montage of panels and audiences at Round Table conference

The UK, the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Summit 2018

On 19-20 October 2017 around 150 people gathered at the Royal Over-Seas League in London for a conference on ‘The UK, the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Summit 2018’, organised by the editorial board of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs in partnership with the Royal Over-Seas League, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (International) and the Commonwealth Association.

The conference focused on the challenges and opportunities for the UK, its fellow Commonwealth member-states and the Commonwealth as an association in the run-up to the Commonwealth Summit to be held in London and Windsor in April 2018. Participants heard keynote speeches from Lord Howell of Guildford (President of the Royal Commonwealth Society), the Hon Hassan B. Jallow (Chief Justice of The Gambia), and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (UK Minister for the Commonwealth), and around twenty other speakers contributed to panel discussions on the arrangements for the 2018 Summit, the Commonwealth Charter, Commonwealth trade and investment, small states and climate change, and the non-governmental Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth network

David Howell, Lord Howell of Guildford (President, Royal Commonwealth Society) introduced what would become a recurring theme of the conference, that the Commonwealth was best seen as a network, or a series of overlapping and complementary networks. The old hub and spoke pattern of the past no longer held; even at the intergovernmental level there was no one centre, and 1326 connections not 52. The twenty-first century was already characterised by global networks and clusters, and the Commonwealth – with its unique assets including the knowledge and experience among the continually expanding associated and accredited civil society networks as well as the intergovernmental organisations – was a living and growing global network par excellence.

The road to the Summit

Tim Hitchens (CEO, The Commonwealth Summit) agreed with this characterisation of the Commonwealth as a network of networks. Not only did it comprise the Secretariat and the other intergovernmental organisations; there were also the myriad ways in which Commonwealth countries worked together with looser arrangements; and most importantly the non-governmental side, the most vibrant part of the Commonwealth. The arrangements for the Commonwealth Summit would reflect this richness and depth both through a series of events and meetings in the run-up to the Summit, and during the week of the Summit itself, when four parallel but interconnected fora would bring together representatives of youth, women, civil society, and business, leading up to and feeding into the meetings of the Heads of Government themselves. The overall theme of the Summit would be ‘Towards a Common Future’, and the Summit’s priorities would have a strong youth focus.

Dr Josephine Ojiambo (Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General) went into more detail about the four pillars or sub-themes which had been agreed by governments for the 2018 Summit: a more sustainable future (including taking forward the Commonwealth’s innovative work in climate finance, resilience building and sharing of good practice among small states; a new blueprint for integrated ocean management; and new initiatives in digital health), a fairer future (committing the Commonwealth to work towards more inclusive societies, the ending of discrimination, and the furthering of human rights and good governance), a more secure future (encompassing important work in countering violent extremism but also cross-divisional work on health, education and human rights), and a more prosperous future (building on the ‘Commonwealth advantage’ in trade to further trade, competitiveness, access to finance and capacity-building particularly amongst the least developed states). These were all areas in which the Commonwealth could add value by mobilising the strengths of its networks. Overarching all of these would be the theme of Commonwealth renewal, furthering the processes already set in train by the Secretary-General, in order to focus on those areas where the Commonwealth could make a real difference.

Carl Wright (Founder, Commonwealth Local Government Forum) identified five major opportunities for the Summit, but also four big challenges. The opportunities were, first, that this was the first UK summit since 1997, and could draw on the UK’s extensive diplomatic and logistical infrastructure; secondly, that the UK would continue to chair the Commonwealth for the following two years and had already made clear that it saw the Summit as just the start of that two-year responsibility; thirdly, that the UK government was willing to deploy substantial resources to ensure the Summit’s success, as evidenced by the size of the Commonwealth taskforce in the Cabinet Office; fourthly, that there was now widespread acceptance of the need for Commonwealth renewal; and fifthly, that Brexit had focused minds on future trade and economic relations and global roles. The challenges were, first, the logistical problems presented by organising the four fora as well as the Summit itself in a very busy global city; secondly, the difficulty of finding political solutions on contentious issues to which all member states could subscribe; thirdly, the need to engage the public, in particular in a way that saw the Commonwealth as forward- rather than backward-looking; and fourthly, the danger that large parts of the media would view the Summit through the lens of Brexit, and would stoke up expectations which were neither realistic nor achievable. There therefore needed to be both a major drive to inform public opinion about the Commonwealth, in the UK and other member states, and very careful preparation to ensure that the Summit’s outcomes did not disappoint.

