Report of a pre-CHOGM meeting held in London on 6 November 2015,
‘Can Malta Revitalise the Commonwealth? Prospects for the 2015 Commonwealth Summit’
The Commonwealth Secretary-General, HE Kamalesh Sharma, said that the Commonwealth was regularly revitalised, and said he hoped the forthcoming summit in Malta would give a further ‘boost’ to the Commonwealth and its shared work; he looked forward to a productive and purposeful set of meetings, with substantive outcomes. His remarks came at a meeting in London on Friday 6 November, ‘Can Malta Revitalise the Commonwealth? Prospects for the 2015 Commonwealth Summit’, organised by The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, in association with the Royal Over-Seas League and the Commonwealth Association.
In introducing the meeting, Stuart Mole (Chairman, The Round Table) had said that the Malta summit came at a challenging time for the Commonwealth. Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings had rightly been described as the ‘beating heart’ of the Commonwealth. At Colombo in 2013 the Commonwealth’s heartbeat was faint, its spirit and character lacking, and its commitment to its values questioned. In remarks echoed later by other speakers and participants, he suggested that the Commonwealth was at something of a crossroads: either it would rediscover its vitality and reaffirm its relevance in a changing world or it would continue to decline.
A Commonwealth fit for purpose?
But in an expansive rebuttal of such views, the Commonwealth Secretary-General claimed that the Commonwealth was in rude good health, and would be approaching the Malta summit from a position of strength. He adduced several reasons for this view. Internally, a long process of reform and renewal in the Secretariat was now bearing fruit; staff structures had been overhauled, results-based management introduced, and the Secretariat’s new strategic plan was both realistic and focused. Externally, the Commonwealth was widely regarded as a gold-standard organisation: other countries were queueing up to join it, and other international organisations such as the UN, World Bank and IMF, as well as regional organisations such as the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) saw it as a credible and valued partner to work with – as indeed would be seen by the number of non-Commonwealth world leaders who would be coming to Malta.
The Commonwealth was uniquely placed to bring wisdom and collective experience to bear on key international problems, ranging from good governance and human rights issues, through sustainable development and the crucial role of women’s empowerment, to small states’ vulnerability, the effects of climate change, and the threat of radicalisation and violent extremism. What marked the Commonwealth out was its ability to come up with innovative but practical solutions, such as financing for climate change, or trade guarantees for smaller countries. While the Secretariat itself had limited resources, it could help to leverage other funds; and, most importantly, it could provide analytical thinking and intellectual leadership. The Secretary-General was confident that the Malta summit would provide ample evidence of the Commonwealth’s strengths as an organisation already repurposed for the twenty-first century.
The Commonwealth and global issues
Simon Gimson (Director, Political Division and S-G’s Office, Commonwealth Secretariat) acknowledged that the Malta summit would be judged by its outcomes. Three things were needed to make it work. First, it needed to reflect and be anchored in both global and Commonwealth contexts. Each Commonwealth summit in the past had been particularly associated with an important theme or outcome – in 2005 trade, in 2007 civil paths to peace, in 2009 climate change, in 2011 internal reform, and in 2013 further pressure on the relevance of its political values as well as important contributions to the eventual UN sustainable development goals. The 2015 summit needed to be rooted in this ongoing historical narrative. At the same time, it needed to respond in a positive and original way to the major global issues of the day, including security and radicalisation, migration, climate change, sustainable development, and the world trade negotiations. Secondly, the summit needed to reflect a continuing appetite for reform in the Commonwealth. This of course was nothing new, and the Commonwealth had gone through many rounds of review and reform since the early 1990s. But it was incumbent on any organisation and especially on the Commonwealth to continue to refashion itself in order to remain relevant. Thirdly, the Malta summit needed to demonstrate that the intergovernmental Commonwealth was serious in embracing the wider Commonwealth family, and in finding ways that individuals and organisations could be involved in participatory and meaningful ways. In this context, it was very much to be applauded that Malta would see the inauguration of a new women’s forum, alongside the business, youth and civil society fora; and to be hoped that the different sets of meetings would interact in fruitful ways.
