Michael FrendoMichael Frendo: The Commonwealth needs a political leadership.

Keynote speech by Michael Frendo from Round Table Malta Conference, November 2015

Below is the keynote address by Dr Micheal Frendo, Former Foreign Minister of Malta, from a one-day Conference held at the University of Malta, Valletta on 24th November 2015, ahead of CHOGM 2015. The event was organised by The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs and the Department of International Relations, University of Malta



It is fitting that we should discuss the question of whether the Malta Summit represents a crossroads, new beginnings, for the Commonwealth at this Alma Mater which, at 420 years of age, is one of the oldest University in the Commonwealth outside the United Kingdom. I thank Roundtable and the University of Malta for providing this opportunity on the eve of the second Malta CHOGM in ten years.

Perhaps we should start exactly from that observation. The fact that Malta has hosted two CHOGMs within the space of ten years, with regard to the holding of this particular CHOGM resolving a sticky situation in Colombo two years ago, speaks volumes in itself about Malta’s commitment to the Commonwealth. It is a commitment which has included three separate initiatives, the Women’s’ Forum in this CHOGM and the Foreign Ministers Meeting and the engagement of Foreign Ministers with Commonwealth Civil Society at the CHOGM of 2005.

It is a commitment which cuts across the political divide and is firmly embedded in Malta’s foreign policy and its strategic objectives which I had the honour of formulating and adopting in a written document in 2005 after consultation with the Foreign and European Affairs Committee of the Maltese Parliament. They have been kept in place till today by subsequent administrations.

Objective VIII clearly states that Malta shall “Actively contribute to further development and good governance within the Commonwealth.” It elaborates that “Malta will carry out an increasingly active role in the Commonwealth with the aim of furthering development and good governance and enhancing the Commonwealth’s capacity to implement programmes and policies. Malta will continue to promote respect for the Harare Principles and respect for democratic legitimacy and the rule of law…” ​

The Commonwealth faces a strong challenge to retain a strong relevance in today’s world beyond the meeting of Heads of Government every two years. It is an organisation that is challenged to ensure that it does not exist to sustain its bureaucracy but that, on the other hand, its bureaucracy exists to ensure that the Commonwealth achieves the objectives as set out in its Charter.

One should not underestimate the potential of this Charter as a leading light for the Organisation. Truly it brings together principles and values which had earlier been expressed in other declarations by the Heads of Government. However bringing all this together “the values and aspirations which unite the Commonwealth – democracy, human rights and the rule of law – in a single accessible document” is a strong expression of a desire to see these values and aspirations put into practice.

It is in this practice that lies the key to the relevance of the Commonwealth.

In simple terms, the Commonwealth cannot any longer be kept together by a constantly thinning thread of a common colonial past – a thread which does not exist in some of its members – but needs to find the strength of action based on a strong bond of shared values and aspirations which binds it all together in the present and in the future.

To achieve this, it requires inspirational and strong leadership which is embodied in the person of the Secretary General – and this is a CHOGM where that choice has to be made once more after the CHOGM of Kampala, Uganda in 2007 which, of course, as to be expected, I remember rather well.

Beyond intrigue, spheres of influence, and international politicking, it is time for the Commonwealth Heads to concentrate on a leader who can inspire and provide the strong leadership necessary to once more kick start this organisation into positive and relevant action for the peoples of its member states and mankind.

Climate change, security, migration, dialogue of civilizations and religions, the co-existence of liberal and religious values, the perpetration of tolerance, respect and understanding, the management and measurement of political, economic and social success, the forging of autochthonous roads to democracy, the universal respect for human rights and their definition, are world issues that are craving for the Commonwealth’s and the world’s attention.

Where is the Commonwealth’s distinctive voice in all this? Where is it heard on the international media, in Davos, in the opinion-making centres of dialogue spread throughout the regions of the world? It is a voice that has been missing for too long. It is a voice that can make the difference as we all well know from the experience of Apartheid and the Commonwealth’s well documented and respected role in its eradication, at least from the Republic of South Africa if not from other parts of the world.

Of course, in the words of the Charter, reflecting so many earlier declarations by the Heads of Government, “…the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent and equal sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of our peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace, and influencing international society to the benefit of all through the pursuit of common principles and values”

This is no supranational organisation. It is a traditional international law organisation of sovereign states. All the more so, it cannot have a leadership which is bureaucratically oriented; all the more so, it needs a political leadership what can galvanise the Leader of each of its member nations to go beyond the commonday and to reach for higher ground of the common interests of humankind. All the more, it needs a leadership which can remind each and every Head of Government at all times, not just at the formal meeting in CHOGM, that he or she is committed, through the Charter, to “the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth.”

To achieve its goals, this Commonwealth also needs resources. It cannot remain a poorly financed organisation where each and every member does not give a contribution equal to that member nations current economic strength: this is, after all, an organisation which embraces at one and the same time, countries of the G8 and G20, and leading regional economies in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia down to the geographical limits of the southern hemisphere. If the political will for the Commonwealth to succeed is there among its members, then this organisation should be well funded to carry out its vital work for democracy, human rights and development in general.

There is no doubt that, beyond global issues already indicated, beyond its contribution to development through capacity building and the sharing of expertise and experience, the Commonwealth is an organisation that needs, in practice, to focus on its mission to foster democracy and human rights within its membership as an example to the world.

This is a mission not only for the Secretary General and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. Both are crucial players in the process. Both contribute through good offices, through peer pressure, through engagement and dialogue to ensuring that each and every member nation remains within the democratic parameters which characterise its membership.

I have had the privilege of serving for quite a number of years in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the last two years as Chair of that Group of Foreign Ministers drawn from each region of the Commonwealth and entrusted with assisting the Secretary General and the Heads of Government in ensuring that democratic values are upheld at all times within the Commonwealth.

