[This is the full paper and notes upon which the author based his presentation at a 27 May seminar entitled Is the Commonwealth working? organised by The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation and The Commonwealth Association. This paper was shared with the kind permission of the author.]
There is a semblance of uncertainty surrounding the twice-postponed Commonwealth of Nations summit, taking place in Kigali the week of 20 June 2022, given the significant decline in resources and the questioning of the relevance of the programmes of the Commonwealth Secretariat and of the organisation as a whole.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be impacted on by a personally embattled outgoing Chair-in-Office, along with the questioning of the human rights record of the host and incoming Chair. As Prince Charles begins to acclimate to his future role as Head of the Commonwealth, many are focused on the possible change in institutional leadership given the heated campaign for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General.
With meetings tracing back to the 19th century, the Commonwealth of Nations may be considered one of the oldest intergovernmental associations.[i]
The Commonwealth is a unique grouping of 54 developed and developing nations, of equal standing regardless of size or wealth, reflecting diverse religions, races, languages, and cultures. It comprises 30 per cent of the world’s population spread across a quarter of the world’s land mass on every continent. Composed of permanent members of the UN Security Council, a quarter of the G20, significant in BRICS, and with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of about 15 percent of global GDP, to paraphrase Sir Shridath Ramphal’s famous aphorism, while the Commonwealth can’t negotiate for the world, it can help the world to negotiate.
The Commonwealth is a consensus-based, intergovernmental organization serving the needs of its member governments and their citizens in political, economic, and social development. It also provides a forum for high-level deliberation, problem solving, and coordinated action on matters of importance to its members.
Mozambique’s joining of this ‘family of nations’ in 1995 followed by Rwanda in 2009, was a watershed as it signalled that membership is more about sharing common values than a shared history of British Empire.
In 2013, Commonwealth leaders adopted the Commonwealth Charter, which formally committed member nations to sixteen shared principles including democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, sustainable development, and racial and gender equality.[ii]
Notwithstanding, this seemingly illustrious history, the Commonwealth remains at a crossroads, its presence and purpose unknown or ambiguous to most of its citizens and many of its member states ambivalent about its current and possible future role. If the Commonwealth is not just to merely survive but thrive, urgent action is needed.
Despite its colonial origins, the Commonwealth has through a radical progressivism been able to refute claims of largely being a ‘colonial club’ yoked to Britain.
The Commonwealth’s most prominent and acclaimed role was in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa along with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in Rhodesia. The economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by the Commonwealth in 1986, coordinated with other countries with significant economic links to South Africa, had the intended consequences, “that apartheid be dismantled and a future for all South Africans that is truly non-racial and democratic within a united and non-fragmented country.”[iii]
In 1994, following the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President, South Africa re-joined the Commonwealth.
Similarly, the Commonwealth has been a champion for small states, particularly small island developing states (SIDS).[iv] It pioneered the analysis of the special circumstances and vulnerabilities of small states and its global advocacy, of which Barbados played a significant role, lead in 2000 to the adoption by the World Bank and IMF of the recommendation that “the circumstances of small states should be taken into account in the policies and programs of multilateral trade, finance and development organisations.”
Since the 1989 Langkawi Declaration on the Environment in which the Commonwealth resolved to act on a programme of action on the environment and climate change, it has been committed to addressing climate change and supporting member countries in dealing with its adverse impacts. It also campaigned for debt relief for some of the world’s poorest nations.
Despite the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme which established the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), to provide mechanisms to ensure adherence to the upholding of its core political values: democracy, rule of law, and good governance, the Commonwealth has come under sharp criticism for its ambivalence in acting. While Fiji and Nigeria were suspended for violations of fundamental values, critics have pointed to an overreliance on peer pressure and moral suasion. More recently has been the charge of overlooking human rights abuses, particularly regarding human sexuality including anti-LGBTQ+ laws. The civil war atrocities in Sri Lanka, which hosted the 2013 Commonwealth summit, was a source of contention.
This seeming averseness to taking a stand, was encapsulated by Kamalesh Sharma, as Secretary-General, in a 2010 statement to the UN Human Rights Council, “…Action to criticise and sanction is rare, and not in fact, in the nature of an association which seeks to affirm and to help. We as a Commonwealth seek to advance our defence of human rights and we, as a peer group, seek to support each other, and where necessary, sensitise each other in that process. This makes us an organisation given more to engagement than pronouncement. We recognise that as independent member states, the bulk of our membership is only a few decades old…This is why we see greater value in raising a helping hand, than in raising a wagging finger. I sometimes give an analogy that the Commonwealth is more of a coach, engaged by the team, than a referee on the side-lines armed with a whistle and a red card.”
