objectivity in defining the agenda of issues requiring engagement by Secretary-General and CMAG, and in making assessments of possible breaches of Commonwealth values and principles. This new level of engagement means that the Secretariat will be required to deliver high quality and reliable advice over a broader range of issues. The Secretariat will need to have the capacity to scrutinise evidence and review data in order to furnish dossiers and provide the best possible service both to Secretary-General and CMAG.

38. One important way in which Secretariat capacity will be supplemented will be through working in closer collaboration with specialist Commonwealth professional and technical organisations across a range of disciplines and by drawing on the expertise of practitioners such as judges, magistrates, lawyers and journalists.

EPG Recommendations

39. 95 of the EPG’s 106 recommendations have been adopted or remitted to Foreign Ministers for further consideration before decisions are taken. The range of recommendations accepted or remitted for further evaluation set out a number of significant new initiatives with a concomitantly increased or at least realigned workload for the immediate future and long term for member governments, the Secretariat, and other Commonwealth agencies. No new resources have yet been allocated for this ambitious agenda of the EPG.

40. However the Secretariat is now drafting its next strategic plan. This is a significant step forward. Rather than the plan reflecting the sum total of ambitions of it 54 member governments’ national priorities—as has been the case in the past—the Secretariat will develop a synthesised, narrower, and more focussed work programme aimed toward streamlining goals onto fewer priorities where the organisation has a comparative advantage, where it can demonstrate real impact, and capturing the consensual sense of direction of the Commonwealth as a whole.

41. This will include a wide-ranging review of the communications strategy at the Secretariat in order to devise fresh approaches that will convey the role and achievements of the Commonwealth to upcoming generations.

42. Populating and utilising the innovative capabilities of the “Commonwealth Connects” internet portal will be a part of this strategy – and this will play a key role in binding Commonwealth networks – civil society, business and youth. They can all be used to greater effect given their reach and the range of professional and technical expertise at their disposal. The intention is to have a contemporary technology platform on which various Commonwealth “communities of practice” can network and build together.

43. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee initiatives – including a possible new volunteer youth corps, networks for schools and cultural festivals, and schemes to promote women’s leadership – can be the launch pad for developing new connections and enhancing a sense of belonging and identity.

Empowerment of Women

44. Women as Agents of Change, the Commonwealth theme for 2011, caught the popular mood and imagination – particularly in the context of CHOGM and handover by woman to another of the Chair (Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago to Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia).

45. There remains much work to be done towards empowering women politically, economically and socially. This will continue to be a high priority and a key element in developing the future work plan of the Secretariat and as a cross-cutting theme for engagement with member governments and other Commonwealth agencies.

Youth Development

46. The work of the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) needs to be upgraded to regain its pioneering engagement with youth and to find contemporary ways of engaging dynamically on political and developmental programmes.

47. Nascent Commonwealth initiatives on youth enterprise and entrepreneurship and on Sport for Development and Peace show great promise for harnessing and directing the energy and idealism of the growing Commonwealth youth constituency towards positive goals.

48. Finding new ways of utilising the four CYP regional centres in India, Guyana, Solomon Islands and Zambia) for wider Commonwealth purposes will help bind youth into other Commonwealth initiatives to mutual benefit in terms of both impact and profile.

Global Relevance

49. Heads of Government in Perth gave the Secretariat a strengthened political mandate to insert Commonwealth thinking into the global agenda. Close engagement with the G20, enhanced through the value of the overlapping membership of the Commonwealth and G20, and the ability of the Commonwealth to speak authoritatively as an advocate on behalf of the many nations not represented at the G20 table enables the Commonwealth to bring real added value, through the close collaboration that has now been established with the G20 under successive presidencies. Only this month—January 2012 – the Commonwealth’s relevance was exemplified when the Secretariat hosted a meeting of the G20 Working Group on Development.

Benefits of Commonwealth Membership to UK:

50. The opportunities offered by virtue of Commonwealth membership are there to be seized, as much by the UK as by any other member state. The natural advantages and alliances arising from a shared commitment to the advancement of shared values can be maximised and multiplied to the benefit of national interests and policy objectives in many spheres, whether in promotion of trade and employment, enhancement of education or safeguarding respect for human rights.

51. Overlapping public and private sectors, similarities of democratic processes and machinery for national and local government, together with shared educational and legal systems give Commonwealth members a natural affinity and kinship. These ties, and the mutual sense of support engendered by regular intergovernmental and ministerial consultation on a basis of consent and consensus, provide the bedrock on which advantageous bilateral and multilateral relations within the family of the Commonwealth have been built, and can continue to be extended.

52. Through the Commonwealth, for instance, the UK gains linkages into key geographical areas of strategic importance to achieve its international development and other policy goals, working in a non-confrontational way with 53 likeminded countries that represent a quarter of the membership of the UN.

53. In sum the Commonwealth offers the UK the opportunity to advance practically and to magnify with impact its own values and international priorities in a sustainable and constructive way of lasting benefit to the UK itself as well as to the Commonwealth as a whole.

30 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012