(from left-right) Patricia Scotland, Kamalesh Sharma and Joseph MuscatFormer Commonwealth officials, analysts and experts met to look at the future of the Commonwealth [Credit: CHOGM Malta]

The Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Malta named Patricia Scotland, 60, as the sixth secretary-general after a closed session on 27 November.

She will be the first woman to head the Commonwealth Secretariat when she succeeds Kamalesh Sharma in April. It is the latest in a series of firsts for the Dominican-born lawyer-politician: a barrister who specialised in family law, in 1991 Scotland became the first black woman to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel (a title recognising senior members of the British legal profession) and in 2007 Gordon Brown, then British prime minister, appointed her attorney-general— the first woman to hold the position of the country’s chief legal officer since the post was created in 1315.

Amid a swirl of names initially being mentioned in connection with the post, Kofi Annan’s candidature was reportedly being floated last year and Alexander Downer, Australia’s high commissioner to London and former Liberal Party leader, was also suggested, the London Guardian reported.

However, although there is no formal requirement for the Commonwealth position to be rotated between different regions (the first two secretaries-general—Arnold Smith and Sonny Ramphal—were both from the Americas), it has become an implicit consideration in the process. This time around the consensus appeared to be that Sharma’s successor should be either a Caribbean or an African candidate.

As the dust settled, four Caribbean contenders and two from Africa emerged. The African contenders were Bernard Membe, Tanzania’s foreign minister, and Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, a two-term Commonwealth deputy secretary-general (and daughter of Botswana’s second president, Quett Masire).

Those vying to be the Caribbean’s champion included Valerie Amos, who became the first black woman in the British cabinet when she was appointed secretary of state for international development in 2003 and went on to become UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, the Royal Commonwealth Society noted. Like Scotland, Amos was born in the Caribbean, in Guyana, but has spent most of her life in Britain. (While Guyana is in South America, it is regarded as being part of the Caribbean culturally and historically, and is the headquarters of the Caribbean Community,  Caricom.)

Unlike Scotland, however, who was endorsed by the Dominican Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit (plus Barbados and Belize), the country of Amos’s birth refused to back her, the Jamaica Observer reported in 2014, and she seemed to drop out of the running.

While holding both Dominican and British nationality, Scotland left the Caribbean island at the age of two and there were objections in some quarters to her representing Dominica. Caribbean News Now called her a ‘pretend Caribbean candidate’. In an example, perhaps, of putting too much spin on defending her nomination, Scotland even argued on Antiguan radio that she was not only a Caribbean candidate but an African one too: ‘I am a daughter of Africa too, so maybe what I might be able to give is the combination of all of the Commonwealth.’

There was much suspicion of both women’s nominations; many observers regarded it as being part of a plan by the UK government to get a British nominee to take over at the Commonwealth Secretariat one way or another. ‘The British are adopting a “two-way trick”, to get one of their own into the position,’ the Curaçao Chronicle quoted Kayode Soyinka, editor of Africa Today, as saying in December 2014. A Caribbean minister asked of Scotland: ‘Given the baroness’s many ministerial positions in the United Kingdom, why is she not a UK government nominee?’

But for many Commonwealth insiders, impatient with how the organisation had seemed to drift under Sharma, the convention that the UK should not put forward its own candidates to run the Secretariat (to avoid making the Commonwealth appear merely a diplomatic vehicle for British ambitions), was out of date: why couldn’t the next secretary-general be both British and Caribbean?

Matthew Neuhaus, an Australian diplomat and former head of the Secretariat’s political division, said in 2013: ‘Britain is now such a multicultural country with some very senior Commonwealth figures who happen to be British barons and baronesses and leaders and politicians and so forth, but they are actually deeply rooted also in other parts of the Commonwealth.

‘The time is also coming when Britain should not be shy even of putting a British person up for Commonwealth secretary-general.  I know there has been this feeling it shouldn’t, but maybe the best Commonwealth person could actually be here in London.’

The resistance in some quarters to what was perceived as Britain imposing its choice on the region refused to die down. An article in 2014 on Caribbean News Now alleged that Scotland had been asked to vacate the Dominican seat at a Caricom meeting but this was strongly denied by Dominica’s ambassador to the UN, Vince Henderson, on Dominica News Online.

