Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from Mark Robinson

1. Introduction

1.1 This paper is a personal submission by Mark Robinson, former MP (Con) for Newport West (1983–87) and Somerton and Frome (1992–97) and a Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee (1983–85). A brief summary of his career and work within the Commonwealth is attached to this paper.

1.2 Having contributed to three formal submissions (The Round Table, the Commonwealth Consortium for Education, and the Ramphal Institute), the purpose of this paper is to offer some personal observations on where the Commonwealth stands today and the opportunities that lie before it, as someone having been involved in Commonwealth Affairs for many years and attending the last three CHOGMs, including the one held in Perth.

2. The Future of the Commonwealth, its Purpose and Value

2.1 Although the Commonwealth has 54 Members, there are a number of other countries keen to be associated with it. The reasons for this are clear. The Commonwealth is united by the English language, comparative systems of government, both national and local, similar legal systems, mutual interests in health, education and a variety of other disciplines, including media, culture and sport. There are strong regional connections some of which have brought in new members (Cameroon, Mozambique and Rwanda). Regarding democratic institutions, the Commonwealth is well served by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and regarding election observation, the Commonwealth Secretariat as well.

2.2 Democratic Governance is important to the Commonwealth. It is the only international organisation that has suspended members from its official counsels after military coups and in the case of Zimbabwe following a farcical election. In such cases the work of CMAG has become increasingly important and the decisions taken in Perth to strengthen that body, although overdue, are very welcome. Countries suspended have always found their way back to the tables. In recent years elections, followed by changes of government, have materialised and been accepted. Ghana is a case well worth looking at for its emergence from military rule to a well-functioning democratic state with changing governments, while Zambia is a recent example of a successful transfer of power after an election and not for the first time. Another country that has received strong support from the Commonwealth and its related organisations is Mauritius, which resulted in a young man, who had spent much time as a political prisoner, being elected President and assuming power. It would be amazing if there was not an example of chronic disappointment. Zimbabwe fits that bill and after suspension, President Mugabe decided to leave the Commonwealth, which has made it very much more difficult for the organisation to influence on going situations.

2.3 Despite that there are many in Zimbabwe who look forward to that country’s return. In that regard, a group of Commonwealth Organisations have come together in London to work with civil society organisations in Zimbabwe working in clusters covering areas such as education, health, local government, media, law and culture. At the 2009 CHOGM, Zimbabwe received a positive mention in the communiqué, as it did at Perth. The Commonwealth Secretariat allows the Group to meet at Marlborough House and interested organisations, not always of Commonwealth origin, also attend, as does the FCO. A report entitled “Zimbabwe: Routes to Progress” a Report on Activities 2010–11 was circulated to all CHOGM delegations through the services of the Commonwealth Secretariat (available to the FAC on request).

2.4 As long as the Commonwealth has organisations that do useful work, very often without fanfare, the organisation will have a future. What is more, they do so with limited resources, most of which seem to go a very long way. Two organisations formed relatively recently, namely the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL), based in Vancouver, and the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) are growing in stature and strength. Indeed at Perth, Australia decided it had made a mistake and rejoined CoL, which was most welcome. There would be no difficulty furnishing other examples, but the purpose of this presentation is to illustrate points rather than cover everything.

2.5 Many members of the Commonwealth are small states, with problems in common and interests to battle for in the larger multilateral institutions. The Commonwealth, as always on meagre resources, has established facilities for them to work together both in New York and more recently Geneva. At Perth, the statement by Heads of Government on Food Security Principles is an immensely valuable document, welcomed by FAO, with some very pertinent words on the need to manage the world’s oceans and fisheries properly.

2.6 All the above examples illustrate that it is not just whether the Commonwealth has a future, but that it has uses in areas where other multilateral organisations are unable to venture. To do this without a constitution based on treaty is remarkable, but in that its strength may lie. Perth, however, was also about the Report of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, commissioned by Heads of Government at their previous meeting to examine possible reform. It had 106 recommendations, but there was very little time for CHOGM to come to terms with the recommendations. The ground lost needs to be recovered.

3. What reforms are needed for the Commonwealth to be successful?

3.1 Commonwealth Leaders clearly value the Commonwealth and CHOGM is taken seriously. The demands of the modern world in a plethora of international and regional meetings mean that leaders are unable to devote the time that they once were. This could threaten the future of the Commonwealth, so it is important for meetings to be focused. The work of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group is extremely important. It has some vital proposals and these reforms need to be implemented if the Commonwealth is to increase its effectiveness.

3.2 The important point is that the report has not been well handled thus far, which is a failure and ways must be found to recover the ground that has been lost. The Commonwealth Secretary-General has set out a plan that will deal with the proposals and enable Commonwealth Foreign Ministers to settle them by the autumn of 2012. The problem with this is time and the question that needs to be answered is whether there is sufficient momentum to be successful in this task.

3.3 In Perth, there was a meeting between representatives of Civil Society and Foreign Ministers, which was well attended on both sides and, in my view, the best of its kind since such gatherings were introduced. That said, there is a long way to go to make this kind of dialogue useful. At that meeting the British Foreign Secretary left no one in any doubt of his feelings that the EPG Report was not being handled well. He regretted it had not been released so that Foreign Ministers could have had the benefit of the observations of Civil Society on it. His remarks struck a chord. The problem now is that there is little time to recover that lost ground.