The function of this Group however is strongly focused on an ex post facto analysis of happenings in a member nation of the Commonwealth and in trying to address that situation that has arisen or is arising to keep or to return the member nation in the fold.

Since 2013, when I concluded my term of service as Speaker of this country’s Parliament, an institution that, in its current representational format, is fast approaching its 95th year of existence, I have had the honour of serving as a member of the European Commission for Democracy through Law, more popularly known as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

This Commission, of which sixty countries are now members[1], is composed of an array of experts with academic, legal, judicial, and political backgrounds who offer their services to assist requesting states or courts in ensuring that the highest standards of democratic and human rights practice are maintained in legislation and in its implementation in practice. The Commission works in three main areas: democratic institutions and fundamental rights; constitutional and ordinary justice; elections, referenda and political parties.

The members on the Commission each serve in their own independent personal capacity and, on their appointment by the Government of each of the participating states, have their position secured for their term of office. In this new role, I have been, for example, one of the rapporteurs on the new Tunisian Constitution, on the ongoing process of constitutional change in Georgia, on the laws regulating the press and media in Hungary or even, in 2014, as part of the Venice Commission delegation engaging with the players in Tripoli on the issue of a new constitution for Libya.

This is an ongoing, not an ex post facto, process of assisting in the keeping of the highest standards in relation to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in the countries requesting such assistance, even if these countries are not members of the organisation itself.

In my view, the Commonwealth needs such a Commission for its member nations. Other parts of the world, namely South America, are looking at how to replicate the highly successful experience of the Venice Commission in post-Berlin wall Europe and in its assistance to the new democracies that emerged at that point.

The Eminent Persons Group, from whose report, emerged an number of ideas including that of having a Charter of the Commonwealth, had noted what it called “a significant gap” in the existing system of monitoring respect for the democratic values of the Commonwealth. “The gap”, the report stated “is twofold: first, the need for full-time attention to be paid to determining when serious or persistent violations of the Commonwealth’s political values, particularly infringements of human rights, may have started to occur; and second, the need for exploration and analysis to advise both the Secretary-General, and CMAG when serious or persistent violations persist despite the Secretary-General’s ‘good offices’ interventions. We are aware that the Secretariat now undertakes some of this work. However, full-time and separate assistance is required to address this issue properly.”

It therefore suggested the office of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. In its own words, the report stated that “(t)o fill this gap, the office of Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights should be created” with a number of responsibilities including, on the basis of the facts as ascertained “to render simultaneously to the Secretary-General and the Chairperson of CMAG advice on which an informed decision may be taken when a state is violating core Commonwealth values, particularly human rights, in a serious or persistent way; and to indicate approaches for remedial action; to “(w)ork with the Secretariat to strengthen the existing early warning system that identifies member states in danger of violating core values, and to advise the Secretary-General and the Chairperson of CMAG and indicate possible corrective actions that could be taken; and, to “(d)raw on the work and knowledge of the various Commonwealth civil society organisations and professional networks to establish A Commonwealth of the People a pan-Commonwealth system to detect human rights violations, threats to religious freedom and other impending difficulties so that they can be pre-empted or quickly resolved.

This bold initiative foundered on the rocks of a lack of political will, indecision and even hostile reception, leaving a harmful divide among the nations of the Commonwealth. Yet it did point at an attempt to have an more accentuated a priori approach not an ex post facto approach to the practice of democracy, the rule of law and human rights within the Commonwealth as an organisation.

In my view, the figure of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights also posed a competitive situation, perhaps even an existential threat, to the office of the Secretary General and so the lack of enthusiasm to embrace this new office was not, in my opinion, unduly lamented in some quarters in that regard.

Enriched with the practical experience of the Venice Commission now in place and functioning for the past twenty-five years, I would think that a Commonwealth Commission for Democracy through Law embracing also some of the functions raised by the Eminent Persons Group Report, would sit much more comfortably in the organisation of the Commonwealth.

Additionally, this Commission would introduce a concept that is missing from the EPG report: that of ensuring the highest standards also in the laws relating to democratic rule and in the implementing structures for those laws, areas in which the Venice Commission assists as a core part of its mission.

In this structure, one would envisage that issues can be referred to the Commonwealth Commission for Democracy through Law, or otherwise named as the Commonwealth Commission for the Rule of Law, Democracy and Human Rights, not only by CMAG, the Secretary General and by the Member Countries themselves, but also, for example, by the Speaker of the Parliament of the particular member country of the Commonwealth.

In truth, the Commonwealth would be nothing but a colourful, even cute, relic of a colonial past if it were not to live to its mission of providing binding shared values of democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Therein lies the challenge of leadership, therein lies the challenge to take up the opportunity of the Malta CHOGM of 2015 to provide new beginnings for the Commonwealth, to revitalise an organisation that has tremendous unexploited inherent potential, to give this organisation a new clear voice in world affairs and a clear mandate to take the implementation of democracy, the rule of law and human rights to new higher standards throughout its membership.

Thank you.

Michael Frendo*


*Dr Michael Frendo is Speaker Emeritus of the Parliament of Malta and a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malta. He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Round Table, the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Since 2013, he serves as a member of the Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy through Law and runs his own legal and consultancy practice, Frendo Advisory.  Email: [email protected]; [email protected].

[1] The Commission has 60 member states: the 47 Council of Europe member states, plus 13 other countries namelyAlgeria, Brazil, Chile, Israel, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Korea, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Mexico, Peru, Tunisia and the United States of America. The European Commission and OSCE/ODIHR participate in the plenary sessions of the Commission. The 60 member states have a collective population of 1.5 billion people.