As the field narrowed, Scotland’s remaining regional rivals were Sir Ronald Sanders, former high commissioner to London for Antigua, who was believed to have the backing of seven Caribbean states, and Bhoe Tewarie, former minister of planning and economic affairs for Trinidad and Tobago, who seemed to have so little support as to be almost a spoiler candidate, put forward merely as a diplomatic gambit.

However, some in the region regarded Sanders as no more Antiguan than Scotland was Dominican. ‘Isn’t Sir Ronald really a Guyanese residing in Barbados and London? How much time does he spend in Antigua compared to London?’ asked one commenter on Caribbean News Now.

Bemoaning the inability of Caribbean states to agree on a single candidate, Sanders withdrew his name in December 2014, the Trinidad Daily Express reported. By February 2015, however, Caribbean360 reported that Sanders had been renominated by Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne who claimed that the candidate had the backing of nine out of the 12 Commonwealth Caribbean states.

Ahead of the Caricom conference there last July, Barbados Today reported that the three candidates had stepped up their lobbying to become the region’s champion. ‘Everybody is doing their own thing and spending a lot of money,’ one source said.

Of the three, the most low-key, Barbados Today said, was Tewarie. In October 2015, the Trinidad Express reported that new Prime Minister Keith Rowley had withdrawn Tewarie’s candidature. Announcing that Trinidad and Tobago would instead be backing Sanders, Rowley said: ‘Considering that the African region has endorsed a single candidate, the Caribbean’s best chances of prevailing in this contest would be to coalesce around a single strong candidate.’

Confusingly, Tewarie announced the next day that he had already withdrawn his candidacy anyway, calling government’s action a ‘non-issue’, the Loop reported. The government’s renunciation of the country’s nominee was largely down to September’s elections in Trinidad and Tobago, which saw Rowley’s opposition, the People’s National Movement party, oust Tewarie’s party, the United National Congress. Rowley had also reported Tewarie to the police for canvassing on election day.

That only left Sanders as a Caribbean challenger to Scotland. Then, in what some regarded as a transparent attempt to smear Sanders by recycling old allegations, a story appeared in the London Daily Telegraph in November alleging that Sanders had received $1.4m between 1997 and 2006 from a fraud scandal involving a Japanese firm, Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co (IHI), and a contract to build a desalination plant. Sanders has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

The article alleged that $14m was siphoned off government coffers disguised as loan repayments to IHI in relation to the construction of a desalination plant in Antigua and Barbuda. The Telegraph report claimed that, while serving as Antiguan High Commissioner in London, Sanders had received monthly payments of £10,000 from his former employer, Bruce Rappaport, a Swiss banker who had also been an Antiguan ambassador and the alleged architect of the IHI fraud. Rappaport is alleged to have paid a total of $1,398,492 to a Panamanian company owned by Sanders. Rappaport repaid $12m to Antigua and died in 2010. There is no suggestion that IHI knew of any fraud.

The alleged affair came to light after the Antiguan government commissioned an investigation by a Canadian forensic accountant, Robert Lindquist, when an audit uncovered alleged irregularities in the state’s loan repayments. Sanders was one of several Antigua Labour Party members named as ‘persons of interest’, the Antigua Observer reported in 2012.

In rebutting the claims, Sanders published on his own website a letter from the Antigua police commissioner that declared he was no longer a ‘person of interest’ in the inquiry and should never have been named as such.

Lawyers for Sanders told the Telegraph that the letter ‘conclusively exonerates our client’. They added: ‘In all his financial dealings, whether involving Mr Rappaport, the Bank of Bermuda, the government of Antigua and Barbuda or otherwise, our client has conducted himself with due propriety.’

The timing of the article, two days before the Commonwealth summit opened in Malta, seemed to support claims by the Antiguan government that it was a smear campaign against their man. Gaston Browne called it a ‘partisan political witch-hunt’ and ‘malicious and deliberate attacks’, Caribarena reported.

