Commonwealth seeks renewal and relevance in Malta

Leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries will meet in Malta from November 27-29. Even some of the multicultural club’s best friends say the 66-year old organisation faces pressing and substantial challenges to its credibility, vitality and integrity. The task of CHOGM 2015 is to give fresh meaning to an old organisation which includes the appointment of a new Secretary General for the 2016-2020 term. Trevor Grundy reports.


In 2002, Prince Charles was quoted in The Sunday Times as saying that if the Commonwealth fails to stand up for liberal democracy and human rights, it deserves nothing more than contempt. By shelving this vital issue, it was, he said, ‘drinking in the last chance saloon’.

It has swallowed a lot of pints since then.

But in recent years, the observations made by the heir to the throne, who hopes to replace his mother as head of the Commonwealth when she dies, have been reinforced by an important cross-section of men and women who have devoted a good part of their lives to the multicultural/multiracial Club’s welfare and meaning. One of its important tasks was to spread respect for human rights across the face of the Earth. So far, the Commonwealth has been severely embarrassed by its perceived lack of determination to implement this noble aim.

At the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, a report drawn up by one of its own panel into human rights violations by member states was rejected against a backdrop of widespread international condemnation.

Then came the appalling decision to hold the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka.

One of the Commonwealth’s most courageous supporters and critics is Sir Ronald Sanders, one of the three candidates for the post of Commonwealth Secretary General when its incumbent, India’s Kamalesh Sharma, steps down early next year.

‘All but those in denial admit that the Commonwealth is now a wounded organisation,’ Sanders told a meeting of Commonwealth stalwarts in Cambridge in January 2014.

‘Over the next two years, the Commonwealth can mark time sleepwalking into irrelevance, or it can make use of the present existential threat to prepare the ground for a substantial and meaningful re-launch at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta.’

He added: ‘A successful re-launch of the Commonwealth will require extensive preparation with the fullest participation possible of the Maltese Prime Minister, who will chair the 2015 CHOGM and be responsible for its outcomes.’

So is a re-launch really on the cards? Or is the wounded giant still asleep, stumbling towards the nearest cliff?

In a bid to awaken the Commonwealth, the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appointed a local entrepreneur, Phyllis Muscat, as head of the CHOGM taskforce.

‘I am proud of what she is doing,’ Muscat told MPs, some of whom had criticised his decision to appoint a former jewellery salesperson instead of a seasoned diplomat to such a lofty position at such a difficult time.

The theme for this year’s meeting, which will be held in a variety of five star hotels on an overcrowded island where there are almost as many cars as people, is ‘ Commonwealth – Adding Global Value’, which one long-standing Commonwealth observer laughingly said was worthy of any of the world’s better known supermarkets

Sir Ronald Sanders Commonwealth friend and critic
Sir Ronald Sanders Commonwealth friend and critic

‘Adding global value is about using the Commonwealth’s strengths in international politics to influence and eventually effect change on important global issues,’ says the CHOGM website ‘Adding Global Value seeks to unify the Commonwealth behind an ambitious policy agenda that bequeaths to our young a life of liberty, dignity and prosperity.’

Malta is a holiday resort much favoured by members of the royal family. The Queen will attend the CHOGM, as will her husband, Prince Philip. They lived in Malta when they were young.

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla will also attend, along with a score of media ‘royal watchers’ who are often more interested in what royal women are wearing than the big issues facing an organisation which so many believe is in danger of fading away with a smile on its face—like the Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice in Wonderland’—once Elizabeth II dies.

The Dome of the Carmelite Church, Valletta, Malta. This year marks the 450th anniversary of the Great Siege of Malta.The small Mediterranean island saved Europe from the Turks in 1565 and the Allies from defeat in the Second World War. Will it this year help save the Commonwealth from disintegration?
The Dome of the Carmelite Church, Valletta, Malta. This year marks the 450th anniversary of the Great Siege of Malta.The small Mediterranean island saved Europe from the Turks in 1565 and the Allies from defeat in the Second World War. Will it this year help save the Commonwealth from disintegration?

Apart from British royals, CHOGM 2015 will be attended by a senior representative of Pope Francis. The Pope’s encyclical Laudato si’ calls for urgent action against human-caused climate change. Delegates will be encouraged to digest its contents, the importance of which will be underscored, if need be once again, when the UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon addresses the gathering of politicians and business leaders in Valetta a few days before the UN Conference on Climate Change is held in Paris.

