[These are two excerpts from an article on decisions taken at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the position of Head of the Commonwealth, the High Level Review and Brexit and the Commonwealth which appears in the latest issue of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
The High Level Review
In the CHOGM communiqué leaders recalled their request at Malta to the secretary-general to establish a High Level Group (HLG) to review the full governance arrangements of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Noting the delay in the start of the work of the group so established, they asked the group to submit a report a month before the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers’ Meeting (CFAMM) in New York in September 2018 and instructed foreign ministers as their representatives to decide what action to take in response to the conclusion of the group.
The subsequent work of the HLG, led by former President Anote Tong of Kiribati, seems to have become embroiled in controversy. Initially, soon after it was first set up, the BBC ran a report by its diplomatic correspondent suggesting that the group had begun to consider the question of who might succeed the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. This brought forth a denial the very same day from the ‘Independent Secretariat of the High Level Group’, which stated that ‘the issue of succession of the Head of the Commonwealth is not part of the Group’s mandate’. We know now that this issue was, in fact, handled in a different way, largely as an exercise in official British diplomacy.
Controversy of a different kind seems to have ensued when the HLG’s report to CFAMM was issued in early September. It covered the expected issues, such as: the governance structure of the Secretariat, including the roles and responsibilities of the Board of Governors and its Executive Committee; the need for accountability and transparency in the Secretariat’s work; the imperative of funding being placed on a more secure and predictable footing; and finding a more effective way of matching mandates to resources. More unexpectedly in the eyes of some, the HLG also made recommendations on the process of recruitment of new secretaries-general, as well as that of renewal of incumbents in that post, seeking to assign key role to a ‘troika’ of the previous, current and future chairs-in-office to coordinate the process where decisions cannot be taken at a CHOGM.
According to reliable sources, the HLG has recommended, inter alia, that selection of secretaries-general in future should be merit-based and not tied to geographical considerations, that the post should be advertised on the basis of agreed job specifications and – taking a leaf out of the UN’s book – that candidates should present their vision and priorities to the Board of Governors. It has also proposed that the functions of the troika should include appraising the performance of an incumbent secretary-general. The group also recommended that at least one deputy secretary-general (DSG) should be urgently appointed. (At the commencement of the current secretary-general’s term, there were three DSGs in position, but none of them remain in place; one vacancy at that level is now being filled and the recruitment process is underway.)
The recommendations of the HLG were considered by foreign ministers in New York in late September but consensus did not prove possible, given the view of some member states that the selection and renewal of secretaries-general were the unique preserve of heads of government. It was further argued that ministers had not had the benefit of proper advice from the Board of Governors, so the latter was asked to consider the HLG report and report to ministers, with provision made for an extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers to be held in June 2019 to make a final determination on the group’s recommendations.
At the time of writing (December 2018) it is unclear where the process is heading. It has been learnt that, in the view of the Board of Governors, the report of the HLG did not exhaustively cover certain policy issues, requiring more work to be done by the group. It also seems to have been decided that certain issues are deemed more urgent than others, including agreement on the future process of recruiting a secretary-general – one that will arguably be difficult to achieve.
The recommendations of the HLG have a direct bearing on the future of Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, who was appointed for a four-year term that ends on 31 March 2020. No secretary-general has served less than two terms (though an unsuccessful attempt was made by some countries in 2003 to deny Don McKinnon a second one). Secretary-General Scotland has had to negotiate turbulent waters almost from the very outset, including critical media coverage of alleged administrative and financial decisions, a largely unsympathetic ruling on a consequent complaint by her to the UK’s Independent Press Standards Organisation, and two much publicised adverse judgments by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s own Arbitral Tribunal on employment petitions. The latest of those tribunal rulings, made public as this article went to press, directly indicted her management of one of her deputies, with both judgments ordering substantial compensation. The incumbent secretary-general could therefore scarcely be enthused about the seeming urgency being displayed to agree on new procedures for performance assessment and of recruitment of secretaries-general, with the added complication that the next CHOGM in Rwanda is not likely to take place before her term expires.
As already noted, the HLG is expected to look more closely at the governance and funding procedures of the Secretariat. But bureaucratic procedures and the provision of adequate resources, important as they are, are not the core challenges of the future. The entire global context and environment in which the Commonwealth operates is changing dramatically, central to which is a dangerous retreat from multilateralism. Global great powers, a new one among them, are going back to the old game of carving out spheres of influence. The concepts of liberal democracy and of a value-based regime of international relations are under assault at the hands of populists with narrow perceptions of national interest. All this makes for uncertainty and anxiety as the modern Commonwealth prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2019. Will the association be able to ride out the challenge?
Amitav Banerji served in the Commonwealth Secretariat for 25 years, eight of them as Head of the Secretary-General’s Office and six as Political Director. He currently works as Projects Director for the Global Leadership Foundation and is a member of the Editorial Board of ‘The Round Table’.