A roadmap for change

Sir Ronald Sanders

The Eminent Persons Group is convinced that the Commonwealth is in urgent need of reform if it is to remain relevant to the 2.1 billion people residing in its 54 member states. Its report, to be considered by heads of government at their meeting in Perth, provides proposals for how to achieve this reform.

Ardent supporters of the Commonwealth have publicly expressed their concern that the inter-governmental Commonwealth is in danger of losing its credibility and, therefore, its effectiveness. 

This has arisen particularly because the Commonwealth has not spoken out strongly enough or taken action against violations, by a few of its member states, of the values for which its leaders have declared the association stands. 

The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) – mandated by leaders at their 2009 summit to explore options for Commonwealth reform – received more than 300 submissions from a wide cross-section of Commonwealth opinion, including the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Nurses Association in the UK, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in India, and the governments of the United Kingdom and Jamaica. The majority of the submissions lamented that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), established as the custodian of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values, addresses only “unconstitutional overthrows” of governments. They called for CMAG to tackle “serious or persistent” violations of the Commonwealth’s principles – particularly human rights – in keeping with its mandate. 

On the matter of the Secretary-General speaking out when violations of Commonwealth values occur in member states, the EPG agreed with the overwhelming number of submissions it received that silence is not an option. But Secretaries-General are servants of the collective inter-governmental Commonwealth and none of them can go beyond the mandate given to them by heads of government. Recognising this, the Group made it clear, in a statement in May 2011, that it favoured Commonwealth leaders giving clear and unequivocal authority to the Secretary-General to express publicly the Commonwealth’s displeasure when violations occur in member states. 

In creating the EPG, at their meeting in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in 2009, heads of government requested “an examination of options for reform”. They said they wanted the Commonwealth to “build a stronger and more resilient and progressive family of nations founded on enduring values and principles”. It is against this background that the EPG indicated in its statement in May 2011 that it was considering a Charter for the Commonwealth and the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. 

The EPG agrees that silence is not option in the face of “serious and persistent” violations of Commonwealth values and principles by its member states. 

Based on objective criteria, the Commissioner would advise the Secretary-General and CMAG when serious or persistent violations have either taken place in a member state or show signs of occurring. Swift action resulting from the Commissioner’s analysis would strengthen both CMAG and the use of the Secretary-General’s ‘good offices’ role in helping governments to implement measures that would remedy troubling situations. The Commissioner could also be deployed by the Secretary-General or CMAG to report on, or look into, challenging circumstances brought to their attention in any member state. The important point is that the Commissioner’s task would not be punitive; rather, it would fill an existing gap in the roles of CMAG and the Secretary-General’s ‘good offices’, creating the opportunity to help all member states continue to uphold Commonwealth values. The Commonwealth would be more responsive to undemocratic challenges and more resilient in overcoming them. 

The Group has also suggested the creation of academies that would focus on training for upholding democracy and overseeing election processes. The academies would operate on a “fee for service” basis and could train persons from throughout the Commonwealth in focused periods in institutions such as universities in the summer vacation. Candidates for training would comprise staff of Elections Commissions, local observer groups (especially youth organisations), representatives of political parties and even the police. A mix of Commonwealth lecturers and attendees at the courses offered would also help to provide an important opportunity for sharing experiences. 

With regard to a Charter of the Commonwealth, the EPG weighed carefully the arguments that supported and opposed it. Some contended that, since the modern Commonwealth has existed for over six decades without a charter, it does not need one now. The inter-governmental Commonwealth, through the instrument of the Heads of Government Meeting, has, however, issued several declarations that are not legally binding but represent the values and principles of the association. Drawing these declarations into a collective whole would neither make them more legally binding than they are now nor weaken their moral authority. 

The EPG hopes to add value to the existing declarations by making the Charter a matter of public consultation, with the active participation of governments and civil society organisations. The interested people of the Commonwealth would be able to have a say in whether or not they want a charter and, if so, what it should contain. It could become a genuine “People’s Charter”. The process would also help raise awareness of the Commonwealth in each of the member states.

Issues confronting developing member states have long occupied the attention of the Commonwealth, which has intervened as an advocate on their behalf. A large number of the submissions made to the EPG insisted that this role should continue even more robustly. Consequently, the Group has proposed ways in which the Commonwealth could advocate for international action dealing with burdensome debt, the effects of climate change, public health issues – especially HIV/AIDS – and a voice for developing countries in the world’s major economic and financial decision-making bodies, as well as investment and job creation. 

Among these proposals is the immediate creation of an Expert Group that would identify the most urgent problems facing Commonwealth countries as a result of global warming; categorise the measures needed to tackle the problems; and propose ways for the Commonwealth to lead the creation of partnerships with UN agencies, bilateral donors, NGOs and the private sector to help mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Though the Commonwealth is not an aid agency, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) swiftly responds to requests from developing member states for assistance in providing experts to fill a gap in their operational needs. The major portion of the funding for CFTC comes from the developed Commonwealth countries, but it is not tied to providing experts from these donor countries. In this regard, CFTC can pick experts from the entire Commonwealth to help advance the development of a member state. This is a splendid example of meaningful cooperation across the Commonwealth that the EPG was keen to preserve and improve. 

Young people comprise at least 60 percent of the Commonwealth’s population. The EPG considered how to make the Commonwealth significant to them, and how to encourage them to be its champions. Among the Group’s ideas is the formation of a Commonwealth Youth Development Fund to which young people could apply for the financing of entrepreneurial projects that would create employment in their communities. Another concept is a Commonwealth Youth Corps to facilitate the movement of young people across the Commonwealth to experience each other’s culture and living conditions while providing needed skills and exposure to new knowledge and technology. 

How to deliver these reforms also commanded the EPG’s attention. An overhauled and properly resourced Commonwealth Secretariat, focusing on its strengths and shedding work in areas where it has no advantage over other institutions, was identified as a primary means for such delivery. So too was the construction of partnerships between the Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth of Learning, civil society organisations and the private sector. 

The objective of the EPG’s work was to fashion machinery that would integrate the work of civil society organisations and governments, on the basis of their common values and shared history, in order to create a Commonwealth that works for its people. Acceptance and implementation of the report and its recommendations are for governments to decide. The EPG has provided a roadmap for leaders to consider and embrace.

About the author:

Sir Ronald Sanders is a member of the Eminent Persons Group


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