The Commonwealth Network and Partnerships
While the Commonwealth Secretariat has become synonymous with the Commonwealth, its network actually consists of three intergovernmental and over 80 professional and civil society organisations. Commonwealth linkages are possibly more robust across these varied professional, sporting, scientific, trading, and political associations that within governmental spheres.
Notwithstanding this reality, the Commonwealth Secretariat has at best paid lip service to creating effective synergies and partnerships within this Commonwealth to coordinate strategies, plans and programmes, or maximize visibility to ensure an appreciation for the role and value of the Commonwealth.
To a similar extent, the Commonwealth Secretariat, seemingly adhering to a dated western geopolitical model, has not sought to reposition itself as an interregional hub for the burgeoning regionalism (CARICOM, PIF/SPC, SADC, etc.) that now dominates the multipolar global order. With a diverse global membership, the Commonwealth is in a unique position to facilitate the interface of these regional alliances seeking to consolidate regional social, cultural, economic and political security. The closing of the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) regional offices rather that creating regional Commonwealth hubs was a missed opportunity.
To ensure continued relevance, the Commonwealth’s base must be decentred from London. The Commonwealth Secretariat has the potential to get beyond high-level gatherings and meagre technical assistance to become a meaningful coordinating and enabling organisation for its members states and their regional groupings.
This will only be possible if sufficient attention is given to strategic outreach, partnerships, and programme synergies to amplify impact for its member states and enhance appreciation of and support for its work.
The Head of the Commonwealth
The recent comments by Prince William following his Caribbean tour, to suggest he doesn’t mind if he isn’t head of the Commonwealth in future, and that he believes one day it may be led by someone other than a member of the Royal Family, was received by some as contrary to the Queen’s role and commitment as head of the Commonwealth. I disagree.
While not a hereditary role, I am acutely aware of the challenges, given the size and diversity of the Commonwealth, in trying to democratise this role. The modern Commonwealth has had two heads: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II and while I support republicanism in Barbados and the wider Commonwealth as a symbol of self-determination, which I presume is Prince William’s perspective, in 2018 I recognised and acted on the existential threat to the Commonwealth if the Crown passed without succession to the headship being resolved.
Many seem confounded as to why nations that sought their independence from the UK would choose to remain within a network that resembles the former British Empire. In part, it was pragmatism as the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru remarked in a speech before India’s parliament: “In the world today where there are so many disruptive forces at work, where we are often on the verge of war, I think it is not a safe thing to encourage the breaking up of any association that one has.”
However, I attribute the willingness to remain also to the influence of British indirect colonial rule compared to their European counterparts, and also the capability of those who headed the modern Commonwealth. I expect similar from Prince Charles.
With the independence of India, King George VI was willing to abide by a negotiated position that allowed India, although a republic, to remain a member of the Commonwealth on the basis of ‘free association’ and ‘equality’, with the British monarch being “a symbol of the free association of independent members nations, and as such, Head of the Commonwealth”. When King George VI died in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II, as his successor in the role of Head of the Commonwealth continued his pragmatism and most of the members of the former British Empire remained united within the Commonwealth family.
A key component of the Queen’s performance in her headship was the understanding of the Commonwealth as a multiracial and multinational association, and unlike many other European leaders in the post-colonial era, a period dominated by east-west rivalry and north-south discord, recognised the need to avoid redundant ideas of imperial loyalty or Anglo-Saxon superiority. Instead, she emphasised a shared history, ideas, and values of the Commonwealth.
Although the Commonwealth’s ties to the former ‘mother country’ were eroded by decolonisation and globalisation, the umbilical cord that linked states constitutionally to the monarchy was transformed by astute and congenial headship to create a new context for collaboration and coexistence.
Only time will tell how this long historic bond will continue, and where the unique relationship that has evolved between the Royal Family and the Commonwealth will go.
The Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Secretary-General
Given the direct relationship with the heads of government of member states, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations Secretariat is the de facto leader of the entire Commonwealth network. As such, it is imperative that the person in this position can effectively discharge the duties and functions of this high office with vision, efficiency, responsibility, and integrity.
Following a plethora of ad hoc organisational changes, the Commonwealth Secretariat has become subject to intense criticism, too much of it publicly, for a lack of transparency and accountability and a weak institutional structure. Concerns have also been raised about the lack of clarity of its programmes. This is not a case of ‘small is beautiful’ as this comparatively small organisation (by international standards) has also struggled with the variable quality of work and inordinate delays in securing responses to queries and requests for technical assistance.