A Commonwealth of values

Richard Bourne (Founder, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) pointed out that in the years since the adoption of the Commonwealth Charter in 2012 and its formal signature by HM the Queen in 2013, two governments had left the Commonwealth because they were unwilling to adhere to its principles. Recent attacks on journalists and others in Malta, South Asia and elsewhere had shown that the Charter still faced huge challenges.

Dr Eva Namusoke (Associate Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies) focused on the situation in Uganda, and in particular the deeply divisive attempt by supporters of Yoweri Museveni to amend the constitution in order to allow him to contest further presidential elections (the constitution currently only allowing candidates aged between 35 and 75 years to stand). Widespread opposition to the move, including among some young supporters of the National Resistance Movement itself, had been met with violence and repression; indeed, even an attempt to debate the issue at Makerere University had resulted in the use of rubber bullets and tear gas. Clearly, the values enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter – including freedom of the press and association – were being challenged in Uganda. While Museveni was unlikely to be thwarted in this instance, the movement towards democracy in Uganda would continue. It was important that the rest of the Commonwealth should challenge the Ugandan government, and at the same time show support and solidarity for the youth and civil society organisations in the vanguard of the democratic movement.

Assan Ali (Capacity Building Officer, Commonwealth Secretariat) described the work of the Countering Violent Extremism Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat, set up following agreement at the Malta Summit in 2015. The aim of the unit was to support governments in building national resilience against violent extremism, in particular by sharing best practice and strategies, and helping to tailor them to the specific contexts in each country. The unit worked with national governments, multilateral organisations, and civil society, and drew upon the Commonwealth’s longstanding championship of democratic values and its advantage as a non-securitised association which could be trusted as an honest broker. While the international field in this area was crowded, the Commonwealth’s unique profile allowed it to leverage connections at all levels to add something of real value in the fight against violent extremism.

Philippa Drew (Commonwealth Equality Network) surveyed the landscape of LGBT rights in the Commonwealth, and argued that there had been little progress in this area. Of some 72 countries in the world which continued to criminalise homosexuality, 36 of them were members of the Commonwealth. Some 16 of these also specifically criminalised lesbianism, but discrimination against lesbians, being tied in with gender inequality, was very much more widespread than that figure suggested. Various explanations for discrimination had been put forward. Some blamed religion – but, as the Archbishop of the West Indies had recently shown convincingly, there was no basis in the bible for the repression of those of a different sexual orientation. Others pointed to culture, but again there was no evidence of any systematic law-based discrimination until colonial times. Colonialism was the root of most of the repressive legislation, and it was therefore incumbent on the UK government both to apologise for what had been done in the name of the British empire and to stand up for the values enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter, which included celebrating the richness of multiple identities.

The Gambia returns to the fold?

Tim Hitchens and Josephine Ojiambo had already expressed the hope that the 2018 Commonwealth Summit would see the return of The Gambia to the Commonwealth. The Hon Hassan B. Jallow (Chief Justice of The Gambia) reflected on what he described as one of the Commonwealth’s and Africa’s great success stories in relating the events which led to the transition from the autocratic rule of Yahya Jammeh to the democratic rule of Adama Barrow. This transition had been largely peaceful, against the odds, and brought about by a combination of protest within the country, uniting religious, business and youth leaders, and pressure (backed by the threat of military force) from The Gambia’s immediate neighbours. The country faced multiple challenges as a result of Jammeh’s 22 years of misrule, but the new president had pledged himself firmly to restoring the rule of law, good governance and human rights, and the values enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. It was Jammeh who had pulled The Gambia out of the Commonwealth, since he had resented Commonwealth concern for the situation in the country. It was therefore very natural both that the Gambian people should still feel part of the Commonwealth and that President Barrow should be keen to negotiate the country’s return. It was to be hoped not only that the Commonwealth would offer aid and advice in restoring democratic institutions and the rule of law in The Gambia, but that The Gambia would in time become, as it had been under Dawda Jawara, a beacon for Commonwealth values.

