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 3 – Human Rights: “Western import” or universal birthright
To return to the rules of the Commonwealth Club. One of the most important rules of the Club authorises the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – a group of eight rotating foreign ministers - to assess and deal with such violations. Between 2002 and now CMAG has addressed only three countries – Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Pakistan –and only on the issue of unconstitutional overthrows of governments. Yet there have been credible reports of violation of the Commonwealth’s core values in those and other countries that should have warranted attention.
The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) that produced the report on reform of the Commonwealth for the 2011 Heads of Government meeting in Perth had recognised that a Committee of Foreign Ministers of member countries would be hard-pressed to adjudicate violations of Commonwealth values by other Commonwealth governments with which they are engaged regularly in a variety of affairs. This is why the report stated that there is need for full-time attention to be paid to determining when serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values occur in Commonwealth countries, and also for exploration and analysis to advise both the Secretary-General and CMAG when such violations persist despite any ‘good offices’ work by the Secretary-General. The EPG specifically recommended the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights – a body that would undertake objective analysis and give dispassionate advice.
With the exception of a few, Commonwealth governments rejected the idea of the Commissioner. It wasn’t the first time that such a recommendation had been rejected. Ironically, in 1977, the then government of The Gambia had also recommended the creation of a Commonwealth Commission on Human Rights. As a matter of interest, among the governments that rejected the Gambian proposal for a Commission on Human Rights in 1977 was the government of the United Kingdom.
In any event, tension has now developed between Commonwealth governments with governments from some developing states claiming that human rights concerns are “Western exports”, incompatible with more urgent development issues and cultural differences. That claim was explicit in the Sri Lankan President’s statement to the UN General Assembly to which I referred earlier.
But, it was to secure their human rights that slaves revolted in the Caribbean against their exploiters and abusers; it was to secure human rights that Mahatma Gandhi encouraged passive resistance in India; it was to secure human rights that freedom fighting organisations were created in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. These were not “Western imports”; they were manifestation of people yearning for their freedom and their rights. Human rights are not a Western concept; they are ancient quests of all mankind. And, as US President Barack Obama recently pointed out to the General Assembly of the United Nations, “they are the birthright of every person”.
Commonwealth cohesion requires constant vigilance
Nonetheless, different perceptions about the comparative importance of democracy and development now dominate the unspoken agenda of the Commonwealth. These different perceptions, arising out of the diversity of Commonwealth membership, dominated discussions by the Secretariat’s Board of Governors of the recently adopted Strategic Plan for the Secretariat. The sometimes acrimonious discussions were prolonged, causing agreement on the Secretariat’s Budget to be delayed halting programmes, putting jobs in jeopardy and draining staff morale.
At the heart of the Commonwealth’s present difficulties is the very diversity that the Commonwealth has touted as a strength. We should not discount that the Commonwealth is now an association of 53 nations. It is no longer the eight countries that fashioned the modern Commonwealth in 1949 or even the twenty that agreed to establish a Secretariat in 1965. It is a very diverse grouping.
Diversity is a variety of differences, not of sameness. Diversity is only a strength if it is harnessed and harmonised; if room is made to accommodate dissimilarities. Otherwise, diversity is a weakness. Diversity means that small countries see survival differently to large ones; and developed countries have priorities and perspectives dissimilar to developing ones.
This is why the governments of the Commonwealth and the Secretariat of the Commonwealth have to work continuously and diligently to build trust, confidence and understanding among themselves and in the Commonwealth as an association. But, such trust, such confidence, such understanding and belief will not emerge by themselves, nor should they be presumed to exist. They require constant vigilance, promotion and advocacy by those who are charged with the Commonwealth’s fulltime stewardship.
That task begins with the Commonwealth Secretariat. Its leadership should be concerned with keeping the worth and relevance of the Commonwealth alive and vibrant, even if that task runs the risk of leaders, such as the President of The Gambia, withdrawing from the association because the Commonwealth’s declared values restrain policies of discrimination and victimization.