There will be four forums—a People’s Forum, a Youth Forum, a Women’s Forum (for the first time at a CHOGM) and the usually well-attended Business Forum, where over 1,000 Commonwealth (and others from outside this organisation) meet to press flesh and sign deals.

But the big issue—perhaps the overwhelming issue—at CHOGM 2015 will be the future leadership of the organisation.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or woman.

The vitally important task before Heads of Government will be to elect a new Secretary General. Among some governments, the discussion has centred on whose ‘turn,’ of the regions of the Commonwealth, it is to get the position.

Pic-4The Secretary-Generalship has been held as follows: 1965-1975 Canada (ten years); 1975-1990 The Caribbean (15 years); 1990-2000 Africa (ten years); 2000-2008 The Pacific (eight years); and 2008 until the present Asia (eight years).

If it is the ‘turn’ of any region, logic says it should be the Mediterranean-either Malta or Cyprus.

That won’t happen.

Perhaps the best-known candidate is Dominica’s Patricia Scotland. Prominent in the UK (to which she moved as a child) as a former Attorney General, Home Office and Foreign Office minister, she has also worked extensively in the Caribbean and internationally promoting good governance, the rule of law and human rights.

She is the architect of the UK-Caribbean Forum and the ‘Quintet’ of Attorneys-General from the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. She is at any rate undoubtedly a global figure, with a network including a certain prominent female candidate for the US presidency. What’s more, at a time when women’s representation in high office is under more scrutiny than ever before, Scotland could benefit from that momentum to become the first female Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

Maltese schoolchildren in Gozo. How they view the Commonwealth is all important will be discussed at the Youth Forum during the CGOGM in VAletta next month.
Maltese schoolchildren in Gozo. How they view the Commonwealth is all important will be discussed at the Youth Forum during the CGOGM in VAletta next month.

Yet she faces a tough fight from Sir Ronald Sanders, former High Commissioner to the UK from Antigua and Barbuda, who is well known within Commonwealth circles as a journalist and commentator. A member of the Eminent Persons’ Group that produced the controversial 2011 report, his contributions to the reform debate have been considerable.

The third candidate is Botswana’s Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba. The former Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, she is also an experienced diplomat with a previous career in technology and investment. She is the daughter of Botswana’s second head of state, Quett Masire, and is married to a former Anglican bishop of Botswana who is now a parish priest in the East End of London.

Highly informed sources tell me that although Sanders is the most outspoken and probably best known candidate for the job, Whitehall favours the baroness and, however much Britain pretends it doesn’t rule the Commonwealth roost, it does in so many ways, so many areas.

There is a growing fear that CHOGM 2015 will turn out to be a re-run of what has happened so many times before—forward to the past with a new set of slogans, soundbites and resolutions that are meaningless to the man, woman and child in the street, be they in Valetta or London.

Sir Ronald says you have to examine what went wrong before you can put things right. To the annoyance of many in the Secretariat, he insists that the Commonwealth has lost relevance, not only to members of the public but also to heads of government.

Evidence of this is the increasingly low attendance at CHOGMs by heads of governments themselves.

There’s also a growing split between a handful of wealthy Club members (almost 70 per cent of the Commonwealth’s financial support comes from three countries, Britain, Australia and Canada) and ‘the rest’, many of which claim that rich ‘founder member states’ are attempting to browbeat countries which fail to implement Westminster-style democracies.

Different perceptions about the comparative importance of democracy and development dominate the unspoken agenda of the Commonwealth.

Sir Ronald believes the issue is explosive. ‘It has,’ he warns, ‘become part of a North-South split that casts a long shadow over the Commonwealth and which threatens the meaning and effectiveness of the organisation.’

Little more will be said in Malta-in public, that is—about the disastrous decision to hold the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka. But all three candidates know that if the Commonwealth is to appeal to the young, it must make human rights a priority. Future conferences in places like Sri Lanka should be deemed out of the question.

If this doesn’t happen after CHOGM 2015, the association will continue to drift away from the goodwill and trust that were the beneficial offshoots of its evolution.

Whether Prime Minister Muscat can help save the Commonwealth as his people helped save the Allied cause during the Second World War remains to be seen.

The incoming Secretary General will need all the help he or she can get as well-experienced advisers with their feet on the ground, experts who know what’s out there and how to relate to young people.

Good intentions, soundbites and smiles from the media-approved charismatics (British royals or lesser breeds of mortals) are no longer enough to save an organisation seen now by so many of its strongest champions as a once much-loved relative now aimlessly sleepwalking into oblivion.


Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996. He is a member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA).

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