Speaking on behalf of the Maltese government, HE Norman Hamilton (High Commissioner for Malta) agreed that the timing of the summit presented the Commonwealth with an opportunity to make a significant contribution to current global debates. In particular Malta hoped that the summit would make effective contributions on the interrelated issues of political values, security challenges, extremism, global instability, and migration (bearing in mind that the summit would come a week after an EU-AU summit in Malta on migration); on climate change (bearing in mind that the summit would take place only days before the Paris UN climate change conference); and on sustainable and inclusive development (in the context of the new UN sustainable development goals). The summit would also, he hoped, see real progress on important practical new initiatives which showcased the Commonwealth’s unique convening power – including a small states centre of excellence and a Commonwealth trade finance facility. These were expressions of the Commonwealth’s ability to seek practical and innovative solutions to its member states’ concerns.
Malta was looking forward to the 2015 summit as an opportunity for the Commonwealth to increase its relevance on the global stage, and to realise even more of its so far not fully tapped potential. Representing almost a third of humanity, with the most tremendous diversity of cultures and levels of economic development, the Commonwealth could and should be a highly influential and effective global actor. About Malta’s own commitment to the Commonwealth there could be no doubt, which was why the Prime Minister had offered that Malta host the summit for a second time in ten years.
The meeting also heard from representatives of the Barbadian, Papua New Guinea and UK governments, on their hopes and expectations for the Malta summit. HE Guy Hewitt (High Commissioner for Barbados) emphasised the Commonwealth’s tremendous convening power, with member states in each of the inhabited continents, including numerous small as well as very large states, representing every level of development and numerous different religious and cultural backgrounds. Barbados would clearly be hoping for further progress on the small states agenda, but would see the Malta summit as an opportunity to discuss and seek consensus on numerous big international issues as well – such as climate change, migration, radicalism, and sustainable development. It was especially to be hoped that Malta would further develop the ‘official’ Commonwealth’s role as a partner – with other international and regional organisations, and with other parts of the extensive Commonwealth family, enabling the Commonwealth to work in a strategic and synergistic way.
HE Winnie Kiap (High Commissioner for Papua New Guinea) also emphasised the benefits that her country saw in Commonwealth membership, to which it was deeply committed. There was a sense of family and of belonging, and most importantly a feeling that member states were able to meet on a basis of equality and mutual respect, which was often lacking in other international organisations. As was the case for other Pacific small states, Papua New Guinea would especially be looking to the Malta summit for leadership on the problem of climate change: for such states, climate change was literally a matter of survival, not only because of the threat to many small island communities from rising sea levels, but also because of the related problems of extreme weather events, ocean acidification, and likely effects on biodiversity and established patterns of agriculture. Papua New Guinea would also like to see progress on debt burdens, which hamstrung efforts towards development in many countries; and on the interconnected issues of conflict and migration, which were also affecting Pacific countries despite their distance from the epicentres of global instability.
David Concar (UK Commonwealth Envoy) said that, in line with its election manifesto, the UK government would be seeking to play a very active part in Malta in strengthening the Commonwealth’s focus on democratic values and development, which it saw very much as two sides of the same coin, not a case of either/or. In particular, the Commonwealth could perform an exemplary role in taking forward practical proposals to give substance to the new emphasis on democratic values, the rule of law, and anti-corruption in the UN sustainable development goals. He also agreed with Guy Hewitt that the Commonwealth’s greatest strength was its convening power, and the UK government would be looking to the Malta summit to make a significant contribution to the major global problems of security and stability, and of climate change, which affected every Commonwealth country. The world of international organisations was now a very crowded place, but the UK government believed that through adopting smart forms of strategic partnership and making full use of its ability to draw member states closer together, the Commonwealth could not only reaffirm its value but make itself even more relevant in the future than it had been in the past.
All three representatives also highlighted the crucial importance of the choice of the next Secretary-General, Guy Hewitt suggesting that the ideal candidate would be at the same time a manager, a motivator, an agent of change, and an inspirational leader, and David Concar that he or she should be a person of real moral authority as well as political expertise.
Business and the Commonwealth
Lord Marland (Chairman, Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council) echoed what Simon Gimson had said previously, that the Malta summit would be judged on its outcomes; to which he added that the Commonwealth in general would be judged more closely than it had in the past. The Malta summit was an opportunity to refresh and renew the Commonwealth. He agreed with the previous speakers that the choice of next Secretary-General would be critical, given that he or she was likely to remain in office for eight years and would play a leading role in shaping the Commonwealth’s agenda over that time.
