Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 114

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 19 June 2012

Members present:

Richard Ottaway (Chair)

Mr Bob Ainsworth

Mr John Baron

Sir Menzies Campbell

Sir John Stanley

Rory Stewart


Examination of Witnesses

Witness: Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, gave evidence.

Q187 Chair: I would like to welcome back members of the public to this evidence session in our inquiry into the role and future of the Commonwealth. In particular, I welcome the Secretary-General, Mr Kamalesh Sharma. Thank you very much for finding the time to come. This has been a very interesting and valuable inquiry for us and your contribution is much anticipated. Is there anything you would like to say by way of an opening remark?

Kamalesh Sharma: Just that I greatly welcome this initiative by the Committee. It is hugely encouraging for someone like me and for our organisation that Members are taking so much interest in the workings of the Commonwealth and hopefully getting the word out about what great public good this institution does.

Q188 Chair: How would you describe the UK’s role inside the Commonwealth? Do you feel we are pulling our weight at the moment?

Kamalesh Sharma: I would imagine that the Commonwealth is regarded as a national treasure in this country because it has enabled the UK to maintain, in the best possible way, the historical links it has developed over the centuries in various parts of the world, and it has been able to distil all that is positive in that relationship and move it forward globally. I would also imagine that the UK’s desire to live as a multicultural society is very much influenced by the ease with which you work in the Commonwealth and the way in which you advance such a multicultural organisation.

But that is not all; there is the value setting. All over the world, we find the value setting is changing. If you look at the Arab Spring and what people are saying about how they would like their societies to be run, what values of governance they would like to see and freedoms they would like to enjoy, these are the things that the Commonwealth has been saying for decades. It is a very contemporary organisation, which does great global good, and I would imagine that the UK is very happy to be advancing it and associating itself with it. I won’t go into the national dimension of the way in which it promotes, for instance, trade, by the similarity of systems and so on. All those arguments are well known to you.

Q189 Chair: Have you noticed any change in the UK’s leadership role in recent years?

Kamalesh Sharma: Since I have been Secretary-General, the UK’s advocacy for the Commonwealth has been very strong and most welcome, both from the Labour and Conservative Governments.

I would like to acknowledge the role that Lord Howell, in particular, now plays in looking after the Commonwealth in the Foreign Office. We feel very much encouraged that the UK is very encouraging of all the reform measures that we wish to undertake.

Q190 Rory Stewart: Secretary-General, what is the purpose of the Commonwealth?

Kamalesh Sharma: The Commonwealth was created to make a bridge between the old Commonwealth, which had existed since the 1880s, and the new world that had arrived upon you. It was done in 1949, and a tribute is due to the people who did it, such as Prime Minister Attlee over here. There were three south Asian countries-India, Ceylon, as it was at that time, and Pakistan-which met here and, with the old Commonwealth, created the London Declaration, which said that we were ready to continue with the monarch as the Head and have a free association of countries. I would like to think that when that step was taken was a moment of inflection in contemporary history. It was a conscious step forward from the old world into the new, and it showed confidence. As Nehru, who was a central figure in all this, simply argued, if you are creating a body that consists of a variety of people who can give their perspectives from various parts of the world as to what the world should look like, what can be the harm in that? It is a step that we should welcome.

Q191 Rory Stewart: Are you adequately funded as a Secretariat to carry through that purpose?

Kamalesh Sharma: I did not follow that question.

Q192 Rory Stewart: Do you have enough funding to carry through the purpose of the Commonwealth that you defined?

Kamalesh Sharma: It is a modest organisation in terms of finances. If you look at the per head contribution in the UK, it will be a matter of pence. As the Eminent Persons Group report mentioned, it has fewer staff than the canteen of the United Nations in New York or, as someone else said, the fire department in Cornwall. There are about 130 or 140 executives who work there. It is also financially modest.

