The Inaugural Lecture marking the 100th Anniversary of the Charter of the Bristol Commonwealth Society at the Mansion House, Bristol, on Saturday 12 October 2013
By Sir Ronald Sanders KCMG AM
In this lecture, Sir Ronald Sanders argues that the inter-governmental Commonwealth is a diverse group that is now plagued by mistrust and loss of confidence. If the Summit in Sri Lanka is to be meaningful, Heads of Government must set up machinery to address this issue urgently and credibly. It will call for careful diplomatic stage-managing by the Secretary-General, and transparent and open chairmanship by the Sri Lankan President. Whether this can be achieved is left to be seen. But, if this matter is not tackled with urgency and credibility, the Commonwealth may well go over the cliff to disintegration on which it is now dangerously perched.
Sir Ronald Sanders is a former member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (2010-2011) that produced the report for the 2011 Heads of Government Meeting on urgent reform of the Commonwealth;); he has participated in several Meetings of Commonwealth Senior Officials and Heads of Government; he served a member of the Commonwealth Committee Southern Africa (1984-1987) and as an adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat/World Bank on small states(2000); and is the author of several publications on the Commonwealth.
Part 1 – Troubling Issues
Over the last 64 years much has changed about the Commonwealth.
While the association has been of immense benefit to its member countries and a valuable influence in international relations, more recently its relevance has been questioned by many non-governmental organisations, academics and commentators in the media.
As we gather this evening, the inter-governmental Commonwealth is enduring troubling times. Evidence of this is the following:
• It is being tugged in different directions by the preferences of its member governments. This motion should not be mistaken for progress.
• Approximately 70 per cent of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Budget is funded by only three of its member governments – Britain, Canada and Australia. For financial year 2012/2013, the Budget was a meagre £16.1 million. For the current financial year, there has been no real increase in the Budget which was settled for the current year only after unprecedented manoeuverings and disagreements amongst government representatives.
• The other 49 members are reluctant to increase their contributions, and more than 30 of the member states are in arrears of their contributions. This suggests that the Commonwealth does not now rank high among the instruments for pursuing their foreign policy goals.
• The Secretariat needs at least another £3 million per annum to carry out effectively the mandates it now has.
• Good staff members are leaving the Secretariat, and its uncompetitive salaries and conditions make it difficult to attract better personnel.
• There is a general lack of knowledge about the Commonwealth in its member-states and the majority of its governments are doing little or nothing to explain and promote it.
• The media consider it to be of such little relevance that it gets coverage only in the case of some dramatic event such as the unheralded announcement by the President of The Gambia that as of October 3rd 2013 he has withdrawn the country from the Commonwealth because it has suddenly and inexplicably become “a neo-colonialist” organisation.
• A kind of North-South divide has developed centred on the importance of upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law as fundamental requirements for Commonwealth membership; and
• There is controversy over the government of Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in a few weeks.
The controversy surrounding Sri Lanka
Because of its topicality, I will digress from the main thrust of this presentation to make a few observations about the controversy that surrounds the Commonwealth summit being held in Sri Lanka.
As is well known Sri Lanka has been the focus of attention of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights for several years.
At the end of August 2013, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, expressed her “deep concern” that the government of Sri Lanka “is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”. i This statement came in the wake of an allegation by an Expert Panel set up by the UN Secretary-General that war crimes had been committed in Sri Lanka, and recommendations that there should be an independent international investigation.
The Sri Lankan government resisted such an investigation
In the ensuing period several organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative have accused the Sri Lanka government of “restrictions on civil liberties, intolerance for dissent, intimidation of the media, and inaction in the face of extremist attacks against minorities”. They have all called on Commonwealth governments to change the venue of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The impeachment of the country’s Chief Justice, by a process held to be illegal both by Sri Lanka’s own Supreme Court and international experts, strengthened calls for the change of venue.
Those who called for the change in venue argued that “allowing Sri Lanka to host CHOGM (the Heads of Government Meeting) might be seen as condoning the violations of its (the Commonwealth’s) values”.
For his part, the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, rejects any notion of serious and persistent human rights violations by his government. Instead, he and other members of his government have characterised efforts to criticize his government’s record as unjustified and interfering.
In a statement to the UN General Assembly on 24th September 2013 said three things: First: “It is disturbing to observe the growing trend in the international arena of interference by some in the internal matters of developing countries in the guise of security and guardians of human rights”. Second, “This turmoil results from attempts to impose a type of democracy upon countries with significantly different cultures, values and history. The world needs no policing by a few states”. And, third: “I am proud that Sri Lanka has eradicated separatist terrorism spanning three decades and is in the process of addressing the issues of development and reconciliation”.
