Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from Richard Bourne


The Commonwealth is a multilateral body unlike others to which the UK belongs. Its capacity lies in the network of networks which embrace its 54 member states, its familial connections and shared but contested history. The UK needs to build alliances across regions and levels of development to make it more proactive and effective, and to encourage the Secretary-General to see himself as a strategic leader, calling on bodies outside the small Commonwealth Secretariat to undertake its mission. Within the UK there should be a joined-up and long-term approach to participation, involving the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Ignorance about the Commonwealth should be combated. The diplomatic value of the Commonwealth for the UK will lie particularly in developing solutions to global issues such as the mitigation of climate change and modernisation of the UN and its agencies, and seeing the Commonwealth as a pacesetter and laboratory for progress. Political leaders in the UK should not be afraid to criticise the Commonwealth, but recognise that other countries will criticise the UK, and should not treat it as an Aunt Sally or historical relic, but a serious 21st century instrument which deserves political and intellectual investment.

Richard Bourne

Is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Research Associate for the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau (initially the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit), and Secretary to the Ramphal Institute, London (the renamed Ramphal Centre) which promoted the Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development, 2009–11. Earlier a journalist, he became Deputy Director of the former Commonwealth Institute, Kensington, 1982–89; and since then has been the first Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (now based in New Delhi), a Special Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat for the Iwokrama rainforest programme in Guyana (1991–92), co-Director of the Commonwealth Values in Education programme at the Institute of Education, London and simultaneously Director of the Commonwealth Non-governmental Office for South Africa and Mozambique (1995–97), and founder Director of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit (now the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau), from 1998 until retirement in 2005. His unpaid posts include four years as Deputy Chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society and five years as Chairman of the Round Table board, which publishes the Round Table, the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Books include: “Shridath Ramphal: the Commonwealth and the World” (an edited collection of essays for Ramphal’s 80th birthday in 2008) and “Catastrophe: what went wrong in Zimbabwe?” (Zed Books, 2011). This submission is sent in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the bodies with which he is connected.

Recommendations for Action

The UK Government needs a joined-up strategy, involving FCO, DFID and the DBIS, which focuses on long-term diplomatic and political goals where the Commonwealth adds value—these will include climate change and development issues.

Given that few Commonwealth governments are in a position to increase resources for the Commonwealth Secretariat itself, the Secretary-General should be encouraged to become a strategic leader, with the Secretariat as a strategic hub; he should focus long-running internal task groups on issues which are key for the bulk of member states, and outsource other important questions to competent Commonwealth bodies, assisting them to raise the necessary finance.

British politicians and diplomats should build alliances with diverse Commonwealth states, recognising changes in world politics and economics; this should take place not only at international meetings, but in regular exchanges of Ambassadors and High Commissioners in non-Commonwealth as well as Commonwealth capitals.

The Commonwealth Advisory Bureau at London University’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies should be commissioned to carry out regular briefings of officials from FCO, DFID and BIS on Commonwealth issues, analysing the diplomatic and trade potential, and differing perspectives of the UK and key Commonwealth partners.

The Commonwealth cannot afford to backtrack on its public commitments to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It is therefore essential that the UK Government, in discussion with friendly governments across the range of the other 53 states, assists the Secretary-General and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to implement the new rules for CMAG in a visible fashion, and find a practical solution to the technical problems raised by the proposal for a Commissioner from the Eminent Persons Group.

The Commonwealth should be encouraged to put forward solutions to problems of particular seriousness to its members, which also have a global resonance. The Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development, an independent and qualified Commonwealth group which published three reports in 2010–11 under the chairmanship of Mr P J Patterson, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica, set a useful example.

British politicians should be encouraged to quote and critique the Commonwealth, not to ignore it or stereotype it as some kind of dinosaur. This will raise interest in the media and among younger people. The successes and failures of the Commonwealth are of course successes and failures for the UK, as well as for 53 other nations, and its low-cost, voluntarist traditions reflect historic UK preferences. Commonwealth membership has influenced the UK in eg the establishment of an Electoral Commission, separation of powers which led to removal from judges from the House of Lords, and domestic anti-discrimination policy. The UK Government has now been requested to carry out a civil society consultation for a new Commonwealth Charter by the end of March 2012 following the decision by Heads in Perth in 2011 to create such a Charter.

A strategy for youth involvement is crucial for the long-term health of the Commonwealth. In the UK there is an immediate opportunity in the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. The FCO, devolved educational administrations, the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau, the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, the Commonwealth Youth Programme and the Commonwealth Games Federation should meet and devise a plan as a matter of urgency.

