In the wake of a welcome ceremony for the Commonwealth’s new Secretary-General, CJA president Rita Payne takes a look at Patricia Scotland’s priorities, aspirations and the challenges she may face.
There was a buzz of anticipation at Marlborough House, the London headquarters of the Commonwealth, at a welcome ceremony for the new Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland. This was the beginning of a new chapter for the Commonwealth and for Scotland, who is the first woman to hold the post.
Entertainment at the April 4 event included a steel band, the sounds of a gospel choir, and a performance by Quadrille dancers. Among the guests were well-known figures from the worlds of politics, sports and broadcasting.
Patricia Scotland was born in Dominica, grew up in the United Kingdom and has dual citizenship. She was nominated for the post by Dominica, whose acting High Commissioner, Janet Charles, introduced Ms Scotland as the country’s gift to the Commonwealth with the words, ‘Please look after her.’
In her first official address as Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland described the occasion as an extraordinary moment and thanked Dominica and the Caribbean for their support during her long journey.
‘It’s with a mixture of pride, responsibility, some anxiety but most of all optimism and excitement that I stand before you today, humbled to have been appointed the sixth Secretary-General of the Commonwealth,’ she said.
Recalling her background with a mother from Dominica, father from Antigua and upbringing in the UK, she described herself as a classic child of the Commonwealth.
Scotland highlighted her journey of ‘firsts – from the first black woman to join the Queen’s Counsel in the United Kingdom, the first woman to hold the position of UK Attorney-General and the first woman Commonwealth Secretary-General. She said she had been ‘rather sad’ to be the first and looked forward to supporting new generations of female leaders.
She outlined her priorities. ‘I am determined that we are going to work together on tackling violence against women and girls, deal with the existential threat of climate change, promote trade and good governance, champion the health, wellbeing and human rights of our citizens, and ensure young people have the opportunities they need for the future.
‘I want to start a conversation with you, member states and citizens, about how we own the values we all share—as a family of nations and peoples—a real commonwealth. I’m confident that we can change things for the better. I want the Commonwealth to be the voice for everyone who shares our common values and hopes. Yes, we face some of the most critical challenges that many of us have ever seen—challenges that threaten our very existence —but together, working and acting as one people, one family, we can make a different future.’
Her vision for the Commonwealth, she said, was to work together to safeguard and promote its goals. ‘Alone we are invisible but together we can be invincible.’
Reactions to Scotland’s speech were generally positive. She was variously described as a breath of fresh air, dynamic and media savvy.
Arif Zaman, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Businesswomen’s Network said: ‘This was a clear, coherent and confident opening statement from the new Secretary-General. The key to her successful delivery will be a sharper and more effective focus on collaboration at all levels, which her track record suggests in is her DNA.’
William Horsley, former BBC correspondent and Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media, said, ‘Patricia Scotland set out a very intelligent set of priorities and goals for her first term as Commonwealth Secretary-General, acknowledging the special emphasis she wants to place on human rights and the rule of law as shared Commonwealth values. It is significant that she made clear her determination to change the Commonwealth for the better by helping to ensure that people in Commonwealth member states “own” those declared values in a real sense, including by tackling corruption and other injustices. Civil society groups across the Commonwealth will surely welcome her objectives and her refreshingly inclusive approach.’
Patricia Scotland’s predecessor, Kamalesh Sharma, was criticised by some for not taking a more robust stand on testing issues confronting the Commonwealth. There was widespread condemnation, especially from civil society groups, of the decision, under his leadership, to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka despite concerns over the government’s human rights record. Many commentators were of the view that Sharma’s softly, softly approach made the Commonwealth appear weak.
One long-time observer felt that, while Patricia Scotland may have made a good opening speech, she faces tough battles ahead. He wasn’t alone. Others with a longer perspective feared there were forces within the Commonwealth administration and governments which would do their utmost to obstruct or even destroy her if she rocked the boat too much.
Expectations are high and the new Secretary-General will have to tread a fine line by keeping government leaders on-side while demonstrating that she will be forthright in defending human rights and condemning corruption and abuse of power.
Whatever dangers or threats might lie ahead, there was consensus that Patricia Scotland had made a positive start, leading to hopes that under her leadership the Commonwealth will be a robust force for good in an increasingly turbulent world.