I try never to use that argument to argue that, because we are modestly funded or sized, we should also be modest in our expectations of the outcomes that the organisation can achieve. As far as outcomes are concerned, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that it is a great incubator of global ideas. One reason for that is the variety of what is in the Commonwealth. Whatever the Commonwealth thinks is an idea whose time has come is already a prototype of a global idea-whether that be debt and the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative or the vulnerability index from the World Bank. After the Copenhagen conference, the only outcome was a start-up fund for the most vulnerable countries. It could also be the migration of skills, and we have developed protocols, many of which have been accepted by UN organisations. I would like to think that, moving forward in contemporary times, the Commonwealth can keep on strengthening and playing that role.

Thank you for asking the question. Financially, the Commonwealth Secretariat is a very modest organisation, which is forcing us to rationalise our work and make a new strategic plan, but I never for that reason argue that it is not one of the most significant organisations in the contribution that it can make.

Q193 Rory Stewart: You tend not to lobby for common positions on issues such as climate change or trade. Why has that not been the case?

Kamalesh Sharma: We do, actually. At the end of the Uruguay Round, it was a small ministerial group from the Commonwealth that went around and enabled an outcome at that point in time. At the CHOGM in Malta, we had a trade declaration that created a breakthrough in the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, which happened a little later. Most importantly, our view is that the global community cannot be divided into those who are poorly endowed and those who are better endowed. In the end, everybody has a right to national salvation. Being the kind of body that we are, we have made ourselves known in various fields for arguing the corner of the weaker players in the global system. That enables the global outcome on climate change, trade or debt to be more equitable and more balanced.

Q194 Rory Stewart: The UK Government put the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation under special measures. Was it right to do so?

Kamalesh Sharma: DFID has been examining the way we work. We like to work with a completely open mind, whether it is with a development agency or with anybody. Many member states tell us how we can do things better. Results-based management is one area that we have been working at and there has been considerable improvement. DFID also said that corporate governance requires a look. I would like to think about what the auditors have said over the last year. For the first time they said that they could not think of anything to say about the audits because they were so well done. Corporate governance has seen a remarkable enhancement. I have also created a senior management position, for the first time in this organisation, to look after it. There are also differences that we have vis-à-vis a development agency; we are a common fund, and everybody contributes to it. The perspectives, angles and views of member states who are also contributors have to be taken into account. There are areas that DFID does not look at-for instance, middle-income countries such as in the Caribbean-but we do. Our idea of vulnerability and sustainability is to consider the stress situation you are under, and not necessarily a classification that relates only to poverty.

Q195 Rory Stewart: Some of your funds are quite small. You only have, I believe, £800,000 to work on gender issues and some people would say, "Why bother when the United Nations has £500 million to spend on the same issue?" What is the point in the Commonwealth doing that?

Kamalesh Sharma: Money is not always the issue in the work that you can do. It is not only the money we invest that gives a very different picture of what you are able to achieve on a very small budget, but the number of people. If you look at how many people are working in a specific area, you will find that there are very few. It is the degree of sensitivity and trust that we bring to our work with our member states that makes it possible to have outcomes that are not necessarily related to the fact that we operate on a very small budget.

Q196 Mr Baron: Secretary-General, welcome. May I just pick up on an answer that you gave earlier when we were talking about resources. You said that tight resources are forcing you to rationalise your ambitions. Let me revisit that point if I may. Many of us believe that the Commonwealth has huge potential-trading, education, human rights and so on. While accepting that there is often no direct link between resources and capability and potential, I would like to hear your assessment as to whether for a little bit extra or a few more resources-if you could quantify that-what potential you could achieve. Where are we in this? You have answered the question by saying that we have to live within our means. Are you not a little bit more ambitious?

Kamalesh Sharma: In the exercise that we are now doing-when we started we had 450 staff and right now, we have around 280 - we managed to finance ourselves by reducing our numbers. My view is that we cannot reduce them any more. There are two consequences of that. First, because the mandates did not stop pouring in, we went on making our work quite thin, but we were usually quite effective at the same time. The exercise now has to be done as to where you want to deepen your work or make a significant difference, perhaps you could even call it a global difference, and where you would not like to invest your resources. The very important point that I want to make is that this exercise is not about jettisoning the work we are doing. We want to look at how we can work differently as well-in advocacy and in partnership with other institutions and other ways so that much of the work that we may not directly be doing can still be done with ourselves as partners. Rory just mentioned an organisation. The world is now proliferating with organisations, not just UN organisations but also private ones-foundations-with which you can work. We need to examine how you in your situation can get the best result possible by rationalising what you do and what you cause to be done in partnership with others.

