Sir Ronald Sanders is a member of the Eminent Persons Group established by Commonwealth Heads of Government to report by October 2011 on strengthening the Commonwealth. The commentary below is an abridged version of a speech delivered at Wilton Park to a Consultation of Heads of Commonwealth Organisations and diplomats on “Reinvigorating the Commonwealth”
Lord Howell, Richard Burge and Sir Ronald Sanders at Wilton Park
Over the years of the Commonwealth’s existence much has been written about how it is perceived, how it can better project itself, how it can strengthen its institutions, and how it can remain relevant in a changed and changing world.
The difference between what has been written so far by academics, think-tanks, and parliamentarians, and the work of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) is that the EPG’s work has been specifically mandated by Heads of Government.
They have asked for a report that, in the words of the Affirmation issued at their meeting last November in Port-of-Spain, will ensure that “the Commonwealth will remain relevant to its times and people in future” and will help to build “a stronger and more resilient and progressive family of nations founded on enduring values and principles”.
The group must present ideas that Heads of Government can collectively endorse and implement. They must be ideas that are visionary as well as practical; ambitious as well as achievable; standard-setting as well as opportunity creating.
We have to be mindful that the Commonwealth is not an Organisation tied by Treaty whose rules are binding on member states. It is a voluntary association of sovereign states who have decided that because they share certain traditions, there is benefit in working together.
We must be heedful too that, in their association, Commonwealth governments have made commitments to democracy, human rights, human dignity and freedom, and that fulfilment of these commitments lie at the heart of the Commonwealth’s credibility and its relevance.
The EPG recognises that the Commonwealth should not and cannot attempt to tackle every issue that confronts mankind, and that focus should be placed on its strengths and how to make them more effective.
We recognised the important inter-linkages between democracy/governance/human rights/rule of law on one hand and poverty alleviation/sustainable development/economic empowerment on the other.
We acknowledged that just as democracy will not be upheld without development, development will not be sustained without democracy.
We have begun to explore a number of ideas such as a Commonwealth Charter that expresses an ethos of Commonwealth Community that reflects civil and political norms and through which member countries commit themselves to fundamental rights and freedoms, values and principles as contained in several declarations by Heads of Government.
Discussion has also focussed on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) established to protect Commonwealth values and principles and to take action against member states that indulge in serious or persistent violations of them.
The Group regards CMAG as a bright jewel in the Commonwealth Crown; one that should not be allowed to tarnish, but should continue to sparkle as a tribute to Commonwealth commitment to its values. Tthe Group would like to see further empowerment of CMAG to take up the full gamut of its remit to deal with “serious or persistent” violations beyond unconstitutional overthrow of an elected government.
We regard the Secretary-General’s “good offices” role as equally important in addressing violations of human and civil rights before they become cancerous. Prevention is better than cure. But, we recognise that this role is under resourced and requires not only wider machinery to alert the Secretary-General to potential problems.
And, we are not neglectful of the need to promote social and economic development or of the global challenges of the moment that have a great impact upon many Commonwealth countries. These include climate change which threatens the very existence of some Commonwealth countries; and the need for special and differential treatment for small states by the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organisation.
We also recognise that to do its job effectively, the Commonwealth Secretariat requires more resources which cannot come from governments alone. They can also come from strategic partnerships with private sector groups and foundations even outside the Commonwealth. And, through these partnerships, the Commonwealth could make a big difference to inoculations against disease, improving infant mortality, and improving educational facilities.
We would like to see Youth brought into the mainstream of Commonwealth thinking and activity. Discussions have begun about the possible development of a youth programme aimed at promoting exchanges by young people between Commonwealth countries in which transfer of knowledge and volunteering would be underlying considerations.
We see it as a movement of young people across Commonwealth countries to live, study and commune in each other’s countries in a structured and organised programme that would leave each of them with a better knowledge and appreciation of each other’s culture and circumstances.
We are also considering the expansion of the four regional Commonwealth Youth Centres into larger Commonwealth regional offices for a wider range of activities.
The question has often been posed: if the Commonwealth did not exist, would we invent it? The answer is: we are lucky; we don’t have to invent it. It exists. It is a gift – an association of 54 countries, large and small, from all the continents of the world representing 2 billion people of all races and religions.
Together, the countries of the Commonwealth are responsible for more than 20% of world trade, about 20% of investment and approximately 20% of world GDP. According to the Commonwealth Business Council, “over $3 trillion in trade happens within the Commonwealth every year and the Commonwealth has seen over $200 billion worth of investment over the last 10 years”. A common language and common laws have brought down the price of doing business among Commonwealth countries by 20%.
This demonstrates that there is enormous potential within the Commonwealth for delivering benefits to its people, but Commonwealth leadership – in government and the private sector - must do something about it.
There is clearly an unlocked potential for boosting wealth in the Commonwealth. The key may very well be strict adherence to democracy and good governance by all Commonwealth countries that would encourage more trade and investment across the Commonwealth, improving the economies and social conditions of all its members.
The full text of the Speech given at Wilton Park can be read in the "Lectures and Interviews" section of this website.