While concerns have been expressed about the situation in Sri Lanka by some Commonwealth governments notably the governments of the United Kingdom and India, it is the government of Canada that has most robustly expressed its disquiet. For almost two years the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Foreign Minister John Baird have stated that: “The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable”. ii
On 7th October 2013, Prime Minister Harper announced that neither he nor any Minister of the Canadian government would be attending the Summit in Sri Lanka. Instead, Canada’s representative would be Parliamentary Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, Deepak Obhrai, whose presence, according to Mr Baird, would be “to enable Canada to partake in some events surrounding the summit which will allow us to shed light on the true tragedy in Sri Lanka”. iii
Mr Harper gave as his reason for non-ministerial representation at the meeting in Sri Lanka that: “Canada believes that if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity, which are the very foundation upon which the Commonwealth was built. It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, which are cherished by Canadians”. iv
And therein lies the rub.
Upholding values or a sinister purpose
President Rajapaksa’s statement at the UN General Assembly and the reasons given by Prime Minister Harper for Canada’s non-ministerial representation at the Summit in Sri Lanka go to the core of serious dissension within the Commonwealth. It is a dissension which is also reflected in the decision by President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia to withdraw his country from the Commonwealth effective 3 October 2013.
There is now a resiling by some governments from the values that all Commonwealth governments have declared they support, and an accusation that those governments that seek to uphold those values – and the credibility of the Commonwealth – have a sinister purpose.
This is an issue that requires urgent attention by all Commonwealth governments if the association is to remain cohesive and effective. The problem will not go away, nor can it be papered over by mere expressions of concern. It requires vigorous and serious attention by governments at the highest levels.
Before I leave the Sri Lanka matter, I would make two observations about the venue for Summit meetings and the Chairmanship of the Commonwealth.
First, deciding two years in advance (or even longer) on the venue for the Heads of Government Meeting should be discouraged. It is a practice that did not occur before 1993. Two years is too long a time, and much could happen to change the attractiveness of a venue. The process gives hostages to fortune. While countries could indicate their desire to host a Summit, it would be both practical and desirable for the decision on the venue to be taken only within a year before the meeting by a process of the Secretary-General taking soundings from governments about the countries that have offered themselves.
Second, with regard to the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office – a position that was established in 1999 - the Eminent Persons Group (the EPG) of which I was a member had recommended to the last Summit in 2011 that both the position of the two-year Chair-in-Office and the Troika of past, present and future Chairs of Commonwealth meetings be abolished. In the four years between 2009 and 2013, the Commonwealth has had five Chairs-in-Office – three of them had never attended a CHOGM when they became Chair. v We made the point that “the Commonwealth has not benefitted from the current arrangements”. vi This recommendation was rejected. But, had it been accepted, the Commonwealth would not now be subjected to the criticism of the President of Sri Lanka being Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth while he and his government defend themselves in the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
I return now to the main thrust of this presentation.
Next: Part 2 – Unmanaged diversity a threat to the Commonwealth
i Report of a statement made in Colombo, Sri Lanka by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights on 31 August 2013, in Sir Lanka Brief, 3 September 2013, http://www.srilankabrief.org/2013/09/navi-pillay-statement-un-news.html (accessed 30 September 2013)
ii Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, issued on 7 October 2013 by the PMO Press Office, Ottawa, http://pm.gc.ca (accessed 8 October 2013)
iii John Baird, Canadian Foreign Minister, Why we’re boycotting the Sri Lanka summit, in Ipolitics, October 11 2013, http://www.ipolitics.ca/2013/10/11/why-were-boycotting-the-sri-lanka-summit/ (accessed on 11 October 1013)
iv Op.cit., note ii
v The Chairs-in-Office were Patrick Manning and Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago), Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbot (Australia). Only Manning and Rudd had ever attended a CHOGM.
vi See, A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, The Report of the Eminent Persons Group to Commonwealth Heads of Government, Perth 2011, p.117, Commonwealth Secretariat, London. The argument to abolish the position of Chair-in-Office and the Troika can be seen from p 117 to 120.
The author is grateful for statistical data provided by Dr Mohamed Razzaque and Tsung-Ping Chung of the Commonwealth Secretariat, but stresses that the analysis provided in the Lecture and its conclusions are entirely his responsibility