The second consequence is that if you are a small organisation, you cannot take a risk with the quality of people in it. I am afraid that our studies have shown that, for instance, we are 40% below competitive international rates for an organisation of this nature. The kind of people you have to recruit now need a degree of global awareness and systems that is much higher than was the case even 15 or 20 years ago. It is inevitable that we will have to meet international standards in recruitment.

I would like to think that it is not about a very demanding requirement financially and when it finally emerges at the end of the year-this is a package that is emerging-that the member states would be able to say, "We’re convinced by the exercise that has been done, and we are happy to look at the additional amount of financial support that you need."

Q197 Mr Baron: Can I put you on the spot, Secretary-General, very briefly? If you had more resources, even a modest increase in resources, what would you like to focus on? Can you give the Committee an example of the potential that could be achieved in a particular area?

Kamalesh Sharma: I am very happy to do that, but I must preface my remarks by saying that the members of the Commonwealth are very keen that there is a balance in our work between democracy, development and diversity. Our comparative strength is really the degree of receptivity and trust that is forthcoming towards the Commonwealth. Therefore, those areas where this trust is a vital element in getting an outcome is our real, intrinsic, proven and comparative strength. To get countries to build institutions, whether they are strong electoral commissions, human rights commissions, judicial service commissions and the way that Parliaments work in partnership. We have 90-odd organisations that carry the name "Commonwealth"-we have to step up such partnership within the Commonwealth family. Achievements in terms of the quality of public administration, the rule of law, human rights and the culture of democracy are made because of the receptivity to the fact that we can usually attain more than any other organisation.

Similarly, on the development side, natural resource management offers a huge potential for any country, whether on land or off land, because we are also involved in the demarcation of maritime boundaries. Working with a trusted partner who says, "This is the model approach you need," rules out any scope for corruption and improprieties, in keeping with the Paris principles. In terms of development, such an approach also guarantees fair, balanced revenue distribution. That approach also applies to trade, job creation and youth employment-we have the oldest youth programme in the world. In many of our countries, the youth aged 29 or under constitute 70% of the population. You must lift your work for those younger people in terms of politics, political leadership andas agents of social change, as well as in respect of economics. Those are some of the areas on which we will concentrate in the future.

Q198 Mr Baron: Briefly, some of us view with concern the possible disconnect between the British Government’s warm words about the Commonwealth and, at the same time, the cutbacks to the small embassies in the Pacific and elsewhere. What is the Commonwealth’s view on that?

Kamalesh Sharma: The role of the United Kingdom is irreplaceable not only in terms of the support that the Government provides in percentage terms for our development work and our budget, but our connection with Her Majesty The Queen. The modern Commonwealth is inseparable from Her Majesty’s role in it. Sixty years ago, when Her Majesty took over the headship, we had eight members, now we have 54. The continuity that the Commonwealth has experienced all that while and the steadiness and values that it has been able to advance are very much associated with those values being demonstrated by Her Majesty. If you ask me what the UK’s role is, I think it is first the Government’s role, the role of the Head of State, plus the role of the Commonwealth family. It is a fact of practical life that much of the Commonwealth family is rooted in London, or has a British membership. That has been extremely valuable to maintain the civil society dimension. The UK is joined at the hip with the Commonwealth.

Q199 Sir John Stanley: Secretary-General, the 1991 Harare Commonwealth declaration came 20 years after the previous declaration of Commonwealth principles at Singapore in 1971. We are now 20 years on from the Harare Declaration. Do you believe that there is now a general consensus within the Commonwealth family that the time has come to look again at the Harare declaration and to see whether it needs updating and, if so, in what areas? Is that a matter that you, as Secretary-General, feel you can take forward?

