Duchess of Cornwall, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Baroness HardingThe Duchess of Cornwall, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Baroness Harding at the pre-CHOGM Forum sessions. [photos by Victoria Schofield]

Day 2…

really was ‘super’ Tuesday, when all the Forums were brought together to listen to the Secretary General, Baroness Scotland, the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Theresa May, followed by Bill Gates, the pioneering Harvard drop out who founded Microsoft and whose philanthropic work is legendary, followed by the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, the session moderated by TV personality Zeinab Badawi. While we were waiting, I had  the good fortune to find myself  sitting next to the host of the People’s Forum, Londoner ‘Mr Gee’ who told me that he enjoyed writing poetry and worked in prisons, running creative writing workshops for National Prison Radio.

Before the speeches began the inclusive character of the Commonwealth was show-cased by The Commonwealth Resounds! group of musicians from all 53 countries performing together, many of them draped in the flags of their respective nation, singing and playing their instruments, their faces wreathed in smiles. Then came the keynote speeches; as the Secretary General and the Prime Minister spoke, the Commonwealth’s values were extolled, even if speakers and audience alike were mindful of the challenges of poverty, inequality and discrimination still existing within and between the diverse members. True to form Bill Gates was inspirational and Andrew Holness eloquent. The session ended with a video link of Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yusufzai, whose commitment to promoting girls’ education is exceptional. Then came award-winning New Zealand poetess, Karlo Mila, of Tongan origin, who recited a poem she had written for the Summit. Mindful of the ecological problems faced by the small islands both in the Pacific and the Caribbean,  her words resonated: ‘we are the canaries singing in the coal mines of climate change’.

Lunch was one of the Big Lunches which have been hosted throughout the country in the run-up to CHOGM, all the rooms colourfully decorated with bunting;  the networking spirit of the Commonwealth was at once in evidence, as I struck up a conversation with a young  writer from Manchester, Anita Sethi. She was one of the speakers in the session, ‘Commonwealth Writers Conversation: Intimate Readings from an anthology entitled ‘We Mark your Memory: Writings from the descendants of Indenture’ in the People’s Forum. Her story was about tracing her Guyanese roots and the sugar trade, which had resulted in bringing so many of her forbears from Africa to work as indentured labour. To illustrate her subject matter, she’d arrived with a visual aid: a small packet of demerara sugar which she instantly produced.   During the lunch break another Royal visitor arrived, HRH Prince Charles  and I remembered that  Prince William  had warned us the night before that we would be ‘seeing a lot of the Royal family’ over the next few days. Prince Charles made a leisurely progress around the room, greeting the delegates and speakers, and I was pleased that my Mancunian friend managed to have a few words.

The day’s agenda still held considerable interest and it was a choice between ‘Climate justice: an inequitable Burden’, ‘A Just World Order’ or ‘Dissent’ in the People’s Forum, or ‘Diversity and Women’s Economic Empowerment’ in the Women’s. As an ardent advocate of free speech I chose ‘Dissent’, the discussion set against a background realisation that many societies seem to be passing through a phase of growing conservatism, intolerance  and ‘religious purity’. ‘Our democracy is about majority rule, so numbers speak, rather than the rights of minorities,’ proffered one participant in the panel. ‘The majority have the right to dissent but not necessarily the minority’.  A powerful presentation was given by artist Owen Maseko who had tears in his eyes as he described some of the methods of torture to which dissenters in Zimbabwe were subjected under the authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe and which he had depicted in his art. I stayed with the People’s Forum for the rest of the day because I had to get back to listen to Anita and her reading as well as listening to some others, all with a sorrowful tale of hardship and yet extraordinary courage, large families and no education. It was light when I went home, the colours of the flags along the Mall still vibrant in the sunshine.  Reflecting on the day’s sessions,  I realised that I had learnt not just about ideals and aspirations, but also about suffering and hardship, inequality and injustice. Before my exhausted head hit the pillow I dared to hope, that, contrary to the doom mongers who decry the value of such international gatherings, action rather than inertia might prevail.

Day 3

It was time to get to at least one session of the Business Forum and so Wednesday morning saw me pedalling off to the Mansion House to listen to a presentation on ‘Cyber Crime and Security’. An interesting distraction on the way  was being stopped by the police at Hyde Park Corner to let 100 horses and several gun carriages pass by, which was a clear sign that there is surely going to be a gun salute in Hyde Park to mark the official opening of the Commonwealth Summit 2018.

Having reached Mansion House in the heart of the City of London, the atmosphere was more sombre than the colourful entrance to the QEII Centre, but the welcome given by Charles Bowman, 690th Lord Mayor of London, was as warm, especially on the hottest day so far of the year. The opening speaker was the Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Amber Rudd who made it clear that cyber security has to be a shared endeavour amongst all Commonwealth countries. Cyber crime, she said, costs billions and some breaches of security can leave companies on their knees. In addition there was the broader threat of the hostile state. ‘There is important work ahead,’ she concluded, stressing the significance of the National Cyber Security Centre set up in the UK in 2016. ’By diversifying the way we think about security, we can deal more effectively with diverse threats.’