Members have conveyed their dismay over this situation by slashing their funding of the organisation, a gesture which can be interpreted as a diplomatic vote of no-confidence in the leadership.
It is with great dismay that I have been forced to reconcile myself to the reality that on the watch of the first female Secretary-General, someone I like personally and who shares West Indian roots, the fundamental values that underpin the Commonwealth have been further trampled upon.
To be fair, while this did not just start, there is a need to say enough is enough; good governance must not be just a concept but a lived reality, a way of doing. This is about more than the future of an individual but the survival of an organisation.
Contrary to what has been espoused otherwise, there is a vacancy in the post of Secretary-General which needs to be effectively filled. I hope that Heads will address this situation by giving serious consideration to those vying for this crucial office, particularly the candidate from Jamaica.
Not being a proponent of the ‘great man [person] theory’ this should not be a situation of change for change’s sake. Heads must ensure that there is an enabling environment to ensure that the Commonwealth, effectively coordinated through the Commonwealth Secretary-General, is able to meet and realise the aspirations and expectations of its members.
Having fostered the enabling environment of creating a bureaucratic monster by establishing the post of Secretary-General effectively exclusively accountable only to Heads, action is urgently required to create new governance systems that ensure all officers and institutions within the Commonwealth act in a manner consistent with its Charter.
While the Secretary-General must ultimately be accountable to Heads, between heads of governments meetings (CHOGMs) there is a need for an ongoing system of accountability and transparency. Towards this end, between summits, this should be exercised, as done in many intergovernmental organisations, by a council of ministers, possibly foreign ministers, at periodic meetings, and by a board of governors and its relevant committees between ministerial meetings.
Foreign ministers and a board of governors need to be empowered to provide strategic direction and guidance to the Secretary-General, and to ensure that the actions of that office are consistent with the wishes of Heads, reflect best leadership, management, and governance practices, and that the Secretariat functions in accordance with the strategic guidance and direction set by Heads.
In one of her past speeches to the Heads of Government meeting, the Queen cautioned that we must not take the continued existence of the Commonwealth for granted.[v] I interpreted this, as a regal acknowledgement, albeit skilfully worded, that continuing along the present path of descent and decline may prove fatal for the Commonwealth. Something must be done if we are to guarantee the Commonwealth’s survival. This is the time for action.
 Presentation made to the symposium organised by The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation and The Commonwealth Association.
 London-born of Asian and West Indian parents, Guy considers himself to be a reflection of the modern Commonwealth. Having worked with four Commonwealth Secretaries-General, first on staff as a social policy adviser and thereafter as a member of the Board of Governors, he is committed to the Commonwealth of Nations. A former High Commissioner for Barbados to the Court of St James, he is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.
 At the symposium, the suggestion was made for consideration to be given to abolishing the headship of the Commonwealth, as it is now redundant. On reflection, this is a viable recommendation given that the crucial role of the UK monarchy in the independence era to assemble this family of nations is no longer required in a 21st century postcolonial context.
[i] The first Colonial Conference took place in 1887, coinciding with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In 1921, the term ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ was first formally used. In 1926, Britain and the dominions (Australia, Canada, Ireland (then Irish Free State), Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa agreed that they would all be equal in status, “united by a common allegiance to the Crown.” The declaration – formalized in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster – ushered in the official founding of the British Commonwealth of Nations. However, chords of dissent were already sounded as India, a party to these discussions, rejected the idea of continued fealty to the Crown. Just over two decades later, India won full independence from Britain butnot ready to sever all ties sought membership of the British Commonwealth of Nations, but with ‘conditions.’ With assent from the member nations, in 1949, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) joined ‘as free and equal members.’ The London Declaration ushed in the modern Commonwealth of Nations with the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth but without its members having to swear allegiance to the Crown.
[ii] The Charter of the Commonwealth built upon the Singapore Declaration of 1971 and the Harare Declaration of 1991 which defined the Commonwealth’s core principles and values, detailed its membership criteria, and refined and reinforced its purpose.
[iii] Sir Shridath Ramphal speaking following the imposition of sanctions insisted that these sanctions were intended “not as punitive but as corrective”.
[iv] Thirty-two of the 54 Commonwealth member are small states. Thirty-two of the world’s 42 small states are Commonwealth countries.
Revd Guy Hewitt is an ordained Anglican priest whose varied career has included stints at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and from 2014 to 2018 as High Commissioner for Barbados in the UK.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Videos and reports from the Is the Commonwealth working? seminar wil be available soon on this website.