The Foreign Affairs Committee should, after every Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) invite the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and Permanent Secretary (a) to report on the outcome of that meeting and (b) to report on what governments, the Secretariat and other Commonwealth agencies have done to implement previous Commonwealth decisions; in 2013 they can report on the upshot of the work of the Eminent Persons Group, 2011, where many decisions were deferred. The FAC should ensure that at least two of its number attend conferences of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, where they should collaborate with colleagues to make the CPA itself more proactive, and afterwards brief the FAC informally on current opinion among Commonwealth parliamentarians.

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

1. The future of the Commonwealth will be determined (a) by the degree to which member governments use it for their national and regional interests (b) by the degree to which the EPG and Perth decisions result in substantive change c) the extent to which younger persons know of its existence and see it as valuable.

2. As a multilateral organisation the Commonwealth, in its political incarnation, depends on being used by several governments for exchange, negotiation and common action; if only one or two were actively involved it would have little value. A perverse effect of the revision of subscriptions to the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1999—by which the subscriptions of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand rose to over 67% of the total—was to diminish the sense of ownership of other states, and to entrench outdated definitions of “developing” and “developed”. Comments with regard to the UK follow below. But it is important that the Foreign Affairs Committee consider how far the Commonwealth is now being used by countries such as India and Pakistan, by African countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, by Australia and Canada, and by those 32 states with populations of less than 1.5 million, in evaluating the future from a UK perspective.

3. The opportunities are both regional and international. For example, in the case of human rights and economic recovery in Zimbabwe, whose government left the Commonwealth in 2003, the Commonwealth has deferred to the Southern African Development Community and its successive facilitators, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. From 1965–80 the Commonwealth was heavily involved, not always to the pleasure of successive British governments, in pressing for recognised independence on the basis of African entitlement. Whereas Arnold Smith, Commonwealth Secretary-General from 1965–75 sought diplomatic solutions to the civil war in Nigeria, the Commonwealth Secretariat played little part in trying to shorten the recent 20 year war in Sri Lanka.

4. The Commonwealth has important opportunities at the international level, for instance in climate change and the Doha Round. This does not mean that member states’ delegations will necessarily agree with each other, but traditions of collegiality can make possible a calm approach, even when the best that can be achieved is the definition of differences. As Ramphal stated, “The Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world, but it can help the world to negotiate.” There is always a danger that Commonwealth governments will divide into various factions—developed and developing, African, Asian, Caribbean, small island etc—and decisions at CHOGM summit level are not always followed through in international fora. Limited staffing at the Commonwealth Secretariat, with uncompetitive employment terms, means that it is handicapped in providing relevant support. For example, while the Heads’ meeting at Port of Spain in 2009 produced helpful proposals—for instance for a climate change adjustment fund—in advance of the Copenhagen summit, there was no senior figure from the Secretariat sent to assist Commonwealth delegations there.

5. The Eminent Persons Group report, and decisions taken at the Perth summit, challenged national governments and civil society as well as the intergovernmental institutions—the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning. All were being asked to see the Commonwealth as a more proactive and dynamic network of networks for the 21st century, what HM the Queen, Head of the Commonwealth has described as the pioneering worldwide web. It is not at all clear that governments and Commonwealth civil society bodies have recognised that the challenge is addressed to them also, though as far as the UK is concerned the FAC inquiry should firmly point this out.

6. The Commonwealth Foundation, the small body which promotes civil society, has had a turbulent year in 2011 and will pursue reorganisation under a new Director soon to be appointed. It is likely that the Commonwealth Secretariat, which is producing a new strategic plan in 2012, will make significant changes in response to Perth, focusing on priority tasks, possibly closing one or more divisions, and seeking to respond to the EPG proposals for a Commonwealth Charter and a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights (see below). The Secretariat’s limited capacity has to be utilised differently. With a staff of around 300, said to be smaller than the number employed by the UN canteen in New York, it has only one professional working on small states issues, seen by outsiders as a unique policy speciality of the Commonwealth. It has only just acquired a second specialist in environmental policy. In the area of development, so significant for the majority of member states where donor agencies like DFID and AusAid have expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of small-scale Secretariat interventions, a completely different approach is required. The Secretary-General should see himself not just as the captain of a small ship, but as a strategist inviting others to take forward issues of importance to the Commonwealth, and assisting them to mobilise the necessary resources; this could include food security, marine fisheries, and the management of mega-cities vulnerable to climate change. Many competent bodies, such as the Commonwealth Telecoms Organisation, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Ramphal Institute (initially called the Ramphal Centre) the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, would willingly respond. The Secretariat itself should build high-powered teams to focus on international negotiations, like those on climate change, vital to humanity’s survival and the relief of poverty. An isolationist approach by the Secretariat in the 21st century, sometimes mirrored by divisions inside Marlborough House, is completely inappropriate when long-term strategy and persistence are needed.

