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Reshaping the Commonwealth

  • Published at 01:05 pm April 24th, 2018
  • Last updated at 03:15 pm April 24th, 2018
Reshaping the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) met in London from April 16 to 20, 2018. It came at a time when Britain, facing grave BREXIT uncertainties, showed renewed interest in the 53 Commonwealth states, almost all formerly part of the British Empire.

Prime Minister Modi’s presence has been noted as indicating a new Indian interest in the Commonwealth, both as the largest member and as presenting opportunities to meet Asian leaders without the presence of China.

While Britain re-negotiates terms with the EU, leading Brexit supporters have given prominence to the Commonwealth, comprising one-third of the world’s population.

Its states share many commonalities of values, judicial and regulatory systems, and forms of parliamentary government.

At a time when UNSC vetoes by permanent members often deadlock the main world body, the Commonwealth, spread across continents, retains much potential for international peaceful development.

Unlike the UN, it can suspend members if they cross red lines on human rights, rule of law, freedom of press, and similar violations. Suspension is not always achieved, but does occur and can be effective.

Yet there has long been wide recognition that if the Commonwealth is to realize its potential, it needs reform and reshaping.

The 2011 CHOGM in Perth, Australia considered recommendations made by an Eminent Persons Group (EPG).

It had been commissioned to consider the challenge of reaching consensus from diversity and of making such consensus more effective in support of democracy and socio-economic growth. Unfortunately, the Summit CHOGM was unable to reach an agreement and when Britain, Australia, and Canada requested the report be published, this was opposed by India, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Namibia.

In all, the EPG made 106 recommendations to make the Commonwealth relevant and effective. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a member of the EPG, condemned the lack of consensus on the report.

He saw the Commonwealth’s problem as more a problem of indifference than of hostility or antagonism.

Its purpose and relevance was being questioned and its commitment to enforce the values for which it stands was becoming ambiguous in the eyes of many member states.

“The Commonwealth,” he stated, “was not a private club of the governments or its Secretariat. It belongs to the people of the Commonwealth.”

The 2018 CHOGM represented another effort for reform and reinvigoration.

The main agenda

• Discussions with the heads of government for consensus on important issues

• Trade

• LGBT rights

• Commonwealth Clear Ocean Alliance

Let us hope many of the issues will be implemented by member states for the good of the people, especially the Commonwealth’s many millions of young people

Themes

1. Prosperity: Boosting inter-Commonwealth trade and investment

2. Security: Increasing cooperation across security challenges, global terrorism, organised crime, and cyber attacks

3. Fairness: Promoting good governance across the Commonwealth

4. Sustainability: Building the resilience of small and vulnerable states with the effects of climate change and other global crisis

At this first CHOGM following the BREXIT referendum, the British government hoped to encourage greater intra-Commonwealth trade and expand UK exports. Yet, sceptics point out that the Commonwealth is responsible only for one-tenth of British trade, compared to half of its trade with the EU.

The Economist dismissed this “amiable delusion” and The Guardian stated: “Sorry Brexiteers, banking on the Commonwealth (to replace the EU) is a joke.” Nonetheless some progress seem likely, including UK-India bilateral trade and investment.

British trade with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is already mostly free (except for UK’s agriculture). African, Caribbean, and Pacific member states have tariff-free trade with the UK as developing countries.

Progress on other issues

The Queen’s “Commonwealth canopy project” aims to establish a network of protected forests. Prince William and his wife opened a huge forest area in Western Canada, and other ones have opened in other countries.

It has been decided that Prince Charles will eventually succeed the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. This will provide continuity in an organization tied by a common past and the English language.

A clear understanding has taken place on the Clean Ocean Alliance, where the UK will spend 61 million pounds to combat pollution of the world’s oceans riddled with plastics.

Five countries have joined in this decision. They are the UK, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu, and Ghana.

Parallel Forums were held where members of the royal family joined in. The Commonwealth has a large number of useful forums such as i) the People’s Forum, ii) the Business Forum, c) the Youth Forum, d) the Women’s Forum, e) the Journalists’ Forum, and many others. But the Commonwealth Games attract the most attention around the world.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set out a series of reform suggestions to be pursued by an Eminent Persons Group and praised annual progress reports by the Secretariat. The final communiqué expressed “full solidarity with the government and people of Bangladesh affected by the influx of more than a million Rohingya from Rakhine State in Myanmar,” commended Bangladesh for offering shelter, and called for accountability, a halt to violence, and restoration of normality.

The 2018 CHOGM focused on people, trade, connectivity, human rights, freedom, and good governance, including those values enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. The other important elements included the agreement that Prince Charles should succeed the Queen and the appointment of Prince Harry as Ambassador for Youth Development. The Commonwealth will re-admit Zimbabwe, thereby expanding to comprise 2.4 billion people.

The final results of the CHOGM were five documents:

• CHOGM communiqué “towards a common future”

• Declaration  on the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for trade and investment

• Statements from the Commonwealth heads of government to follow the resolutions arrived at the CHOGM            

• Commonwealth Blue Charter (ocean pollution)

• Revised Commonwealth guidelines for the conduct of election observation in member countries

The current CHOGM began at Buckingham Palace amidst vibrancy and colour and ended positively with music at Windsor Castle.

Let us hope many of the issues will be implemented by member states for the good of the people, especially the Commonwealth’s many millions of young people with rising aspirations but needing better education, training, health services, and jobs.

Selina Mohsin is a former ambassador.

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