Kamalesh Sharma: That has happened already, because when I joined, apart from creating this position for corporate governance inside the organisation, I also called the first mini-summit of leaders to define what principles of international organisations reflect Commonwealth values, and that is now very much appreciated everywhere. I also suggested to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group that the time had come to request our leaders to ask the Action Group to raise its ambition levels and to make recommendations. That happened at the Port of Spain CHOGM, when the leaders gave that direction to CMAG, and in Perth recently-two years later-it was achieved.

What has now happened is that, instead of simply looking at a train wreck, the Heads of State said that seven or eight areas-constitutionalism, reasons why an election is postponed, credibility of elections, independence of the judiciary, treatment of the Opposition, a level media playing field-should be areas of engagement for the Commonwealth, so my good offices as Secretary-General have all been lifted as a result.

CMAG also said, as I had proposed, that I should be authorised to make more statements, with its support, on our values. The number of statements that I have made already during the past five or six months is three or four times greater than last year. That has happened, and one of the triggers was an Affirmation in which we put together in one place all that had happened since the Singapore Declaration: the Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles discussed at Port of Spain. So people had at hand one consolidated document in which they could see our values and principles. Flowing from that Affirmation was the decision that CMAG could work on how to reflect it in our work.

Q200 Sir Menzies Campbell: Secretary-General, you will know that comparisons have been drawn between the Commonwealth’s response to the Maldives and to Sri Lanka, and not always favourably. In particular, with regard to the Maldives, there was quick concerted action, largely led by your eminent predecessor, Donald McKinnon; but in relation to Sri Lanka, there has been nothing equivalent. How do you account for that?

Kamalesh Sharma: A lot of the work that is done by my Good Offices is necessarily done quietly but advances the values of which the Commonwealth is the custodian.

The fact that I cannot yet announce much that is happening with Sri Lanka does not mean that we are not working towards an outcome. I have been in touch with the leadership for a long time at the highest level and at all levels. In London, I had a meeting with the honourable President of Sri Lanka the Maldives, and also at the Maldives SAARC summit. The Government have a very forthcoming attitude to the way in which they can engage with us. They have done an internal exercise-the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission-and we are engaging with them to see where we can work with them in many areas. We are doing that right now, and I hope that we will be able to formalise it and announce something in the coming months in the areas of reconciliation, accountability and rehabilitation, which is where our strengths lie.

As far as the Maldives is concerned, there was a very clear case where you had to examine very quickly whether the change of power took place within the constitutional democratic principles of that country. We had to move swiftly in a very different kind of way.

Q201 Sir Menzies Campbell: Arising out of that comparison and perhaps because of the circumstances of the way in which your work is carried on, as you have just described, there have been those who have questioned whether the next CHOGM should go ahead in Colombo. Do you have a view on that?

Kamalesh Sharma: The leaders decided in Perth that the next CHOGM will be in Sri Lanka. At that point in time, Sri Lanka had not designated a venue or city in which it would be held, but they now have. It will be held in Colombo, so that decision from the Heads is very firm.

Q202 Sir Menzies Campbell: You do not see that decision as being likely to come under review?

Kamalesh Sharma: I do not see that decision coming under review.

Q203 Sir Menzies Campbell: Obviously, the conditions in which the CHOGM goes ahead are of some importance. It has been argued, as I understand it, that there is a need to press for full press freedom and free access for members of the Commonwealth press to the venue in Colombo. Is that something that you would support?

Kamalesh Sharma: When we work with the host, we have certain parameters and principles that must be followed while the CHOGM takes place. That team has already visited Sri Lanka. Apart from the inter-governmental side of it, there is the youth forum, the people’s forum and the business forum. There are also the facilities that are created for the media, which must be able to enjoy all kinds of freedom. All those will be according to the guidelines of our so-called Green Book, which lays down the principles behind each CHOGM.

Q204 Sir Menzies Campbell: Are you satisfied that those principles will be met?

Kamalesh Sharma: We are satisfied that we are making satisfactory progress in dealing with the Government on those issues.

Q205 Mr Ainsworth: Secretary-General, are you personally supportive of all the recommendations in the Eminent Persons Group report? If not and if you have reservations, can you tell us?

