Gérard Hocmard for the Association France-Grande Bretagne and Mélanie Torrent for the Round Table welcomed participants to the round table. The Round Table was delighted to include a French event in its series of conferences and debates ahead of the Commonwealth Summit in April, and the Association France-Grande-Bretagne welcomed a discussion on Commonwealth affairs – still seldom discussed in detail in France.
Mark Albon, the head of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Unit at the Commonwealth Secretariat, opened the discussion. Although the Commonwealth is not a traditional security actor, its interest in peace-building and peace-making has led the Secretariat to become involved in devising programmes to prevent and counter violent extremism, alongside United Nations initiatives. One of the first tasks of the CVE unit, which started operating in January 2017, was to establish a working definition of violent extremism and examine its manifestations in Commonwealth countries. For the Commonwealth, a violent extremist is defined as someone who is willing to engage in violence in order to achieve political outcomes. On this basis, Commonwealth countries were divided into three categories: countries where violent extremism occurs on a daily basis (such as the United Kingdom, Canada, India or Pakistan); countries where indicators show that extremism is on the rise (Cameroon or Tanzania for example); and countries that are not directly affected by violent extremism (the vast majority of the Pacific islands). Given the Commonwealth’s limited resources, the Secretariat focuses largely on the second and third categories of member states (including Cameroon, Trinidad and Tobago, Bangladesh and the Pacific Islands), identifying areas where the Commonwealth can make a difference in CVE. One of the unit’s missions is to increase awareness of CVE within policy–making at the Secretariat itself, at Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Conferences, working also in partnership with the wider Commonwealth – from the Royal Commonwealth Society to the Commonwealth Local Government Forum. Operating at the local level, with both local government and civil society, Mark Albon emphasized, was crucial, as was getting cities involved. In more concrete terms, the CVE unit is currently working on new legislation to address violent extremism, on training programmes within the criminal justice and penal system and on training courses for religious leaders (with an insistence on the type of rhetoric that should be countered), so as to identify and counter both “push” and “pull” factors. Mark Albon discussed the wide range of extremist groups, noting the rise of far-right violent extremism, and emphasised that on a limited budget, the mission of the CVE unit was not to duplicate other initiatives or tools, but to channel Commonwealth expertise in law, education and government into local and effective preventive and countering measures.
Philippe Moreau Defarges, a former diplomat and a former senior fellow at IFRI (French Institute of International Relations), questioned the purpose and actions of the contemporary Commonwealth. Although the historical links of the institution were obvious, its contemporary raison d’être might seem more obscure. In Philippe Moreau Defarges’ opinion, because the Commonwealth has limited budgetary capacities, tackling CVE appears too ambitious. He illustrated what he considers to be the inability of the Commonwealth to take any concrete measures by underlining the institution’s failure to act as a mediator between India and Pakistan. Mark Albon in turn acknowledged that the Commonwealth is an organisation primarily bound together by history – the history and legacy of the British empire. However, the Commonwealth brings together countries on a voluntary basis: countries that share a common history but also a common vision for the future. According to him, the beauty of the Commonwealth is that, in a Commonwealth context, countries which are in conflict, such as India and Pakistan, are willing to enter into dialogue, for instance on the subject of CVE. While at United Nations summits, Commonwealth countries do not necessarily caucus together, within the Commonwealth they have the opportunity to discuss a common strategy. Moreover, the Commonwealth offers its members the possibility to discuss thorny, complex issues in a bespoke way – something that is impossible for individual countries.
Lydia Ruprecht, team leader in the Global Citizenship Education section at UNESCO, introduced the audience to UNESCO’s work through a short film on Preventing Violent Extremism Through Education (PVE-E) at UNESCO. She discussed some of the strategies developed by the cultural institution, the core idea of UNESCO being to build peace in the minds of individuals. The strength of UNESCO’s approach partly comes from the knowledge that education is not a reliable predictor and that education alone cannot provide all the answers. But preventing violent extremism can only be successful if our approach to education is reformed. UNESCO’s approach to PVE-E stems from three major assessments: schools are places of socialization; teachers have a significant impact on students which means that schools constitute a favoured space to access young people; and young people are notably vulnerable. On this basis, UNESCO’s actions have focused on three areas: global advocacy and awareness-raising; capacity-building seminars for teachers and education policy makers; and the development of normative tools. These include A Teacher’s Guide to PVE-E, and policy guidelines to raise citizens’ awareness of the necessity to prevent violent extremism through education. Like Mark Albon, Lydia Ruprecht emphasised the importance of working at the local level, in cooperation with stakeholders, including education institutions, the media and the wider community. A key task of UNESCO is to identify learners at risk, and to understand how schools can also become places of exclusion and violence, and how unprepared teachers can have an adverse impact on students. Identifying and disseminating good practice is therefore key.
The final speaker was Stuart Mole, former Chair of the Round Table and currently at the University of Exeter. He first emphasised that when multilateralism was under assault from so many directions, supporting internationalism in the provision of global security was perhaps more necessary than ever. He shed light on contemporary issues by taking a historical approach to the role of the organisation in peace-making and third-party mediation and reminded the audience that Commonwealth interventions are non-coercive and can only take place at the request of the state(s) concerned. After focusing on the dates which shaped the Commonwealth as we know it, including the London Declaration in 1949 when membership came to include republics, the departure of apartheid South Africa in 1961 and the creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965 (finalising the transition of the previously imperial institution into a modern international organisation), Stuart Mole provided a number of case studies when Commonwealth engagement had been fruitful: he discussed mediation in the Nigerian civil war (although its impact was only really felt after the end of the war), the protracted negotiations over Zimbabwe’s independence, from the days of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 to the Lancaster House talks in 1979 and the more recent endeavours to promote democracy within the membership. The good offices of the Secretary-General were not to be underestimated, working in non-public, and therefore non-threatening ways. And its main strength, perhaps, rested in its diversity, which provides points of intersection for dialogue. Stuart Mole acknowledged the limits posed by the Commonwealth’s financial constraints, as well as the inability of the Commonwealth to broker peace between some of its members (as witnessed by inter-state tensions in South Asia). But in spite of this, he concluded, the Commonwealth can make a difference in the field of peace-making, provided it has the willingness to do so.
The debate which followed with the audience included the current situation in Zimbabwe, the impact of Brexit on Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth, the role of the Commonwealth in promoting exchanges between students across member countries, the need to devise programmes to rehabilitate child soldiers, the complex definitions and manifestations of violent extremism across the globe and the opportunities for greater cooperation between the Commonwealth and UNESCO on preventing extremism.
This event also had support from the Laboratoire de Recherches sur les Cultures Anglophones (Paris-Diderot/CNRS, LARCA UMR 8225), the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the Institut universitaire de France.
Many thanks to Lauriane Simony for drafting this report. Lauriane is a PhD student working on the role of the British Council in post-independence Burma, under the joint supervision of Pauline Schnapper (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Mélanie Torrent (Université Paris Diderot).