Similarly, the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (successor to the Commonwealth Business Council) would be judged by the success of the Commonwealth Business Forum (though, unlike the Commonwealth Business Council, the CIEC was in effect sub-contracted to run the Forum). Here he was highly optimistic that the Forum would be a great success in highlighting investment opportunities in the Commonwealth, facilitating new business partnerships, and building on the Commonwealth advantage in trade. Already some 1000 people had registered to attend, and among those who would address the Forum or take part in the proceedings were the Mayor of London and the Prince of Wales, as well as upwards of fifteen heads of government. The Forum would itself be a vivid illustration of the relevance of the Commonwealth in today’s world.
Civil society and the Commonwealth
The meeting also heard from three speakers who looked at ways in which civil society organisations could attempt to effect policy change in the official Commonwealth. Vijay Krishnarayan (Director, Commonwealth Foundation) said that most civil society organisations sought to engage with the official Commonwealth by influencing the wording of declarations and communiqués, in the hope that these would in turn provide a supportive context for national policy-making. This approach had both benefits and limitations, the latter especially because opportunities to influence the texts were decreasingly available as the summit neared, and because it was crucial not to see success in inserting a few lines of text as the be-all and end-all of the process. He gave examples of both successful and unsuccessful attempts to influence policy-making, highlighting that successful campaigns needed to be backed by credible advocates, a clear identification of a Commonwealth angle, a long and sustained engagement both before and after a Commonwealth summit, and alliances with other organisations and governments.
Carl Wright (Secretary-General, Commonwealth Local Government Forum) said that he agreed completely that the proof of the pudding was not in getting a certain piece of text inserted in a communiqué; rather, it consisted of implementation and follow up. For instance, the CLGF itself had succeeded in getting the core principles of its Aberdeen agenda on local democracy endorsed by the 2005 Commonwealth summit, re-affirmed in 2007, and incorporated into the Commonwealth Charter in 2013. But what was much more important was that this enabled the CLGF to work with both the Secretariat and with national governments to translate those principles into real policy change. He preferred to think of the success of civil society organisations in influencing policy in terms of strategic partnerships rather than such an old-fashioned concept as lobbying; nor did he think it realistic to think solely of a relationship between civil society organisations and the Secretariat: for instance, the CLGF had invested much energy, with some important successes, in mobilising Commonwealth member governments and other partners to influence the UN sustainable development goals in order to make them reflect the role of cities and local government, and the importance of sub-national governments in general in making the sustainable development goals achievable. In this process the Secretariat was largely absent. Different partnerships and coalitions were suitable for different issues.
Clare Doube (UK Chair, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) drew a more gloomy picture of interactions between civil society and the official levels. A recent survey of civil society organisations for a CHRI report on civil society and the Commonwealth, sub-titled ‘Reaching for Partnership’, found that roughly half were broadly positive about their interactions with the official Commonwealth, but an equal proportion were broadly negative. This was in a context where, on the one hand, civil society organisations had an enormous amount to offer in terms of expertise and commitment, and, on the other, across the world they were under attack from governments, through a variety of means ranging from attempts to discredit or marginalise, through regulations and restrictions, to blatant physical violence. Across the world the space for civil society was shrinking. The Commonwealth had come a long way in a few years, and she applauded the creation of new posts in the Secretary-General’s Office to facilitate partnerships with accredited and other civil society organisations. She looked to the Malta summit to reaffirm in concrete ways the Commonwealth’s recognition of the role of civil society. But the Secretariat itself, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, and national governments needed to be more proactive in calling out bad behaviour by member states, and insisting on adherence to the values which as Commonwealth members they had signed up to.
A major global player
As part of a wide-ranging discussion which concluded the meeting, Keshini Navaratnam (Editorial Board, Round Table) highlighted the issues of profile and communication as ones where the Commonwealth could make radical improvements. Time and again there was discussion of the diminishing profile of the Commonwealth, with some pointing the finger at the Secretariat, and others at the national governments who rarely factored the Commonwealth into their public statements. The truth was, the Commonwealth had been punching below its weight for some time. It would regain its stature when it came to be seen as making a really important contribution to the big global issues. The Malta summit came at a very important time, with instability in so many parts of the world and international consensus on global issues hard to find. If the Commonwealth was seen addressing these big issues and casting itself in the role of a solution provider, it could start to get attention for its stance on all the other issues.