Trade, investment and Brexit

Several speakers warned that the 2018 Summit would inevitably be seen by large swathes of the UK media as a ‘Brexit’ summit, and that there would be hugely inflated expectations in such quarters which were bound to be disappointed. This eventuality needed to be acknowledged and to whatever extent possible mitigated.

Patsy Robertson (Chair, Commonwealth Association) referred to work by the Ramphal Institute on the implications of Brexit for ACP countries. While those implications were as yet unquantifiable, given that the terms of the UK’s leaving were still the subject of negotiation, it was clear that ACP countries would face multiple challenges around continuing levels of EU development aid, access to UK markets, and influencing the international trade environment.

Sir Hugo Swire MP (Deputy Chair, Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council) observed that the Commonwealth had suddenly taken on a new relevance in the UK, in the context of its post-Brexit future, but he acknowledged that the issues raised needed to be treated with sensitivity and that any talk of an ‘Empire 2.0’ was not only misguided but deeply insulting to other countries. Indeed, he felt that the exciting opportunities to develop intra-Commonwealth trade and investment owed much less to Brexit than to the widely accepted ‘Commonwealth advantage’, which meant that the costs of trading between Commonwealth countries were around 18-20% less than between a member state and a non-member state. It was true that the smaller Commonwealth countries would be losing one of their most important champions in the EU, but he felt confident that Malta and Cyprus would step up to the plate.

HE Dinesh K. Patnaik (Deputy High Commissioner, Indian High Commission) reflected on the history of trade relations. In the 1920s and 1930s there was a concerted effort to build a system of imperial preference, but it had never worked well, particularly in the face of member states becoming individually more protectionist, and the Second World War, ushering in an international system dominated by the US, spelt the death knell for such schemes. By the 1960s and 1970s, opinion in the UK was convinced that the European Communities represented the future, and the Commonwealth the past. Some people seemed to think that in the wake of the UK vote to leave the European Union, some sort of Commonwealth trade system could be resurrected. This was unrealistic. The UK now accounted for only a small proportion of intra-Commonwealth trade. Other Commonwealth countries would need to assess their own situations and respond accordingly. Brexit might present some opportunities, but it was unlikely that other Commonwealth states would agree to deals unless it was clear that they themselves would benefit from them.

Dr Emily Jones (Director, Global Economic Governance Programme, University of Oxford) focused on the implications of Brexit for small developing Commonwealth member states. These implications were likely to vary from state to state, and were potentially most worrying in those few instances where there was an export sector heavily reliant on the UK market, such as horticulture in Kenya or tuna fishing and processing in Mauritius. It should be noted that there were risks attached to Brexit, particularly concerning post-Brexit trade arrangements with the UK, non-tariff barriers, supply chains within the existing EU, and standards. It was certainly conceivable that even with similar trade agreements in place for the UK post- compared to pre-Brexit, the costs of trading with the UK might go up. On the other hand, Brexit offered an opportunity to put in place trade arrangements which improved on those which existed between the EU and developing countries, and which learned from the failings of those arrangements. Much would depend on whether international development was put at the centre of the UK’s new external trade ambitions.

