Reflections: CHOGM 2018
The flags went down pretty quickly after the end of the Commonwealth Summit in London; the sunshine disappeared too, another unseasonal burst of cold and rain injecting a more sombre mood in the week following the multi-layered meetings. All the paraphernalia was also swiftly dismantled; this included the vast Media Centre, which had been erected on the grounds of Marlborough House, and the gigantic room constructed in the gardens of Lancaster House to permit a circular table around which all 53 members could sit, together with their respective assistants (one spotted doing her on-line shopping during a prolonged meeting!)
The streets of London returned to normal with the barricades and checkpoints gone; and, having held conversations with a not insignificant number of policemen (including ‘Yes, Madam you can park your bicycle there’, ‘No Madam, even if that is your quickest route, you can’t go down that road because there has been an “incident” ‘ – I never discovered what – and, finally, ‘have a safe journey home’, when leaving the QEII Centre exhausted after Days 1, 2 and 3 at the various forums), I fervently hoped the Metropolitan police had all been given some well-deserved days off.
So, like so many other Commonwealth watchers, I was left wondering what had been achieved? What was the best part of CHOGM and what was the worst? Certainly the British government could congratulate itself on hosting the largest Commonwealth summit in recent years, attended by 46 of Heads of Government, 49 Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, spouses, partners and 5,000 delegates from business and civil society with over 65 accredited organisations represented. Important commitments were also made: the Blue Water Charter, a key component of which is to reduce the plastic waste polluting our oceans; adopting a more informed approach to cyber security; addressing protectionism in relation to trade; making more comprehensive the role of election observers and finally, the commitment to eradicate malaria endorsed by philanthropist, Bill Gates, in person.
Several key memories remained, not least of which was having witnessed the passion with which so many people spoke at the various forums I’d attended. Inevitably equal rights had emerged as a key concern not only in relation to men and women but also to others who are disadvantaged by current legislation in their respective countries. The concern with which the Prime Minister of Malta mentioned LBGTIQ rights at the opening ceremony in Buckingham Palace, the focused remarks of Canada’s Foreign Minister during the Foreign Minister’s meeting, indicated the importance they attached to gender equality; yet the silence of others revealed the fissures beneath the surface in those Commonwealth countries whose legislation is not so inclusive.
Having been reminded several times that 60% of the Commonwealth’s membership is under the age of thirty, I particularly liked the diligence with which Andrew Larpent, representing CommonAge, went around reminding whosoever he met that older people still had a role to play, his remarks duly noted by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who felt compelled to tell his listeners at one session that we should not forget the valuable contribution of the ‘old codgers’ (himself included I assumed, since he is definitely over thirty).
Then came memories of the impassioned pleas for assistance I heard from the ‘small states’ in the Caribbean and Pacific as they await the next hurricane season. The Windrush revelations coming at the beginning of the Summit were embarrassing. One might have wished that the Government had taken, as my father used to say, ‘time by the forelock’ and pre-empted the publicity by focusing on the issue before the Summit began rather than waiting for it to surface so publicly during it.
On the subject of human rights, Owen Maseko’s tears as he described torture in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe led me to thinking about Zimbabwe’s potential return to the Commonwealth, but only, we were assured, if election observers deemed that the necessary democratic criteria had been met in the forthcoming elections. The choice of Rwanda for the next summit raised a few eyebrows, mainly because its own adherence to democratic principles leaves something to be desired, and the last thing the Commonwealth needs for its 26th Summit is controversy such as that which rocked the Summit in Sri Lanka in 2013.
Finally, it came as no surprise that HRH Prince Charles would take over as Head of the Commonwealth, when the time comes, in succession to his mother, The Queen. It was unfortunate that his remarks to Guardian journalist and Mancunian Anita Sethi – with whom, coincidentally I’d shared the ‘Big Lunch’ at the People’s Forum – should reveal a lack of understanding of what, in multicultural Britain in 2018, someone who comes from Manchester looks like. I felt sure he did not mean to offend but, as the heir to throne takes on a more active role in the twilight of his mother’s life, I wished he had refrained from such a cultural blunder.
Two weeks later, as myriad events still parade through my head, of meetings and discussions, of pomp and ceremony, the privilege of listening to our aged Queen re-affirm her pledge to support the countries of the Commonwealth, I felt that in those five hectic days I had witnessed the essence of what makes up the Commonwealth – people in all their colourful and noisy diversity; yes – we now require Commonwealth Heads of Governments to effect change, to implement what they have promised, but it needs the people to instigate and influence that change.
As Faryal Gauhar, Pakistani human rights activist, politely reminded our Foreign Secretary during the concluding session at Lancaster House: governments may have the power, but they should not forget that they are answerable to civil society, upon whom that power depends.