Notes on speakers
David Concar runs the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s International Organisations Department and has been UK Commonwealth Envoy since 2014. He joined the FCO in 2004 after a media career which included roles at the BBC and the journal Nature, and is an award-winning science writer. His areas of expertise include energy security, economic and environmental policy, science and innovation.
Clare Doube is currently UK Chair of the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Originally from Australia, her previous career included posts with Amnesty International and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Delhi. Prior to and parallel with those she managed development projects in the Asia and Pacific regions, developed human rights networks in schools, ran theatre workshops, worked as a veterinary nurse, and established herself as an expert on the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.
Simon Gimson is a career diplomat from New Zealand. Prior to joining the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2004, he served in posts as varied as Press Secretary to the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Special Assistant to the Queen’s Private Secretary, and Permanent Representative to UNESCO. His other postings have included Papua New Guinea and Paris. He has been Director of the Secretary-General’s Office at the Commonwealth Secretariat since 2009 and Director of the Political Division since earlier this year. He is also a member of the editorial board of The Round Table.
HE Norman Hamilton has been High Commissioner for Malta in London since 2013. He began his career with British Forces Broadcasting Services radio and has enjoyed a distinguished career in Maltese broadcasting, including as Director General of Radio Mediterranean and Head of Television Programmes at TVM, and chairman of the Malta International TV Song Festival. He is also founding chairman and CEO of one of Malta’s leading tour operators, Hamilton Travel.
HE Revd Guy Hewitt has been High Commissioner for Barbados in London since 2014. He previously worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1995 to 2003, as well as at the Caribbean Examinations Council, and the City and Guilds Institute in London, and heading a development and management solutions company. He is also an ordained Anglican minister.
HE Winnie Kiap has been High Commissioner for Papua New Guinea in London since 2012. She was previously Secretary to the National Executive Council of Papua New Guinea, after a career in the PNG Department of Trade and Industry and Investment Promotion Authority. She is concurrently accredited as High Commissioner to the Republic of Cyprus and the Republic of South Africa; and as Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt, the State of Israel and the Republic of Zimbabwe.
Vijay Krishnarayan has been Director of the Commonwealth Foundation since 2012. A land‐use planner, he has particular interests in the environment and sustainable development, and has been involved in civil society organisations in those fields for many years. He was Managing Partner for the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute before joining the Commonwealth Foundation in 2006 as Deputy Director. He is also a member of the editorial board of The Round Table.
Lord Marland, is a British businessman and entrepreneur, and one of the founding directors of Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group plc. Made a life peer in 2006, he served as a minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He has been Chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council since 2014.
Stuart Mole has been Chairman of The Round Table since 2011. After serving as parliamentary press officer and later head of the office of the leader of the Liberal Party, he was Special Assistant to the Secretary-General (1984-90) then Director of the Secretary-General’s Office (1990-2000) at the Commonwealth Secretariat. From 2000 to 2009 he was Director-General of the Royal Commonwealth Society. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
Keshini Navaratnam is a global communications specialist, CEO of Alexandrite Ltd, and a member of the editorial board of The Round Table. Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and a modern languages scholar at Cambridge, she began her career as a journalist and producer for BBC World Service Radio, and was for many years a BBC World television anchor. She is also chair of the panel of judges for the Commonwealth Vision Awards.
HE Kamalesh Sharma has been Commonwealth Secretary‐General since 2008. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1965, and his postings included Bonn, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and East Berlin (where he was Ambassador to the GDR). He was India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva (1988‐90) and New York (1997‐2002), the UN Secretary‐General’s Special Representative to East Timor (2002‐4), and India’s High Commissioner in the UK (2004‐8). He has been Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, since 2009.
Carl Wright has been Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum since its foundation in 1994. He was previously founding Director of the Commonwealth Trade Union Council (1980-8) before working for the Commonwealth Secretariat as an Assistant Director (1988-94), with particular responsibility for Commonwealth programmes in southern Africa. He has served on numerous Commonwealth, UN, EU and OECD committees, and Commonwealth election observer missions. He is also a member of the editorial board of The Round Table.