High hopes after Malta summit

A newly elected Secretary-General will take the helm at the Commonwealth next year, bringing with her prospects of rejuvenation and fresh relevance for an ailing organisation. CJA President Rita Payne looks at the key developments of the 2015 CHOGM in Malta, and the pressures that lie ahead for the new S-G.


Months of speculation are over. Baroness Patricia Scotland has been confirmed as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. She has dual nationality: she is a British citizen but was nominated by her country of birth, Dominica. She is making history as the first female to hold the post and carries on her shoulders the hopes of supporters who fear that the Commonwealth is in danger of slipping into oblivion if it fails to make a powerful impact on the international stage.

Baroness Scotland told The Royal Commonwealth Society that she wants to put the ‘wealth’ back into the Commonwealth through working in partnership to tackle corruption, gender inequality and violence against women.

It would be one of her greatest priorities, she said, to collaborate across the 53 nations to end corruption in the Commonwealth:

‘We didn’t understand how big it was, how much it corroded our democracy and undermined what we wanted to do. I think now all of us understand it’s non-negotiable, we have to address it together.’

However, turning action into words will not be easy when trying to run an organisation with 53 members. Heads of government tend to stick together and are generally reluctant to censure a fellow leader, even if that government violates Commonwealth codes of behaviour.

A close observer of the Commonwealth who has seen the workings of the organisation from the inside says the Commonwealth is not what it used to be: a forum where there was much give-and-take, and consensus was achieved with ease. Views have become much more polarised over the last five years, with a sharp north-south divide being reflected.

The old Commonwealth countries strongly wanted to appoint a Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, proposed by the Eminent Persons Group, 2011. But the vast majority of the membership would have none of it, so the proposal was rejected.

According to a former Commonwealth insider, one reason this proposal was championed by the old Commonwealth (the so-called ABC countries) was the perceived failure, in their eyes, of the Secretary-General to be more vocal in confronting derogations from Commonwealth values in countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives and The Gambia.

Human rights issues have come much more sharply to the fore recently. Countries including the UK and Canada have strong political interest in pursuing concerns such as gay and lesbian rights, early and forced marriage, and freedom of religion, some of which generate tension and contention within the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth faces a huge challenge of relevance, some even say an existential issue. Only the small states give it importance, because there is no other forum where their voices are magnified. The larger developing states take little interest, whether it is India or Nigeria or South Africa.

The new generation of Commonwealth leaders simply does not have the same sentimental affinity with the Commonwealth that the independence generation did.

On the other hand, there is a crying need for an organisation like the Commonwealth, which bridges so many divides and which has so many examples of effectively managing and harnessing diversity.

The summit in Malta—whose theme was ‘The Commonwealth – Adding Global Value’—took place in a far more congenial atmosphere than the fractious and controversial meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013. The decision to hold the summit in Sri Lanka, despite serious concerns about the government’s human rights record, left the Commonwealth’s reputation severely bruised. In a rare show of protest, the leaders of Canada, Mauritius and India boycotted the meeting.

Canada’s recently ousted prime minister, Stephen Harper, had been one of the most vocal critics of the decision to hold the meeting in Sri Lanka. His young and dynamic successor, Justin Trudeau, was a star attraction at the Malta summit; his youth even prompted the Queen to quip that he made her feel old!  Mr Trudeau’s election has given rise to hopes that Canada will return to the Commonwealth fold as an active and fully engaged member.

While the announcement of the new Secretary-General inevitably grabbed the headlines, several agreements were reached on the sidelines of the Malta meeting. These included the creation of hubs for climate change and trade. There were other programmes on a range of issues such as counter-terrorism, migration, youth and women’s development.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, highlighted one area where the Commonwealth could add value by urging member countries to lead the fight against corruption. He made the remarks in Malta ahead of a landmark conference on the issue in the UK next year.

Mr Cameron brought together nine countries to discuss how to address the challenge of corruption and its role in inhibiting economic growth and the development of peaceful, inclusive societies.

This chimes with the vision of the dynamic prime minister of the host country, Joseph Muscat, who was determined that the summit would be a watershed for the Commonwealth, created in 1949.  Under the stewardship of Malta, which will serve as chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years, Prime Minister Muscat wants to make the organisation a rejuvenated force for change, better equipped to confront today’s global challenges.

Another significant development at the Malta summit was an indication that a tacit agreement had been reached for Prince Charles to succeed the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. Observers point to evidence that Prince Charles attended the meeting, was involved with all the events, was seated on stage at the Opening Ceremony, and the Queen made an explicit reference to him in her speech.

As the new Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland is now under pressure to prove to doubters that the organisation is not a busted flush and merely a relic of Britain’s colonial past. In order to do so, she will need support from all government leaders to demonstrate that the Commonwealth still has relevance in today’s increasingly turbulent world.

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