Sir Gerald Watt, a former Antiguan attorney-general, had said as much in 2012, telling the Antiguan Daily Observer: ‘The Antigua police have handled this case very badly and should now apologise to Sir Ronald … To declare someone as “a person of interest” is a euphemism for suggesting that the individual is involved in a criminal matter.’

A former Antiguan police commissioner, Rawlston Pompey, also weighed in, Kaieteur News reported. Pompey described the police notice for Sanders to present himself as ‘nothing short of a political smear’. In 2013, Antigua’s director of public prosecutions said it would not press charges against Sanders, calling the allegations against him ‘seriously defective’ and that they ‘disclose no offence’.

Browne also described the Lindquist report as ‘riddled with hearsay, rumour and conjecture’, while Caribbean News Now called it a ‘smear campaign’ against Sanders.

The Antiguan prime minister told the Caribbean Media Corporation: ‘It’s no coincidence this article came out on the eve of the Commonwealth secretary-general elections. But I remain confident that Sir Ron is still in pole position.

‘It’s a planted thing in the Telegraph and this is an old story dating back a decade,’ he said. ‘So as far as I’m concerned, that’s a dead issue that they are seeking to rehash to embarrass us, to sully his chances of emerging as the Commonwealth secretary-general.’

Scotland had undergone her own trial in the court of public opinion, as many of the cheerleaders for Sanders were quick to point out, when the Daily Mail revealed that she had employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper for six months in 2009. Scotland, who was then attorney-general, denied knowing that Loloahi Tapui, a Tongan who had overstayed her student visa for five years, had been in the UK illegally, apologised and was fined £5,000.

The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, the legislation that ensnared the government’s top legal officer, was widely criticised at the time for putting the onus on anyone who employs a foreign-born worker to carry out all the checks on paperwork that were formerly the responsibility of the UK Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Adding to the embarrassment for Scotland was that she had been a minister in the Home Office when the legislation was drawn up.

Despite the best efforts of Caribbean News Now, an anonymous website hiding behind a Dallas PO box address, to stir up opposition to Scotland over the affair, the Guardian reported in late November that Scotland had emerged as the frontrunner to succeed Sharma, ahead of Sanders and Masire-Mwamba.

The Times of Malta said that when the Commonwealth heads of government sat down to anoint a successor, the election took longer than expected with ‘sources describing a hot contest between the two women’. The Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said later that, after a ‘thorough discussion’, Scotland enjoyed ‘unanimous support’.

The Independent quoted Scotland as promising to take up the cause of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights by spending the ‘first two years of her tenure as the Commonwealth’s top diplomat persuading 40 of its member states to decriminalise homosexuality’. (It is only legal in 13 of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states.)

‘What we have to accept is that this [decriminalising homosexuality] is something that will depend on consensus,’ she told the newspaper. ‘We do not have the right or opportunity to force states, but we can start a really good conversation to work with them so they understand the economic issues in relations to human rights and make the change.’

She also pledged to prioritise gender equality and combat domestic violence, the Independent reported. ‘One in three women in our world suffer from domestic violence,’ Scotland said. ‘Forced marriage, female genital mutilation, child abduction…these issues affect all of us.’

Scotland, who said she was ‘incredibly proud to be the first woman secretary-general’, has set herself a bold agenda at the head of an organisation that has conspicuously failed to push issues of human rights with recalcitrant member states in recent years.

Hugh Segal, Canada’s former envoy to the Commonwealth, described Kamalesh Sharma in the Toronto Globe and Mail as ‘a decent but ineffective secretary-general’, calling his tenure ‘lacklustre and weak-kneed’.

‘The Commonwealth,’ he said, ‘has been missing in action on Sri Lankan human rights, vicious anti-gay laws in some parts of Africa and continued weakness in the promotion of judicial independence and democracy.’

If Scotland could get even half of those Commonwealth states to legalise homosexuality, she might well have achieved more in two years than her predecessor did in two terms.

This article is from the Commonwealth Update which is a regular feature of the Round Table Journal. It is an authoritative, nation-by-nation review of events across the Commonwealth. It is currently written by Oren Gruenbaum, the Commonwealth Update editor.

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Malta Notes –  Stuart Mole
Towards a Commonwealth built on all our talents – Patricia Scotland (October 2015)