[This is an excerpt from an article which appears in the current edition of the Journal. Opinion pieces do not reflect the position of the Round Table Board.]
It was at a Marlborough House reception on 4 July 2017 for the Commonwealth Association, of former Secretariat and Foundation staff, that I first heard Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General, make an exciting claim. She said that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, were built on the Commonwealth Charter, agreed in 2012 and signed by the Head of the Commonwealth in 2013.
It was the sort of cheering thought to lift the spirits of former staffers, showing the international relevance of the modern Commonwealth. One or two in the audience, with knowledge of the lengthy negotiations which resulted in SDGs, expressed scepticism. Not an expert myself I had a word with her afterwards and said that such an important story should be broadcast widely by the Secretariat. In fact its Communications Division has been silent and, though institutional memory has suffered from staff turnover, its best suggestion is that with over 50 governments belonging to both the UN and the Commonwealth there might have been some commonality in the zeitgeist.
Then, on Commonwealth Day this year, the Secretary-General told the BBC Today programme that the SDGs ‘mirrored’ the Charter – as though diplomats in New York had studied its 16 short sections of aspiration and then hammered out 17 SDGs, with 169 detailed targets, and over 200 indicators.
At this point it seemed worth interrogating this mysterious connection more carefully. There are two reasons to doubt the claim. On the one hand the two documents are as different as apples and pears. On another it seemed unlikely that Patricia Scotland herself had had personal knowledge of the two sets of negotiation.
The Secretary-General was elected at the Malta summit in 2015 but the Commonwealth Charter followed a recommendation in 2011 in ‘A Commonwealth of the People’, the report of a review chaired by Abdullah Badawi, former Prime Minister of Malaysia. She was then Shadow Attorney-General in the UK government, having served as Attorney-General with Gordon Brown, and more widely recognised as a British political and legal figure than for her simultaneous citizenship of Dominica.
The Marlborough House work on the Charter was led by Stephen Cutts, Assistant Secretary-General, who sought to compress, into a single statement, the declarations which Commonwealth Heads had made over the years. New material was ruled out in the initial draft Charter, with only modest additions agreed in the negotiation process, including the last sentence on Human Rights: ‘We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race colour, creed, political belief or other grounds’ – which offers hope to LGBTI campaigners.
Six years after its formal adoption, most analysts would say that the Commonwealth Charter is a dead letter. While the Commonwealth continues to champion democracy, its Ministerial Action Group does not, for example, ‘address promptly and effectively all instances of serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values without any fear.’ The hope of Professor Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, that the Charter would spawn national critiques, as Helsinki Committees did in eastern Europe in the 1980s, has been disappointed. Neither Commonwealth leaders nor the Secretariat have sought to audit performance of the Charter, or even to follow it up in a collective fashion.
Meanwhile the SDGs, negotiated in a much more rigorous and bottom-up fashion then their predecessor Millennium Development Goals, have provided standards and measurements for governments, civil society and donors, for the period 2015–2030. Inquiries so far have yet to find any influence from the Charter. Stephen Cutts moved to be Assistant Secretary-General at the UN in 2013; he was responsible for central support services, not the SDG talks, but kept a benevolent eye on Commonwealth activities in New York and says that Commonwealth interaction was more obvious at a less official level, where the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) marshalled support behind SDG adoption.
Carl Wright, then Secretary-General of the CLGF, says he met Commonwealth Ambassadors from developing countries who complained that they had little help from the Secretariat then. Louise Fréchette, an earlier UN Deputy Secretary-General who resigned from the Anote Tong High Level Review of the Commonwealth in 2018, told persons in London that she was unaware of any link between the Charter and the SDGs.
Richard Bourne is a Founder Director of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, a Trustee of the Ramphal Institute and a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.