The Home Secretary’s remarks were the prelude to a  frank presentation by Baroness Harding, former CEO of Talk Talk, the telecoms company which had been subjected to a serious cyber attack in 2015.  Comparing herself to a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, she said that, in general, companies don’t like to reveal that they have been subject to a cyber attack but it is only by revealing such attacks that we can help to combat them. ‘We had to warn our customers,’ she said, because the best way to protect them was to warn them’. Yet on a personal level the realisation that her company had been hacked was so horrific that she felt she had entered an episode of the TV series, Spooks!

‘What did we all learn?’ she asked. ‘That none of us is taking cyber security carefully enough. We weren’t blind but we weren’t taking it seriously enough. The real problem is you don’t know if you are being attacked by North Korea or some teenagers in their bedroom’. Ultimately she concluded, the digital revolution is a good thing for the world, ‘but we mustn’t be blind to the risks that come with it’.  A panel discussion followed, with helpful comments by Detective Chief Superintendent Peter O’Doherty, emphasising how important it was to be able to identify the profiles of young people who had the potential to embark on cyber crime. ‘Behavioural science on cyber is key and it is lacking at the moment’.

By the end of the session, it was time to get back on my bicycle and head for Marlborough House, where I was one of a few ‘observers’ at the pre-CHOGM Foreign Affairs Ministers Meeting chaired by UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, at Lancaster House and where discussion focused on implementation of the ‘game changing’ Blue Charter to guide member nations in sustainable ocean development.  ‘The good news’, commented UN Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson, in his opening remarks, is that we now know we have a battle on our hands. What could be more important than protecting the fundament in which we live?’

Kenya was top of the list of those countries who were congratulated for its ban on plastic bags, the Kenyan Foreign Minister warning others that if they did the same thing they would have to face opposition from the plastic industry.  But, she said, it would also provide the opportunity for small entrepreneurs and businesses to develop alternatives and consequently generate prosperity. ‘We have remained firmly in the belief that we can have a sustainable future. Kenya is ready to offer itself as champion of the Blue Charter’ she concluded. Numerous interventions came from the ‘small states’, especially those of the Caribbean, who are facing the repercussions of pollution which is not of their making and yet who, because they are classified as middle-income countries, are not able to receive ODA assistance.

The Foreign Minister from St Kitts and St Nevis made an impassioned plea for support. “We are the smallest country in the Caribbean. These issues affect us in a significant way. Can Caribbean countries really look forward to a future? Do we have a future at all, with another hurricane season which starts on 1 June and goes on until 30 November? Every nation in the Caribbean will be under threat from something over which we have no control”. “What is required is assistance,” asserted St Vincent’s. “Both to safeguard and also  to develop our resources. Our oceans offer us a buffer against climate change. Humanity depends on healthy oceans. So we need to set targets for ocean development including preventing over-fishing and pollution”. Announcing that as of May 2017 St Vincent had banned the importation of Styrofoam, the Foreign Minister informed his colleagues that legislation was also being considered to ban plastic bags.

The day was already half over and although  I had missed ‘Capacity Building Sessions’ (Youth) – and a glimpse of HRH Prince Harry and fiancée Megan Markle – ‘Overcoming barriers: Violence against Women and Girls’ and addressing ‘Barriers to Empowerment in the Community’ (Women’s) as well as ‘Accountable Governance – Imperatives for a Renewed Commonwealth’ (People’s), I appreciated the bird’s eye view of  decision-making I’d got from observing the Foreign Ministers at work, the catch word being ‘implementation’.

It was back to the QEII Centre, navigating yet more police because of a very vibrant demonstration taking place around Parliament Square against both the Bangladeshi and Indian governments. On arrival I was greeted by the sight of a huge model of a transparent whale full of plastic bottles which deftly brought the pollution point home.

I decided to attend the final session of the Women’s Forum which brought together the themes discussed over the past three days focusing on gender inequality and domestic violence. Introduced by Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank and founder of WOW, the Women of the World festival, HRH the Duchess of Cornwall made a brief address: “Domestic abuse remains a hidden problem in our society”, the Duchess began. “It is characterised by silence – silence from those who suffer, silence from those around them and from those who perpetrate abuse…  The burden of silence prevents them from getting help which can be fatal.”

After three days and multiple sessions of the four pre-CHOGM Forums, I’d made numerous friends, originating in chance conversations over a cup of tea, exchanging business cards, or entering into a discussion while waiting for a session to begin. Most importantly I’d captured something of what the Commonwealth is all about, a cornucopia of personalities and nationalities combined with a kaleidoscope of colours, symbolised by the 53 flags, but which has some rather large mountains to climb.

Next: I go to Buckingham Palace

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Politicians, academics, diplomats, Commonwealth officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations took part in a pre-CHOGM conference to look at the challenges facing the Commonwealth.