7. Informing and involving young people in the Commonwealth needs to go far beyond the Commonwealth Youth Programme, to include the provision of knowledge in educational systems—a largely unsuccessful battle in the different curricula in the UK—and an opening up of often elite Commonwealth associations to younger members. The predecessor to the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau, the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, ran a series of summer conferences for Masters’ students from 2006–10 and a pilot project for Commonwealth clubs in schools in England, and the Royal Commonwealth Society has run student Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings; but lack of finance has prevented continuity. The major Commonwealth attraction for younger people is of course the Commonwealth Games, but within the UK its excitement has not been sufficiently utilised for the benefit of Commonwealth understanding. The Manchester Commonwealth Games of 2002 was accompanied by a Commonwealth Film Festival which soon petered out as an annual event. The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 offers opportunities as great as the Olympics in London in 2012, which should not be limited to Scotland; the FCO, in conjunction with the RCS and Commonwealth civil society bodies, should plan a promotion campaign for the Commonwealth in the UK in 2013–14.

2. What reforms are needed if the Commonwealth is to be successful?

8. The UK Government, as the biggest contributor to the small Commonwealth budgets, needs to develop a coherent strategy for utilising and building coalitions in the only multilateral organisation established on its initiative and to some extent in its image. If the UK sees the Commonwealth as more important, so will other member states. After the end of the Cold War and of apartheid there was a phase in the 1990s when UK governments saw the Commonwealth as significant for spreading democratisation and human rights and, in the development field, for achieving debt write-off for the poorest countries. There has been no coherent UK strategy in the 21st century so far, apart from encouraging the recent review by the Eminent Persons Group. However this was not designed to advise the UK government, but the Commonwealth as a whole. There is no joined-up strategy embracing the FCO, DFID and the Department for Business. There is no recognition that the Commonwealth is unlike other international bodies to which the UK belongs—the UN and its agencies, the European Union—with a different record and potential.

9. The UK government should build closer relations with key member states which reflect the changing economic and power balance—for instance India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Nigeria—as well as traditional allies like Australia and Canada. With them, and in conjunction with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, it should work to utilise Commonwealth networks to respond to the global economic crisis, climate change and the frustrations of unemployed young people. It should exploit the convening and thought-leadership roles of the Commonwealth, and its ability to broker international agreements as well as to assist the most vulnerable member states. It will often improve the chances of diplomatic success if other nations take a lead.

10. It should recognise the political and economic significance of the fact that in the second decade of the 21st century there will be four CHOGMs in succession in the Indian Ocean (Perth, Australia, 2011; Sri Lanka, 2013; Mauritius, 2015; Malaysia, 2017); this is a region of 15 member states, in an arc from Australia to South Africa, with some 80% of Commonwealth population, and important economic growth already.

11. The Commonwealth Secretary-General and his Secretariat should refocus on key areas (see above) and outsource certain problems and issues, where the Commonwealth has comparative advantage but the Secretariat will not have capacity. Governments should encourage the Secretary-General to show public leadership, even though inevitably not all governments will be pleased all the time. Too much Commonwealth activity is not only below the radar, and therefore unobserved by media and politicians in member states, but its value is untested. A more public presence will raise the profile of the organisation, and is essential given the revolution in global communications.

12. More should be asked of bodies like the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth Business Council, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Ramphal Institute which promoted the influential Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development, and the Association of Commonwealth Universities. They may need assistance in raising funds to carry out tasks deemed important for the Commonwealth.

13. If the Commonwealth is a network of networks, it is foolish to expect a small Secretariat to carry the whole weight of reasonable expectation. For example, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK should share its current conclusions with other parliamentarians at the conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and invite sister parliaments to carry out similar inquiries. Difficult discussions, on issues ranging from homosexuality to migration, can be undertaken by parliamentarians. The CPA can call on governments and Commonwealth agencies for action. In the 1950s the father of Art Donahoe, Canadian Secretary-General of the CPA in the 1990s, toured Nova Scotia on his return from a CPA conference to report on these deliberations to the citizens. There is little evidence that the CPA instrument is being used proactively, or that UK MPs or the FAC are regularly briefed on CPA conference discussions. Commonwealth parliamentarians as a whole, like UK parliamentarians, deserve to be taken seriously.

