The UK Minister for the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, delivered the final address at a two-day conference which focused on the aims and likely outcomes of the Commonwealth leaders’ Summit, scheduled for April 2018.
The conference was organised by The Round Table: the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, together with the Royal Over-Seas League, the Commonwealth Association, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (International).
In the final session, entitled “Beyond London 2018”, Lord Ahmad outlined the UK’s plans for the Commonwealth Summit in 2018 and the UK’s chairing of the 52-nation Commonwealth grouping.
Below is his address to the conference:
Thank you for that kind welcome, and thank you to all those involved in organising this conference.
My own family are an example of what the Commonwealth is today. Both my parents were born in India, and my wife was born in Pakistan and later moved to Australia. My children are products of the next generation that defines the family of the Commonwealth.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting with such an influential and passionate Commonwealth audience, and I look forward to taking questions later on.
The Commonwealth is an extraordinary organisation. Its population of nearly two and a half billion is drawn from every continent on our planet.
With nearly two thirds of its citizens currently under the age of 30, the Commonwealth has the potential to be a truly influential player on the world stage in the years ahead.
Our ambition for the summit next April is to revitalise this great institution and drive progress towards realising its full potential. For the Commonwealth to succeed, and be relevant for this and future generations, we need it to keep pace with the extraordinary changes happening in our world.
The Commonwealth has done transformative work in the past: supporting countries through their transition to independence, helping them develop free and democratic institutions, and bringing about an end to apartheid in South Africa.
Recently, we have seen how Heads of Government came together in Malta to press for an ambitious Climate Change Agreement in Paris, and we have witnessed the valuable work of the Secretary General Baroness Scotland and her Secretariat in brokering a political agreement in Zambia. We must also realise that there has been no greater ambassador of the Commonwealth than Her Majesty, and we must recognise the phenomenal contribution Her Majesty the Queen has made.
The members of the Commonwealth face major common challenges: climate change; security; economic pressures; and threats to our shared values, to name but a few.
If we are to address these challenges successfully, it is vital that all 52 members are united in their purpose and actions.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is an opportunity to demonstrate that unity and intent. That is why its overarching theme will be “Towards a Common future”. The Prime Minister recently set out the priorities on which leaders will seek to agree action at the summit.
The first of these is to build a more prosperous future, by boosting trade and investment between us and maximising the opportunities born of our ‘Commonwealth Advantage’ – a common language and legal base that make trade between Commonwealth members up to 19% cheaper and more efficient than with other countries.
The second priority is to ensure a more secure future, by increasing cooperation to tackle security challenges such as global terrorism, organised crime and cyber attacks. I will shortly visit India to discuss some of these issues.
The third priority is about a more sustainable future: strengthening the ability of small and vulnerable states to deal with the effects of climate change and other global crises.
Lastly, the fourth priority focuses on a fairer future: promoting those shared values of democracy, fundamental freedoms and good governance as set out in the Commonwealth Charter.
But the world is constantly changing. If the Commonwealth is to represent its overwhelmingly young population and serve their interests into the 21st century, it needs to reform to demonstrate its relevance.
In addition to the four priorities we have identified, the summit is an opportunity to help catalyse that reform and revitalisation of the Commonwealth.
There are three driving forces within the Commonwealth and they must all play a role in its renewal.
First, the Commonwealth Secretariat, whose reform is now underway. Secondly, the work that member states do together; and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the vibrant cooperation and collaboration between the citizens of the Commonwealth supported by our accredited organisations.
If the Commonwealth is to have a bright future our young people also need to be at the heart of these reform efforts.
I have had the privilege of meeting many youth leaders from across the Commonwealth, including the Queen’s Young Leaders and the Commonwealth International Youth Taskforce who came to London last week to shape the agenda for the Commonwealth Youth Forum.
From pioneering work on women’s mentoring, to supporting social enterprises, I am constantly impressed by the drive, focus and desire of our young people to shape a better future. Their dedication and example demonstrates what a bright future the organisation could and should have, and for what we can aim to achieve through on-going collaboration and the wide sharing of knowledge and ideas.
I am visiting as many Commonwealth countries as I can in the run up to the summit.
Over the summer I travelled to India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana, Fiji, Australia, and I represented the UK at the Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa.
During these visits I have been struck by how much knowledge and expertise there is in so many areas; expertise which, if shared, could benefit us all.
One example is the ground-breaking work of Ghana’s National Peace Council. This representative body of faith and ethnic groups works to prevent and adjudicate tensions between different groups. Its power is enshrined in law, and its respected status means that when tensions flare it can quickly resolve them by working with elders and tribal leaders.
Ghana’s experience of building a tolerant and inclusive society offers lessons that the rest of the Commonwealth and indeed the global community could learn from.
Addressing the impact of natural disasters and climate change is another area where the Commonwealth could be more influential in the future.
I visited the Caribbean in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, and witnessed the devastation wreaked upon the Turks and Caicos Islands. I visited Grand Turk, which had been totally flattened by the hurricane. I spoke to residents whose lives had been turned upside down and who were extraordinarily stoical about rebuilding them. And I saw the tireless work of the British service personnel, distributing almost £60 million worth of aid and equipment.
Hurricanes in the Caribbean and floods in South Asia and Sierra Leone are unfortunately just some of the most recent natural disasters to hit the Commonwealth family. 38 of our 52 members are small and vulnerable states. Each year natural disasters affect as many as 28 million people, and cause losses worth billions of dollars. It is worth remembering that we are only hosting the summit because of the devastation that Vanuatu suffered in 2015 as a result of Cyclone Pam.
There is clear scope for greater collaboration on this issue across the Commonwealth, to help members strengthen their ability to withstand these disasters.
I will be happy to take questions in a moment. I will conclude by saying that we want the summit to be a milestone event in Commonwealth history – the moment it steps forward to take its rightful place among the world’s greatest and most influential institutions.
The UK Government will work tirelessly with member states and our Commonwealth partners to realise that ambition.
Now is our chance to revitalise the Commonwealth, to realise its potential and to drive forward a comprehensive and inclusive policy agenda, and to deliver for our young people. To create a Commonwealth fit for the 21st Century.