Stuart MoleThe Chairman of the Round Table Stuart Mole provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Commonwealth Summit.


Malta has a deserved reputation as a formidable champion of small states. As the Commonwealth developed its pioneering work on the special vulnerabilities of small states, in the mid-1980s, Malta played a leading part. It continues to nurture expertise of international stature, from Lino Briguglio (who helped to develop the Secretariat’s vulnerability index), to Godfrey Baldacchino. Little surprise, therefore, that Malta should have been chosen as the home for a new Commonwealth initiative, the Small States Centre of Excellence, even if the details of how this might operate are rather sketchy. Resilience, rather than vulnerability, is now the watchword, particularly in the face of climate change and sea-level rise.

But entry into the European Union in 2004 has widened Malta’s horizons and provided a new-found confidence. Its physical manifestations are to be found in the beautiful restoration of parts of Valletta and Mdina, supported by European funds, and by the expansion of Malta’s electronics industry and its boutique wine production. Denied the curse of resources, Malta has had to fashion a future which makes the most of its global position.

Nowadays, Malta is more accustomed to thinking big rather than emphasising its smallness. That was undoubtedly true of its approach to hosting the 2015 CHOGM. Without Joseph Muscat’s links to Europe’s socialist leaders, it is doubtful if President Hollande (and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon) would have been prepared to join Commonwealth leaders in special session ahead of the Paris climate change summit. Muscat left the CHOGM after the final media briefing to journey to the councils of Europe and to present the Commonwealth’s proposals for tackling climate change at COP 21.

Then there was Malta’s leadership in establishing the first-ever Women’s Forum. This was launched at the beginning of the week with much fanfare and a certain amount of dodgy PR. I doubt if the slogan: “You want to be free at the idea of being a woman” is likely to capture the public imagination. But, catch-phrases apart, the Forum was soon addressing key global challenges facing women in a far more vigorous and convincing way than some of the Commonwealth’s official utterances. The Forum called for an independent Technical Working Group on gender equality and women’s empowerment which could make sure that these objectives were in alignment with the targets adopted for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Women’s Forum is certainly here to stay.

It was Malta – at the 2005 CHOGM – which brought foreign ministers in from the cold. Long neglected at Commonwealth meetings, and expected merely to trail in the wake of their Head of Government, some had tried to absent themselves from the Commonwealth summit altogether. That omission was rectified in 2005 with a whole new role for foreign ministers, dealing with much of the conference business delegated from Heads.

Quite apart from establishing meetings of foreign ministers at the CHOGM, a ministerial meeting now takes place every year in New York, in the wings of the opening of the UN General Assembly in September. But, in 2005, foreign ministers were tasked with becoming a crucial point of contact with civil society and Commonwealth organisations, meeting with representatives of the ‘unofficial’ Commonwealth while their Heads were on retreat. This Roundtable meeting with foreign ministers, faltering and suspicious at first, was, in 2015, probably the most productive of any such gatherings for civil society. It reflected a largely successful Peoples Forum, with its emphasis on ‘governance for resilience’, particularly in creating participatory and democratic societies. There is now a clear willingness by governments, the Secretariat and civil society organisations to work together in the delivery of Commonwealth programmes. Giving substance to this repeated aspiration must be one of the priorities for the next few years.

The other forums – youth and business – all seemed to have had positive meetings. The Business Forum, now run in part by the new Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, attracted 1,000 delegates and 20 Heads of Government, in addition to the Prince of Wales. A particular achievement was the launch of the Commonwealth Trade Financing Facility, which aims to boost trade and investment in small and developing countries by making import/export finance available.

The Youth Forum, now convened for the first time by the Commonwealth Youth Council (rather than Commonwealth youth organisations) overcome early teething problems to agree an Action Plan and elect a new Executive Committee for the Youth Council. To the envy of others, representatives of the youth forum were then able to put their proposals direct to Heads of Government by means of a Youth Dialogue.

The foreign ministers meeting was good tempered and relaxed. As regards the CHOGM itself, Commonwealth leaders took a tentative step towards a Heads-only retreat, as reformers had advocated. But, in allowing substitutes ‘of ministerial/cabinet rank’, any good effect was largely negated. In the end, only a couple of High Commissioners from London, sent out to lead their county’s delegations, were actually barred from the Head’s discussion in retreat.

Attendance by Heads of Government, rather than their representatives, was up from the abysmal turnout in Sri Lanka two years earlier. Then, 26 Heads took part, while in Malta it was 31.

Securing a better attendance in future of representatives of governments at the highest level – and encouraging them to stay for the duration of the meeting – will be one of the tasks of the new Secretary-General and the next CHOGM host, the United Kingdom. One of the side benefits of a return of the CHOGM to the UK, after an interval of over twenty years, will be that its Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be expected to attend the meeting from start to finish (not something achieved so far).