3.4 The key to ensuring that the important recommendations of the EPG are given proper consideration is if a like minded group of Foreign Ministers insist that this happens. If putting the “C” back in FCO means anything, then Britain should try and work with other like minded Foreign Ministers to put the exercise on proper track. There has to be work for the FCO in this. A simple point worth making here is that several Governments appointed exceptional and high quality individuals to serve on this group in their personal capacities. They have done an extraordinarily good job. Surely those Governments can come together to ensure that the recommendations are dealt with to best advantage for the betterment of the Commonwealth.

3.5 It has to be mentioned that the Commonwealth is run on resources that UN institutions would regard as derisory and perhaps not sufficient to fund their travel budgets. Staff resources are low and salary structures not certain to attract the best. Yet it still has capacity to punch above its weight and accomplish things, especially in the context of democratic development that would not be countenanced in UN bodies. Three countries, namely Britain, Canada and Australia are responsible for providing more than two thirds of the organisation’s resources. The EPG report goes into some difficult and sensitive areas, without demanding vast increases in resources because it has been practical, which makes its work valuable. All the more reason for its recommendations to be taken seriously.

3.6 There are fears that some countries welcome seeing the EPG Report in the long grass, because they regard the proposal for a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights as a threat to their internal affairs. Yet the ideas on Page 40 of the report can be repackaged in other ways if that wins greater acceptance. After all, the Commonwealth has got to where it is today by sowing seeds that take time to grow. There is no better example of this than CMAG. At Perth, Heads of Government agreed to strengthen CMAG in ways that some had worked and campaigned for over long periods of time. There is more work to be done now, but to get this far is for some the biggest achievement of the Perth CHOGM.

4. How does Commonwealth membership benefit the UK?

4.1 There is a Commonwealth bond of history and friendship that has enormous value. HM The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth has been central to the effectiveness in good times and difficult ones. Her opening speech at CHOGM always sets the meeting off on the right path. Membership of the Commonwealth is important to the success of many bilateral visits. Ideas can be sown at wider international meetings, because Britain is able to use its Commonwealth connections to influence results. It is not something that needs to be used all the time, but used strategically it can be very effective. Certainly successive French Presidents have wished that the Francophonie had the same strengths.

4.2 I can only repeat what other submissions will have said in the context of Trade. The Commonwealth relationship often means doors are open when they might otherwise be closed. There is no finer example than the success of the Commonwealth Business Forum at the Perth CHOGM, which also attracted participation from non-Commonwealth countries, including China. The Commonwealth is extremely strong in its wide cross section of Civil Society organisations, which is a factor of immense value.

4.3 In the work that goes on all the time to promote human rights and democracy there is a natural channel for diplomacy from which both Britain and other Commonwealth countries benefit. This works in both international and regional networks.

5. Can the UK do more to benefit from the Commonwealth brand?

5.1 The decision of the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues to take a more participatory role in Commonwealth activities has been very welcome. Lord Howell, as Commonwealth Minister, has attended countless meetings all of which have been welcomed and at the Perth CHOGM he was everywhere. For the Foreign Secretary to make the closing speech at the Commonwealth People’s Forum was unprecedented and very well received. This is mentioned because in the past British Governments have been reluctant to do this, or launch initiatives for fear of being seen to be reverting to colonial instincts. Edward Heath is alleged to have discouraged the FCO from having too high a Commonwealth profile for fear of sending the wrong message to Europe, a mistake the French have never made in their relations with the Francophonie. In terms of European funding for Commonwealth initiatives there is a history of lost opportunities, which might be corrected in future with FCO collaboration.

5.2 Over the years, the number of officials in the FCO dealing with Commonwealth matters has been drastically reduced. Perhaps it is time this issue was revisited in the FCO. In effect, the Commonwealth brand is strong across the Commonwealth and this should be recognised. Sadly this is not reflected in the UK press. That is why the EPG report is wise to have raised the issue of the Commonwealth profile and how it can be improved. This is also crucial to the future of the Commonwealth, which will need to maintain at the very least profile to survive.

5.3 Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies can reap benefit from their proximity to and relations with Commonwealth countries. Recently, the Commonwealth Foundation did a project on this with FCO support. There is plenty of scope for more constructive work in this area and it should be encouraged.

6. Conclusions

6.1 The Commonwealth has a priceless future if this is steered properly. To achieve that it has to be fit for purpose, which was the reason for setting up the Eminent Persons Group and why its recommendations need to be handled effectively.

6.2 The Commonwealth has plenty of future potential if it works properly. To achieve that there is clear benefit in examining the way the FCO at official level relates to the organisation and how this can be improved.

6.3 The UK Government should not be closed to sponsoring initiatives, or encouraging others to do so backed by their support.

6.4 Civil Society, supported by the Commonwealth Foundation can be effective in their work. Closer links with DfID are also to be encouraged in development areas, remembering that that is a two way street.

26 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012