Commonwealth Heads of Government at their round table meeting"CHOGM 2018 saw communiqués, statements, declarations and charters galore, with significant substantive outcomes" [photo: CHOGM 2018 on Flikr]

After being closely involved in the conduct of twelve CHOGMs between 1991 and 2013, there is a strange pleasure in following summits from a comfortable distance. On this occasion I was on duty travel in Africa, but hungrily latched on to BBC World TV for news and images of CHOGM 2018.

One would have thought that BBC World, broadcasting to a global audience and avidly watched in the other 52 Commonwealth countries, would be sufficiently outward looking. But there was little to distinguish domestic and external BBC coverage. All that seemed to matter to the network on this occasion was British royalty. The coverage was almost entirely about the Queen, the royal residences opened up to the visiting Heads of Government, and of course the issue of succession to the position of Head of the Commonwealth.

That Prince Charles would succeed his mother in that role became clear at the very opening of CHOGM. For the Queen to go so far as to express publicly the wish that this should happen was the surest possible indication that the deal was done. The Maltese Prime Minister – still the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office at the time – handed over the baton after voicing his own support for the proposition. So the matter-of-fact assertion in the Leaders’ Statement the following day that “the next Head of the Commonwealth shall be HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales” was no longer a surprise.

That outcome was a great success for British diplomacy and it is good that the speculation about this issue has been put to rest. This was the obvious way forward and, although he has big shoes to fill, the Prince of Wales has clearly received a collective vote of confidence.

The success of the UK’s diplomacy on the succession issue helped to some extent to wipe the egg smeared on faces in Whitehall earlier in the week with the Windrush fiasco. That saga involved a region of the Commonwealth that is among its most avid supporters, many of the countries being realms of Queen Elizabeth II. As it happens, that is also the region from which Secretary-General Scotland’s family migrated to the UK. Although Windrush claimed its biggest scalp well after CHOGM, in the form of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, a host Prime Minister being compelled to apologise on the eve of a major summit takes some beating in terms of public embarrassment.

The Windrush saga and the succession issue masked a number of achievements at the CHOGM. First, for all the emphasis the Commonwealth has laid on promoting its ‘fundamental political values’ since 1991 and the progressive downplaying of the development agenda and resources devoted thereto, the CHOGM final documents reveal a significantly different emphasis. Youth, gender and small states find mention in the very first paragraph of the Communiqué, as integral elements of the aspirational ‘Common Future’. Education and health also received significant coverage. Heads highlighted the seminal role of ICT and acknowledged the Commonwealth Innovation Hub. They raised their voice against protectionism and adopted a Declaration on the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade & Investment, with the goal of expanding investment and boosting intra-Commonwealth trade to USD 2 trillion by 2030.

Leaders again recognised that concerted action is required to address the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of small states. For the first time, they noted with concern that the practice of ‘de-risking’ threatens to exclude small and other vulnerable states from accessing global financial markets and regulated financial services.

Heads adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter, setting out the principles by which Commonwealth member countries will lead international efforts by sustainably developing and protecting their oceans; they agreed to establish action groups led by Commonwealth member countries and mandated the Secretariat to develop a Plan of Action.

Another seminal outcome was the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration, encapsulating a shared commitment to an open, democratic, peaceful and secure internet, respecting human rights and freedom of expression.

On political values, the Commonwealth Guidelines for the Conduct of Election Observation were updated for the first time since they were originally adopted in 1991, taking into account the experience of 137 observation missions deployed since then, in 38 member states.

The happy return of the Gambia to the family was a vindication of the Commonwealth’s continuing relevance and appeal. Even more interesting was the clear indication by Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister in London that Zimbabwe was in talks to trigger the process of returning to the fold.

The courting of India by the CHOGM host nation and the former’s ‘return’ to the Commonwealth at the highest level received much comment. This was the first time an Indian Prime Minister has attended a CHOGM since 2009 and India also made important gestures, like sharply increasing its support to the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation and enhancing funding for small states. This was clearly an occasion when both the UK and India, for their own reasons, wished to rediscover the Commonwealth.

The withdrawal of Malaysia from hosting the next CHOGM in 2020 was a surprise, given that Malaysia had put its hand up for that summit as early as 2011 and repeated its offers in 2013 and 2015. What really caused Malaysia to pull back from hosting the Commonwealth to celebrate ‘Vision 2020’ – the graduation of the nation to developed country status – remains a bit of a mystery. As a result of that withdrawal, Rwanda will become the sixth African country to host a CHOGM.

CHOGM 2018 saw communiqués, statements, declarations and charters galore, with significant substantive outcomes. But the test will be their translation into meaningful action, for which both political will and financial resources will be needed, including from the more affluent nations that have chosen in recent years to reduce their contributions to the communal kitty and opt for more targeted funding.

The next two years will be crucial, requiring wise stewardship by the UK Prime Minister as the new Chair-in-Office, complemented by the leadership of the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Otherwise the 2018 London CHOGM might end up being remembered as well organised, full of spectacle and high on promise, but low on delivery.

Amitav Banerji served in the Commonwealth Secretariat for 25 years, eight of them as Head of the Secretary-General’s Office and six as Political Director. He currently works as Projects Director for the Global Leadership Foundation and is a member of the Editorial Board of ‘The Round Table’.

Related articles:

Pre-CHOGM guest editorial from The Round Table Journal by Amitav Banerji

CHOGM 2018 Outcomes by Richard Bourne

London Notes: Final CHOGM impressions from The Round Table Chair

The continuing relevance of the Commonwealth 

What the world’s media had to say after CHOGM 2018