In this context, it is incumbent on the Secretariat to work with governments at the highest levels constantly, to warn them of potential conflicts and tensions, to build bridges, to advise corrective action that should be taken by any of them that violate Commonwealth values, and to recommend CMAG action should corrective action not be taken. The criteria for the Secretariat’s work should be the Charter of the Commonwealth and all the values and principles that it embraces. There can be no other.
Those Commonwealth values, enshrined in the Charter, include sustainable development and social transformation to build economic resilience and promote social equality – importantly “to meet the basic needs of the vast majority of the people of the world”. Despite its extremely limited resources, the Commonwealth has performed well in this area over the years, and even though its Budget has been reduced in real terms, the Commonwealth Secretariat has delivered in the areas of its competence and capacity.
Commonwealth co-operation in development
The Commonwealth does not have the resources of the UN agencies – what it can do is respond to urgent needs of its members especially the 34 small sates in a variety of areas in which they lack capacity and which are crucial to their economic and social well-being.
The Commonwealth – acting in the name of all of its member states – can also be a powerful advocate for the development-related issues that confront developing states. The record speaks for itself. It was the Commonwealth that conceived and promoted the idea of relief for Highly Indebted Poor Countries with the World Bank and other financial institutions. It was in the Commonwealth that the concept of small states’ vulnerability was identified with all its harmful implications not only for trade and investment, but also for their resilience in the face of natural disasters and even drug trafficking. These have had real impact on poverty reduction and the improvement of life in developing countries.
Beyond this – every day, in every developing region of the Commonwealth – the Commonwealth works without a sign board and without neon lights to help developing states to improve their circumstances. This work includes lodging submissions with the UN for their Extended Continental Shelf; helping to settle maritime boundaries that had been unresolved for decades; strengthening public administration; negotiating bail-out packages for countries that urgently needed to reschedule their debts, and supporting developing countries in global and multinational trade negotiations so that they could benefit from outcomes that they could not achieve on their own.
What is remarkable about this unsung and often unrecognised work is that it is the result of genuine Commonwealth co-operation. The majority of the bill has been paid by three countries – Britain, Canada and Australia – while all developing countries have benefitted. In this regard, the argument that the Commonwealth is being forced to allocate the majority of its resources to democracy and human rights and a smaller portion to development issues is simply false.
In the last financial year 2012/2013, of the combined budgets of the Secretariat and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC), £16.3 million was spent on development and £2.7 on democracy. Throughout the years of the Commonwealth’s existence from 1965 when the Secretariat was established, an important hallmark of the Commonwealth has been the co-operation of its major financial contributors in the development goals of its less well-off members – it has been an enviable example of North-South co-operation.
The Commonwealth under-resourced
What is true now, however, is the meagreness of the contributions by all governments but particularly so by the largest economy of them all – the United Kingdom. CFTC now gets only 0.07 per cent of the total budget of Britain’s Department for International Development. Yet British Ministers expound the value of the Commonwealth and the opportunities it provides to Britain to expand its trade and attract investment.
Last year, the total budget for the Secretariat and CFTC was £45.8 million of which the Secretariat’s was £16.1 million and CFTC’s was £29.7. The total Budget was reduced by £2 million from the previous year, and this year not only is there zero growth in the Secretariat Budget, but the British government has decided to reduce its voluntary contributions to CFTC. This problem is worsened by the decision of the Canadian Prime Minister “to review Canada’s financial contributions to Commonwealth programmes and the Commonwealth Secretariat”. The Secretariat now has to cut staff complement by 15 per cent. Yet, as the EPG pointed out in its report, the size of the entire staff of the Secretariat is smaller than the workers at the cafeteria of the UN in New York.
All this has arisen because of a loss of confidence and trust between governments themselves and between governments and the Secretariat. This is why Commonwealth governments at the highest levels must now give urgent attention to the disharmony that has developed in the association over adherence to the values for which the Commonwealth says it stands.
Previous: Part 2 – Unmanaged diversity a threat to the Commonwealth
Next: Part 4 – Sri Lanka CHOGM: Commonwealth’s fate or future?
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