I hadn’t set foot in Marlborough House, home of the Commonwealth Secretariat, since literally the eve of lockdown in March 2020 when I’d attended the customary Commonwealth Day reception hosted by the then HRH Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. And so, nearly three years later, it was reassuring to return to this stately building for the Secretary-General’s 14th Dialogue with Commonwealth Accredited Organisations (AOs) of which The Round Table is one.
Seated at a long table in one of the large reception rooms, we were looking out over the gardens, the flags of the Commonwealth members hanging limply from their masts in the autumnal air, a watery sun filtering through the windows. Out of the 85 AOs about thirty representatives had come in person and about the same number joined online – a sign of the times that, whether we like it or not, hybrid is here to stay – although, as the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, KC, made clear, the intention henceforward is to meet as often as possible in person. It was, she said, indicative of the importance the Heads of Government attached to meeting face-to-face that CHOGM Rwanda 2022 was postponed for two years instead of being held ‘virtually.’
The proceedings began with a musical tribute to Her Majesty The Queen, performed online by the Commonwealth Resounds Youth Musicians, the words of the song carefully chosen to commemorate the late Queen’s reign as well as that of the new King Charles III. ‘A friendly smile is just a start/ When reaching out and warming hearts/ Embrace the world with open arms/ Let strength of spirit heal and calm….A ray of hope is just a start/ Uniting us when we’re apart…There will be sunlight /Always shining/ With its guiding Majesty.’
As Baroness Scotland stated, she was meeting members of the Accredited Organisations for the first time since the Queen’s passing nearly three months ago. ‘We must take heart from the central role she took in the Commonwealth,’ she extolled. ‘Her loss remains a profound sadness. I hope as we remember the service the Queen gave, we also remember how she honoured the Commonwealth.’ Describing how the Queen had specifically chosen her funeral to be held in Westminster Abbey so that all religious denominations could take part, the Secretary-General recalled the honour she felt at reading the first lesson of the service, which showed the late Queen’s devotion to the Commonwealth.
Baroness Scotland also expressed her ‘heartfelt and deep thanks’ to all the Accredited Organisations which had done so much to support the Commonwealth, whether it was helping after the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano in January 2022 or the devastating floods which hit Pakistan in the summer, killing thousands and displacing millions ‘over an area as large as the United Kingdom.’ She then went on to describe the ‘extraordinary’ CHOGM held in Kigali, Rwanda in June 2022, again paying tribute to the AOs ‘for coming to Rwanda in the shadow of the pandemic’. Reminding her listeners that of the 42 small states in the world, 33 are members of the Commonwealth, she said that one of the most important outcomes was that the subject of climate change was ‘ever present’. The Commonwealth is home to 2.5 billion people, she reminded us, ‘the wells are running dry, the oceans are rising and we are drowned by debt. We cannot compromise with catastrophe and so we have to compromise with each other.’
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As the Secretary-General continued with her list of objectives in which she said that she hoped the Accredited Organisations would continue to play a ‘full role throughout 2023’, it was evident that she too intends herself to play a full role for the remainder of her Secretary-Generalship. ‘We are in the battle of our lives. The Commonwealth Secretariat will leave no stone unturned in providing maximum assistance to our members,’ which, since Kigali, now includes Togo and Gabon, bringing total membership to 56.
Looking ahead she reminded us that 60% of the Commonwealth’s population was under the age of thirty and that 2023 was the Commonwealth Year of the Youth. A question from Andrew Larpent, Chairman of CommonAge, emphasised that a lot of the work done for the Commonwealth was by those who might normally have ‘retired’, the role model for such activity set by HM The Queen herself who was working on her boxes almost until the day she died aged 96 and the King who is already in his mid-70s. His request was for movement forward on the appointment of an ‘Envoy for Ageing’ who could look after the interests and contributions of the elder members of the Commonwealth. In response to a question from Helen Jones, Commonwealth Businesswoman’s Network, regarding the youngest members of society, the Secretary-General assured her that ‘young people are going to be very much supported.’
Richard Rieser, CEO of World of Inclusion, used the opportunity of the SG’s Dialogue to highlight once again the position of the disabled during what is UK Disability History Month (16-November-16 December). ‘The Covid Pandemic demonstrated across the UK and around the world just how fragile are the Rights that Disabled People have secured for themselves and how easily we become expendable.’ David Jones, representing the Commonwealth Organisation for Social Work, emphasised the plight of many young people who were not only carers for their siblings, but also for their parents and grandparents.
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Others who spoke on behalf of the Secretariat were Jennifer Namgyal, who gave an update on the Commonwealth Gender Declaration and Vijay Krishnarayan who reported on the collective Impact of the Accredited Organisations Study, reminding the AOs of their potential contribution by helping to set agendas, improving visibility, extending their reach, bringing in additional finances and partners. Although, he said, most AOs were all operating on micro finance, they were still able ‘to punch well above their weight’. Two new members of the AO family were introduced: Women Mediators Across the Commonwealth and the Zalmi Foundation based in Pakistan.
As always when focusing on the work of the Commonwealth, in anticipation of the next CHOGM in 2024 in Samoa, our discussions were underpinned by the hope that good intentions will translate into affirmative actions.
Victoria Schofield is the chair of the Round Table editorial board.