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

14. The UK’s membership of the Commonwealth, as with all multilateral bodies, depends on its skill and energy in alliance-building. The FCO only has a small unit focused on the Commonwealth, although this has increased in size since the 2010 election, and it would appear that in practice the FCO interest in the Commonwealth is largely concentrated on the biennial CHOGMs and on interaction with the Commonwealth Secretariat. The efforts of Lord Howell to widen this concern—his understanding of the Commonwealth was enlightened when he chaired the FAC in 1995–96 which produced an influential report on the Commonwealth—are generally appreciated.

15. The Commonwealth’s main advantage for the UK is that it can develop diplomatic support for difficult, long-term objectives—for instance on climate change mitigation, more rational approaches to international migration, the Doha Round, modernisation of the UN and its agencies, maritime, fisheries and resource issues affecting Antarctica. There is evidence that the UN, and its agencies such as FAO, are looking to the Commonwealth to break logjams in international negotiations; they are disappointed when CHOGM statements are not followed through by governments collectively or by the Secretariat, or agencies that can properly represent the Commonwealth. In this respect the range of member countries is a diplomatic strength. One of the disadvantages is that too many still see the Commonwealth as simplistically divided between developing and developed states when in reality the socioeconomic gradations, reflected in different national priorities, are much more complex.

16. The Commonwealth’s diplomatic benefit will rise when more politicians and opinion-formers appreciate what it does and can do, and stop discounting it as an Aunt Sally or hangover from an empire which, in the case of South Asia, ended 60 years ago. For example the UK will have much excitement this year when the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, celebrates her diamond jubilee and London hosts the Olympics. Few realise the Commonwealth angles here. Because so many Commonwealth leaders will come to the jubilee in early July the Brazilian Government and United Nations have postponed the Rio plus 20 Earth Summit to the end of the month. Without the lobbying at the Commonwealth Games Federation it is unlikely that London would have been awarded the 2012 Olympics in Singapore in 2007. Further, much of the Commonwealth value to UK diplomacy relies on social “soft power” exchange which uses friendships and a common language. In the past Commonwealth ambassadors have met monthly in capitals as diverse as Brasilia and Moscow to exchange notes. British politicians need to speak out about the Commonwealth from knowledge rather than stereotype, criticising it where necessary, but treating it seriously as a living organism.

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

(a) Trade

17. The Department of Business, the Commonwealth Business Council and other agencies will provide up to date numbers and perspectives on trade, inward and external investment, and the experience of UK and international firms (including firms based in other Commonwealth countries, such as Tata). Anecdotally the Commonwealth and English-speaking links would appear to be of increasing importance at a time of shifting world economic relations. Sir Ronald Sanders, a Caribbean member of the EPG, has suggested publicly that most intra-Commonwealth trade is restricted to as few as half a dozen states, passing the majority by.

18. However it is not clear that UK international development priorities are always well-aligned with those of FCO, or that DFID yet shares the concern of the FCO and FAC to activate the Commonwealth networks. DFID gives significant aid to some Commonwealth countries, and has had a major influence in the past on UK diplomatic appointments in some African states. Without making the mistake of tying UK aid to UK exports or scholarship priorities, there is inevitably a connection between UK development aid and long-term economic and trade potential. DFID and AusAid have recently carried out critical audits of the development work of the Commonwealth Secretariat and its Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation; they have pointed out that too many interventions are piecemeal, small-scale, lacking in impact or follow-up. The Commonwealth Secretariat has rebutted some of this critique, pointing out the variety of national priorities to which it is asked to respond and its exiguous resources. But for the UK it is important that the DFID should recognise that the Commonwealth, and its agencies and networks, can be a major strategic driver for development with economic benefits for the UK as well as other Commonwealth countries. There is a danger that the DFID, which has worked so hard for some member states, may be losing sight of the value of the Commonwealth as a collectivity.

(b) Promotion of human rights

19. Since the 1991 Harare Declaration the Commonwealth has been a serious player for human rights, in spite of disagreements among governments. Much that the Commonwealth has achieved over the last 40 years, in anti-racism, the promotion of democracy and socioeconomic development can be framed in a rights discourse. The creation of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in 1995, followed by the suspension of several governments where civilian governments had been overthrown by the military, was a pioneering global contribution. The suspension of the civilian Zimbabwe government, followed by its walk-out in 2003 because it could not live up to the requirements of the Harare Declaration, was a turning-point. Unfortunately CMAG did little in the rest of the 2000s and the decision at Perth to make the Group more proactive for human rights, and acceptance that the silence of the Secretary-General is not an option when faced with extreme abuse, suggests a new push forward which the UK should support. The human rights work of the Commonwealth should be closely linked to the needs of CMAG, and the obligations member governments have made to UN and regional conventions.

