Commonwealth Foundation panelMain picture clockwise: Chair Victoria Rubadiri, Lawrence Gonzi, Hilary Beckles. Inset: Malcolm Rifkind, Bogolo Kenewendo.

To mark ten years since the publication of a report by the Commonwealth’s Eminent People’s Group (EPG) on the future of the organisation, the Commonwealth Foundation organised a three-part series on progress made and challenges facing the Commonwealth today.

Part one of the series had asked Commonwealth citizens what membership meant for them and part two had looked at the role the Commonwealth could play on the big issues which matter. A 30 November webinar wrapped up the series on the topic of A Commonwealth fit for purpose – where to from here?

Series chair, Kenyan journalist Victoria Rubadiri, opened the third discussion by describing the EPG report as a “landmark”.  She said that the Foundation’s series had set out to look at whether, in light of the report, the Commonwealth is “fit for purpose” to tackle modern challenges.

Underlying legacies

A large part of the third discussion focused on the underlying legacies which divide the modern Commonwealth and hold it back from what all agreed is its potential to make a difference.

Former Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said that “we need to address the legacies that we are still living today” to produce “practical solutions” in line with the Commonwealth Charter.

Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and also Chairman of the CARICOM [Caribbean Community] Reparations Commission said that if the Commonwealth could “sort out” its “legacy issues”, it “has a great opportunity to shape the 21st Century”.

Global economist and former Botswana Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Bogolo Kenewendo, said in a pre-recorded interview that the Commonwealth had been losing relevance for its young people. She added that “the true reform that is needed for the Commonwealth really lies in what is the purpose of the Commonwealth.”

Also in a pre-recorded interview was Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who had served as a member of the Commonwealth EPG. He outlined the EPG report recommendations not taken up by Commonwealth leaders as a route to revitalising the organisation today.

 “The old world”

Professor Beckles said that at the root of its issues was the Commonwealth’s link with empire. “The Commonwealth is still the embodiment of the old world,” he told the discussion. He added that, for parts of the Commonwealth, attempts to tackle issues including climate change, debt and vaccine inequality were still steeped in “legacy issues” that the Commonwealth would have to deal with, if it wanted to move forward.

He listed examples of the challenges facing what he called the “black Commonwealth” in its nation-building process which, he said, really meant “cleaning up the colonial mess that was part of empire”. He argued that, without what he called reparatory justice, the Commonwealth could not deal with the “mass of poverty” facing some member countries. Giving a Caribbean perspective, Sir Hilary said that the region had been “ravaged by colonisation and slavery” and needed the same sort of help which had been given to Malta through substantial support from Britain and to South Asian countries through the Colombo Plan.

Professor Beckles said that the Commonwealth currently rested on a journey during which the “worst crimes against humanity” had taken place. He said that the legacies of slavery and racism remained today and that the Commonwealth needed to abandon its “silence around these issues”.

Shared values

In his pre-recorded interview for the webinar, Sir Malcolm Rifkind elaborated on the EPG recommendation to appoint a human rights commissioner to monitor breaches within the Commonwealth. He said that such a commissioner would not be there to “bully governments but enter into a very early dialogue” with member nations about Commonwealth standards.

Sir Malcolm criticised the time given at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) to what he called “elaborate” opening ceremonies and lengthy communiqués which should only focus on what had been discussed. He also said that there could be more follow-up between CHOGMs if Commonwealth foreign ministers met civil society groups in between the summits.

Former Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi told the discussion that, despite its differences, the Commonwealth had some fundamental shared values but he questioned the effectiveness in enforcing these.

Dr Gonzi also pointed to the EPG recommendation to appoint a human rights commissioner and suggested the updating of the EPG recommendations as a response to the challenges the Commonwealth faced today.

While he questioned the idea of reparations, he agreed on the need for the Commonwealth to deal with the “inequalities” within the organisation’s membership.

Where to from here?

On the main question underpinning the series, participants agreed that the Commonwealth was in need of reform and that a return to the EPG recommendations, tuned to the modern era, could enhance the organisation’s role.

Bogolo Kenewendo of Botswana asked “when we’re at CHOGM, what are we trying to attain?” She said that now is an “opportune moment” for the Commonwealth to reposition itself as “a vehicle to advocate” for middle- and lower-income countries. She said that this role included helping to negotiate prices and supplies of Covid vaccines.

Professor Beckles said that member states that are still struggling wanted a “meeting of minds” with those who had enjoyed the spoils of empire. He added that the Commonwealth had a “tremendous potential to heal”.

“It’s a process that’s required,” Dr Gonzi said. “The whole Commonwealth needs to understand that there are priority areas that are required and there is no longer time just to discuss the issues. We really need to come up with practical solutions that address what the [Commonwealth] Charter says,” he added. He said that if the organisation could do this in line with the needs of the people within the whole Commonwealth, it could become an organisation “capable of addressing the challenges of today.”

The Chair of the webinar concluded that the series had indicated the Commonwealth’s “potential to become much more”. Summing up the three events, she said that there was a need to discuss and challenge and press for change with the Commonwealth’s ideals “in our hands”.

Debbie Ransome is the Web Editor for the Commonwealth Round Table.

 View the discussion:

Related articles:

The Eminent Persons Group report – A Commonwealth for the People Time for urgent reform – 2011

What does it mean to be a ‘citizen’ of the Commonwealth? Part one of this series

Crisis, opportunities and multilateralism – Part two of this series

Round Table Editorial (2011): Perth and the Commonwealth—Options for Reform