Kamalesh Sharma: My job is to see which of the recommendations enjoy the widest possible support and where common ground can be created. In fact, very good progress has been made, because a large number of recommendations were agreed by the Heads in Perth. Some 40 were remitted by the Heads to be looked at first by a senior officials group and thereafter by a geographically representative group of 12 Ministers that I had convened. The Ministers met just last week, and they have been able to come to conclusions about all of the recommendations and those conclusions will go forward in September for the larger group of Foreign Ministers to adopt.

The Eminent Persons Group recommendations are moving extremely well. There is one recommendation pertaining to a commissioner for human rights and so on and that has been remitted to the CMAG-the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group-to look at jointly with the Secretary-General. An important point to make is that when that recommendation was made by the EPG, the new ambition levels to which the CMAG would be acting had not yet been adopted. They were adopted in Perth, which is why the whole issue has been remitted to the CMAG.

Moving forward, I hope that we will be able to come to a recommendation that makes it absolutely clear that a mechanism has been created-in strengthening the Secretariat, in working with the Commonwealth family and in having the facility to engage external advice-that links that high ambition level to a practical way of doing it as well.

Q206 Mr Ainsworth: We know that different views were expressed. Was there an attempt to suppress the Eminent Persons Group report?

Kamalesh Sharma: To suppress them?

Mr Ainsworth: Some people said that. I think Sir Malcolm Rifkind-

Kamalesh Sharma: One of the most open exercises to be carried on in the Commonwealth was by the Eminent Persons Group, particularly in our putting up on our website the progress and advances that they were making and in inviting civil society to share their views and to let the Group have them. As the Group went forward, from one meeting to another, they were able to look at this advice-from member states, civil society or anyone who wanted to give them some.

Q207 Mr Ainsworth: Have you got a view on why people felt that that was so?

Kamalesh Sharma: There was possibly an issue at Perth, when it was decided by the member states that this report should be first seen by the Heads, because the Heads had asked for the report before it was publicly released. Perhaps your reference was to that, but that was a decision taken by member states. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an effort to suppress the report.

Q208 Mr Ainsworth: If we go ahead with the recommendation concerning the Commonwealth commissioner, will there be a need for additional resources?

Kamalesh Sharma: We try as much as possible, in all the work that we do additionally, to meet it from our resources, but if there is a need in our entire strategic plan to require additional resources then, as I said earlier, we would make that proposal very clearly. There are two streams for doing so-one would be by increasing the budget and the other by making extra-budgetary resources available for a particular task-but we have to await the recommendations in the later part of the year before we know what those additional financial consequences are likely to be.

Q209 Chair: Secretary-General, that exhausts our questions. Is there anything at all you would like to say by way of closing remarks?

Kamalesh Sharma: I wish to reiterate the fact that engagement by Members has been a very exhilarating thing for us. I read every word of the discussions that took place on the Commonwealth in the House of Lords, and I wrote to every single Member who made a contribution in the House of Lords on the points that they had made in order to give a clarification or to give them information. There is nothing that can replace political support and willingness to give wind to the sails of the Commonwealth, which is why part of our exercise is also profile building-it is not just the impact you make, but the profile of your organisation.

One of the ideas that we are working on is what the political leadership itself can do by way of helping here, because one of the points often made is that the citizens do not know enough about the Commonwealth, so we have to work at three levels: one is the Secretariat, and I am trying to do my assignment by creating a new communications plan; another is the Commonwealth family; but the one that the citizens will hear straight away is what the political level and the leadership are saying about their belief in the Commonwealth. I would like to think that occasions like this actually help them to concentrate on the idea that the Commonwealth is a great global good and a great global asset with which their country is associated, in terms of both history and supporting this body moving forward. So I wish, once again, simply to thank you for doing this and for giving political support to this organisation when needed.

Q210 Chair: Secretary-General, you have been the perfect witness-very focused answers, of a very high-quality and not too long. Thank you very much for your time; it is much appreciated.

Kamalesh Sharma: You are very kind; it has been a pleasure.

Prepared 14th November 2012