The 2018 Commonwealth Summit, due to take place in a few weeks, on 19–20 April, has significance for a variety of reasons. It will be the first time in over two decades that the United Kingdom will host Commonwealth leaders at their biennial summit. It will propel the UK Prime Minister into the role of ‘Chair-in-Office’ of the Commonwealth for the ensuing two-year period, one during which the modern Commonwealth will celebrate its 70th anniversary. It is also during that period that the act of ‘Brexit’ is actually expected to occur. It will almost certainly be the last summit to be attended by HM Queen Elizabeth II, who has been a much-respected presence as Head of the Commonwealth for some 65 years, seeing the Commonwealth grow more than six-fold in size and a procession of Heads of Government come and go in every member country. And last, but not least, the summit has the potential to be a defining one if it can reassert and redefine the role of this unique association in a world being fractured and ravaged in new ways and desperately needing the ‘touch of healing’ that Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of when arguing, seven decades ago, for the Indian republic to remain in the Commonwealth.
This Journal has already played a valuable role in convening, with the support of the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Commonwealth Association, a conference on The UK, the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Summit 2018 in London on 19–20 October, 2017. That conference, widely attended by Commonwealth civil society, was addressed inter alia by the UK Minister for the Commonwealth and the CEO of the UK’s policy team for the summit as well as the Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General, and focused attention on the elements that define the Commonwealth’s policy agenda.
We know that the theme of the summit will be Towards a Common Future and that the UK has sought to encapsulate the policy agenda in four desired outcomes for the future – greater sustainability, fairness, security and prosperity. There are indications that the summit will put its imprimatur on a ‘Blue Charter’ for sustainable development of ocean resources, that Cyber Governance will be another key policy focus, and that the Commonwealth may seek to refine its guidelines for observation of elections. One must assume that the outcomes will reflect the collective concerns of the 52 member countries, as it is important to ensure – to the extent possible – that each Head of Government can legitimately claim that his/her national priorities are broadly addressed. As someone closely involved with a dozen Commonwealth summits over the years, I can offer personal testimony to how difficult it is to achieve that objective without having the outcome document become a magnum opus and a veritable shopping list of priorities.
But how can this summit be different and be remembered as seminal? First, it is quite apparent that it offers an opportunity for the UK to reposition itself vis-à-vis its Commonwealth constituency in economic terms as it brings the curtain down on its membership of the European Union. While there is really no comparison between the Commonwealth and the EU in terms of collective economic clout, a revitalisation of intra-Commonwealth trade and financial relations could certainly help alleviate the negative impact of Brexit to some extent as far as the UK is concerned, and also provide a boost to the economies of other members.
Second, it is time to use the Commonwealth once again to show the world the way at a time of dramatic global changes. In the 1980s the Commonwealth led the world in dealing with the phenomenon of apartheid in South Africa. In 1989 the Langkawi Declaration on the environment set the scene for the 1992 Rio Declaration. In the 1990s, the Commonwealth capitalised on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid to become a beacon for democracy and good governance. In 2018, the Commonwealth will have the opportunity to show how it can respond to the frightening rise of insularity and the reversal of the much-acclaimed phenomenon of globalisation. It should also seek to show the world how to harness and celebrate diversity and to counter xenophobia, radicalisation and extremism.
Part of the danger current global developments pose is a reversal of the Commonwealth’s own achievements in promoting its fundamental political values: democracy, the rule of law, human rights, transparency and accountability. A new kind of Cold War is threatened as the three big global players of today – the United States, China and Russia – jockey for position, once again allowing smaller, developing countries to seek godfathers and to upset the delicate balance between the three branches of government – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. Commonwealth countries are not immune from these retrogressive trends.
It is important to remember that small states constitute the Commonwealth’s largest constituency. To them the Commonwealth matters more than to most; not only do they rub shoulders with the bigger states on the basis of equality and informality, but the Commonwealth magnifies their voice and reach on the global stage. Their core interests, which include dealing with the challenge of climate change and devastating natural disasters, as well as the phenomenon of ‘de-risking’ which threatens many a small economy, should receive the attention they deserve.
The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) needs to be nursed back to good health. Not only have its resources dwindled to a fraction of where they once stood, but the extraordinary extent of dependence on the three largest donors to this voluntary fund needs to change.
There is hope that the ranks of the Commonwealth will swell with the return of The Gambia to the family – and that the return of Zimbabwe, now in an important transition, will not be far behind.
There is an important image and perception issue that has been talked about, including at the aforesaid conference, which needs careful management. Much of this summit will take place at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Commonwealth leaders will, of course, show due respect to the Head of the Commonwealth but we would all do well to remember that the ‘British Commonwealth’ died in 1949. The ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ to which the London Declaration gave birth was based on careful sensitivity to the sovereignty of independent member states and to the republican path chosen by India at the time, for which many other member states opted in decades to come, not to mention the five other monarchies in the Commonwealth. Treading on those sensitivities carry risks to which we must be alive.
There is no doubt that the host country organising team is going all out to make the summit a landmark event, though one must spare a thought for the mandarins seeking to get attention at the political level when the twists and turns of the Brexit process are an all-consuming preoccupation for the Prime Minister and her principal Ministers. There is no doubt also that the Commonwealth Secretariat, arranging a summit for the first time on the current Secretary General’s watch, will go all out to facilitate a memorable meeting. But for the summit to be adjudged a success and for the Commonwealth to get a fresh dose of relevance and vigour, the membership at large must have a stake in and share that assessment of success.
Amitav Banerji served in senior positions in the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1990 to 2015. He currently works as Projects Director at the Global Leadership Foundation. The views expressed in this editorial are entirely personal.