The next summit had been expected to be in Vanuatu, in the Pacific. But, following the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam in 2015 and a more recent crisis in Vanuatu’s governance, what had been a brave decision to host CHOGM came to look dangerously foolhardy. The UK therefore stepped into the breach, though with a change to the Commonwealth calendar. The next CHOGM is rather more than two years away, and will now take place in May 2018 (a month after the next Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia), at a venue yet to be determined.

What did the Malta CHOGM achieve?

First, thanks to the happy conjunction of the Commonwealth summit dovetailing into the start of the Paris climate change conference, the Commonwealth was able to create a special dialogue with the leaders of COP 21. The Commonwealth’s own Statement on Climate Action – while betraying India’s dissent in some key paragraphs – contained important proposals on climate change finance, including the setting up of a Commonwealth Finance Access Hub and proposals to swap multilateral debt burdens in vulnerable countries with investments in climate adaptation and mitigation. The majority of Commonwealth countries are small states, and many of these are low-lying islands, and they provided added pressure on the importance of not only agreeing to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2.C but to endeavour to meet a 1.5C limitation. For some nations threatened by sea-level rise, this will be the difference between life and certain extinction.

In 2009, in Trinidad & Tobago, the Commonwealth agreed important proposals for tackling climate change which then disappeared without trace in the failure of the subsequent Copenhagen summit. In 2015, the Commonwealth can claim to have played a part in the success of the final agreement in Paris, though only because there was this time a global willingness to act. As Sonny Ramphal wryly observed many years before: “The Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world; but it can help the world negotiate”.

Secondly, in uniting against the worldwide threats of radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorism, the Commonwealth at last committed itself to use its ‘soft power’ strengths in a practical way. Armed with the hitherto neglected report “Civil Paths to Peace” (resulting from an inquiry headed by Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen), and encouraged by substantial funding from the British and Australian governments, a Countering Violent Extremism Unit will be established within the Commonwealth Secretariat. Any resulting programme – including education and public engagement – will have to make extensive use of the Commonwealth’s civil society and youth networks and its latent strengths in interfaith understanding, tolerance and mutual respect, if it is to make a distinctive Commonwealth contribution.

Other important issues were discussed, including trade and sustainable development, human rights, good governance and corruption, migration, small states and the ‘blue’ economy and public health. But the third priority – for the incoming Secretary-General in particular – will be the overhaul of the intergovernmental Commonwealth’s principal agency, the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Heads mandated the Secretary-General to convene a high-level group (of their fellow heads) to review the full governance arrangements of the Secretariat “in order to improve oversight, efficiency and transparency”. This group is likely to be chaired by the new chairperson-in-office, Prime Minister Muscat, and will need to interpret its mandate broadly if it is to address the malaise currently affecting the Secretariat. Staffing levels are at their lowest level for many years, morale is poor and service standards variable. The Commonwealth’s development arm, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, has come in for much criticism recently and its funding has fallen alarmingly, with the withdrawal of Australian and Canadian support. Extra-budgetary funding support, while always welcome, is seen by some as a covert way of redefining the Commonwealth’s priorities. Notwithstanding the excellent work done in certain areas, there is an urgent need to give the Secretariat new collective purpose and vision.

All this presents a formidable challenge for Patricia Scotland as she prepares to assume office, as the Commonwealth’s sixth Secretary-General, on 1 April, 2016. She has already travelled to the Caribbean to seek to heal the divisions caused by a bruising contest for her post, and convincing Africa that she has their best interests at heart will also be a high priority. While the UK’s greater involvement in Commonwealth affairs is welcome (together with the new leadership evident in Canada and Australia), Scotland must beware an over-warm British embrace, if she is to carry the confidence of other parts of the Commonwealth.

In that respect, the British 2018 CHOGM offers Commonwealth organisations and civil society an opportunity to make their own unique and enhanced contributions, both in advance and at the summit. Eighteen years ago, the 1997 Edinburgh CHOGM saw the birth of the Commonwealth Business Forum (and Council) and of what was to become the Commonwealth Peoples Forum (or Peoples Centre, as it was first called). A host of organisations got together with the British government to run a range of preliminary and subsidiary events and activities under the umbrella of “the UK Year of the Commonwealth”.

The world has changed since then and 2018 therefore offers yet greater opportunities. All four forums – Women’s, Business, Peoples and Youth – will want to make an early start in their planning and in influencing the official agenda, as will the Commonwealth more broadly.

Was Malta, therefore, the turning point for the Commonwealth for which many had hoped? The job is far from done – but at least there is optimism that the Commonwealth is back on the right path.

Malta Notebook II

Malta Notebook Part I