20. Specifically, the UK should work with a cross-section of member states to strengthen the operation of CMAG, to increase the effectiveness of the “good offices” provided by the Secretary-General, and to make sense of the proposal from the Eminent Persons Group for a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. There are a number of technical difficulties in the Commissioner proposal which will need to be resolved this year, but it would be appalling if the Commonwealth backtracked on its long-standing commitments to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Much propaganda about “Commonwealth values” could be embarrassingly written off. The case for an independent expert to advise CMAG and the Secretary-General is strong, for CMAG rarely contains such expertise within its own ranks, and the Secretary-General is inevitably subject to political considerations. In this connection the Commonwealth should assist the criticised Sri Lanka government in the area of reconciliation and human rights prior to the 2013 CHOGM; Commonwealth experience from Nigeria, Northern Ireland and South Africa, as well as the Amartya Sen report, “Civil Paths to Peace” could be drawn on.

(c) Promotion of “soft power” and a positive image of the UK

21. Lord Howell, in public, has described the Commonwealth as a “soft power” entity and he is right. It has no military capacity, though there is a good case for a Commonwealth Expert Group on Policing for Democracy and Development, as proposed by two successive Commonwealth Peoples Forums, in 2005 and 2007. It is not a treaty-based association. But because of its range of connections it has much value for the UK if they are utilised systematically by the FCO, DFID and Department for Business working together. Its capacity to promote a positive image for the UK is perhaps more limited, for the UK does not “own” the Commonwealth, and resentment is caused when this is even hinted at. British Council offices and activity in other Commonwealth countries and Commonwealth scholarships and fellowships awarded by the UK are more important here. The impact of the London University external degree programme, and the Open University, should not be overlooked. It is hoped that the FAC will look into the current situation of these cultural/educational links. “Soft power” depends on a greater sense of knowledge and ownership throughout the Commonwealth, which in turn depends on governments and civil society in 53 other states.

22. It would be appropriate to acknowledge the enormous significance of the 60 years of work by the Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, as a personification of service to a positive image of the UK. No other multilateral body has such a position: the UN does not have a “Head” and nor is the President of France accepted as “Head” of la Francophonie. Her success has, however, underpinned a continuing confusion between the Commonwealth of Nations and the “British Commonwealth” which it replaced, and the Headship has more meaning in some countries than others. The end of this reign will lead to much soul-searching about the role of the UK in the Commonwealth. Her successor will only be Head of State in a minority of countries, whereas at her accession only India was a republic.

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

23. Certain other Commonwealth countries provide visa-free entry to UK and citizens of other Commonwealth countries, but these rights are often not reciprocated, causing animosity. For example Jamaicans have to queue for visas to come here, whereas UK citizens do not need visas to visit the island. Citizens with specific interests—notably sportspeople who compete in the Commonwealth Games—are able to join Commonwealth networks and associations of various kinds, but too many of these are small, elitist, underfunded and little-known. Commonwealth citizens who travel in other member states benefit from familiarities in language, customs and procedures. Some more imaginative proposals to bring the Commonwealth alive to citizens have been stymied. For example Derek Ingram, doyen of Commonwealth journalists, wrote a critical report on Commonwealth information for the Secretariat, travelling over 70,000 miles in 1997–99, and recommended a “Commonwealth card”, comparable to a credit card with certain benefits attached. The proposal was not adopted.

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

24. At present these territories are usually represented by the UK government at Commonwealth meetings, even though in population and wealth they may exceed small sovereign states. It is difficult to see how this situation can be altered unless they gain a recognised independence, for a key point of the modern Commonwealth is that it was established by states which were once colonies and are now sovereign. At some Commonwealth meetings, for instance the conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, delegations from the Overseas Territories come with UK delegations. It should be a matter for negotiation between the UK and these territories as to how best to represent their interests. There is obviously a danger that they could be overlooked. Devolved administrations within the UK face some of the same difficulties at Commonwealth meetings. Although the Eminent Persons Group was specifically tasked by leaders in 2009 to make recommendations affecting ministerial meetings, these were brushed aside at the Perth summit.

15 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012