Migration and visas

The UK’s migration and visa policies came under fire from a number of speakers and participants in the conference. In his opening speech Lord Howell had described how successful networks were built on trust and mutual respect, and declared that the UK’s attitude to students from India and elsewhere harmed both the Commonwealth and the UK itself. This was a sentiment echoed by many participants, who argued that restrictions on migration and visas for students, businesspeople and others tended in the long term to erode the linkages which underpinned the Commonwealth, diminished the UK’s influence, and ran counter to the image of a modern, global-oriented, post-Brexit UK. Indeed such restrictions gave the very opposite impression. HE Dinesh K. Patnaik went further, describing free movement of people as the elephant in the room when it came to the UK’s relationship with its Commonwealth partners post-Brexit: few were likely to agree trade deals without also agreeing on removing restrictions on the free flow of people, without which freer trade was likely to have little impact.

Building small states’ resilience

Speaking in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which had wrought devastation across the Caribbean and left Barbuda uninhabited for the first time in 300 years, Dr Jack Corbett (Associate Professor in Politics, University of Southampton) underlined the gravity of the threat to small island states from climate change. Indeed, there were some states in the Pacific which were likely to disappear altogether (leaving difficult questions about the fates of their inhabitants, and indeed what would happen to their exclusive economic zones). His own research, focusing on the role of small states in international negotiations, had highlighted the crucial importance of small states’ representatives being present and active in international negotiations about climate change. In many cases there were formidable capacity and cost obstacles to such participation, but his research had also uncovered some little acknowledged advantages of small statehood, including flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness to citizens’ needs. The Commonwealth should do more to support small states in international negotiations (particularly at the WTO in Geneva), building on these advantages, magnifying their voices, and helping to mitigate the obstacles.

Ambassador Edwin Laurent (Director, Ramphal Institute) referred to small island states as being like canaries in a coal mine: though they suffered more than others from climate change, their experiences were a wake-up call for the whole international community. Much more needed to be done to build their resilience: extreme weather events were likely to become far more common as the twenty-first century progressed. They therefore needed help not just with relief, recovery and reconstruction, but with improved preventative measures, including hurricane-proof housing, stronger sea defences, and disaster-proof infrastructure. Most importantly, the Commonwealth should work together to push for much more ambitious climate change mitigation. At the Paris negotiations, small island states had argued successfully for a 1.5° C target increase – but it had been calculated that the commitments made by nation states (even including those agreed by the US pre-Trump) would still result in a rise in global temperatures of at least 3.1° C by the end of the century. As a political not technical organisation, the Commonwealth’s best work would be to mobilise all its member states behind a much more ambitious programme of mitigation.

HE Dr Karen-Mae Hill (High Commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda) emphasised that as a result of climate change, extreme weather events were becoming both bigger and more frequent. Under the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, storms with sustained winds exceeding 156 mph qualified as a category 5 hurricane; Hurricane Irma, which had devastated Barbuda (and covered an area the size of Texas), had sustained wind speeds in excess of 185 mph, with gusts exceeding 200 mph. Very few structures could survive such events, and very few small island states could rebuild after disasters of this magnitude without external support. But the inhabitants of affected states should not have to go begging after each catastrophe. The goal should be to equip island states to withstand such disasters. It had to be said, also, that the international system was stacked against the small island states such as those in the Caribbean. Perhaps because they were not political problem cases – they were democracies, with respect for the rule of law and human rights – they tended to be overlooked when it came to the development agenda. Moreover, whenever they found ways to improve economically, they were liable to find the carpet pulled out from under their feet. Serious thought was needed about how to factor climate change resilience into the international development agenda.

Engaging with youth, women and civil society

In outlining the preparations for the People’s Forum in April 2018, Vijay Krishnarayan (Director, Commonwealth Foundation) noted that a civil society dimension had been an integral part of Commonwealth summits since Harare in 1991. However, the degree of intersection and interaction between the People’s Forum and the Summit itself had varied over time. Indeed, it had not gone unnoticed that at recent summits the relatively newer Business and Youth fora had enjoyed greater face time with Heads and ministers than the People’s Forum. He was heartened that the preparations for the 2018 Summit envisaged greater interaction between the different Commonwealth components. The People’s Forum had two key objectives: to enable civil society organisations to learn from each other, and to bring civil society closer to the political dimensions. The themes of the 2018 People’s Forum, focusing on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16, including the building of just, peaceful and inclusive societies, had been chosen both as reinforcing the work of previous fora and as enabling civil society to make a meaningful impact on the discussions by Heads themselves. Civil society was also central to the theme of Commonwealth renewal. It was the civil society dimension which made the Commonwealth unique as an international organisation, and the Commonwealth should play to its strengths.

Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua (Head of Gender, Commonwealth Secretariat) also highlighted the theme of interaction, saying that gender issues and the empowerment of women and girls were central to all the work and aims of the Commonwealth, and needed to be mainstreamed as well as discussed in the Women’s Forum itself. Partnership and cross-fertilisation were the order of the day. Issues such as women’s economic empowerment, women’s political participation, women countering violent extremism, women’s education, reproductive health rights, and women’s human rights were all crucial to the achievement both of the Sustainable Development Goals and of the Commonwealth’s own aims. Unlike ministerial meetings, the Women’s Forum would seek to engage across the silos of civil society, academia, the private sector and officials, and its themes would be chosen to be relevant, effective, and capable of follow-through in terms of policy outcomes, programmes, and dialogue with governments.

Similarly, Lawrence Muli (Assistant Programmes Officer, Youth Division, Commonwealth Secretariat) emphasised that youth issues were central to the Commonwealth’s future and ability to achieve its aims, and not just of interest to young people. Indeed, the Commonwealth Charter had recognised that the future success of the association depended first and foremost on engaging and empowering young people. Hence the Youth Forum would aim not just to provide an opportunity for young people to articulate their views, but a means through which their views could be factored into the discussions at intergovernmental level. There was an enormous dynamism in Commonwealth youth networks which could be harnessed for the benefit of the Commonwealth as a whole. Young people felt keenly that the themes highlighted in the preparations for the 2018 Summit – a more sustainable, fairer, more secure and more prosperous future – were ones on which they had strong and supportive views and important perspectives.

Representing one particular civil society organisation, Dr Joanna Newman (Secretary-General, Association of Commonwealth Universities) highlighted the role that higher education played on the one hand in connecting together women, youth, business and civil society, and on the other in enabling Commonwealth member states to achieve their own aims and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, there was not a single SDG which did not have some education component to it. The enormous reservoir of expertise in Commonwealth universities was there ready to be utilised both to inform policy agendas and to ensure deliverable outcomes: for instance, universities were central to economic empowerment, respect and understanding of diversity, building climate change resilience, or countering violent extremism. The ACU and its members looked forward to playing their part in supporting Commonwealth aims and activities and helping Commonwealth member states to meet the global challenges of the twenty-first century.

The UK government’s vision

Describing the Commonwealth as an incredible family of 52 nations and 2.3 billion people, the conference’s final speaker, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (UK Minister for the Commonwealth) stated that it was the aim of the UK government as hosts of the 2018 Summit, and chair of the association for the following two years, to revitalise this great institution and enable it to realise its full potential. The Commonwealth had done a huge amount of valuable work in the past – including helping newly independent countries to build and sustain democracies, bringing about an end to apartheid, and more recently pressing for an ambitious global agreement on climate change. The Secretary-General’s recent work in brokering an agreement in Zambia showed how well it was still respected. But all agreed that regeneration, rejuvenation and revitalisation were needed in order for the Commonwealth to play its proper role in meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century. As the 2018 Summit’s main themes made clear, the Commonwealth had an almost unique capacity to mobilise resources to face those challenges and to create a better future for all its citizens. Cutting across those themes were the all-important issues of youth and gender. In all these areas the Commonwealth had both the capacity and, he believed, the will to deliver substantial outcomes. The UK government for its part would be working tirelessly to ensure that the Commonwealth took its rightful place amongst the most influential international organisations.


Detailed reports and video interviews from the conference can be found on our Commonwealth News pages.