All talk no action?

Joanna Bennett

At the end of October, hundreds of people will descend on Perth, the capital of Western Australia, for the biennial Commonwealth summit. Thousands of miles will be travelled and millions of Australian dollars will be spent. Joanna Bennett asks: “Will it all be worth it?” 

There are elements of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that make it truly unique among international gatherings. The leaders’ ‘retreat’, when heads of government mingle one-on-one away from their teams of advisers, offers a rare opportunity for frank, off-the-record discussions on issues of real concern. Numerous former and current heads of government have spoken of the value of these informal interactions and it seems likely that more genuine progress on international relations is made during the retreat than in any number of communiqués or official declarations. 

CHOGM also showcases the unrivalled convening power of the Commonwealth in all its glory. It is a meeting that brings 54 extraordinarily diverse countries to the table, as well as a panoply of civil society, business and youth leaders. But is it more than just a talk shop? Faced with spiralling costs, disruption and widespread scepticism, the Australian press has begun to ask exactly this question. CHOGM could be more – much more – but it urgently needs reform in three key areas. 

Firstly, the meeting must be used to address the thorniest issues facing the world today. In recent years, the tendency of the Commonwealth to shy away from tackling potentially divisive topics has been much in evidence at its biennial gathering. At the opening press conference of the 2009 CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago, the newly appointed Chairperson-in-Office, Patrick Manning, dismissed questions about whether leaders would be discussing human rights abuses in The Gambia or a bill in the Ugandan parliament proposing life imprisonment for anyone convicted of the “offence of homosexuality”. These were, he said, “essentially related to domestic matters” and formed “no part of the CHOGM agenda”. 

Every two years, as leaders gather for CHOGM, the glare of the world’s media turns, temporarily, to the Commonwealth. These are rare – and precious – opportunities for the association to define its contemporary role on a global stage. By dismissing human rights issues that should speak directly to its core values and principles, the Commonwealth appears to have lost its way or, at the very least, its nerve. 

Some Australian media commentators have already begun to question whether corrupt leaders who abuse human rights in their own countries should be welcomed at CHOGM. Certainly, their presence can only be excused if CHOGM is used as an opportunity to challenge recalcitrant regimes, to reassert the Commonwealth’s commitment to shared values and principles, and to push for real change. 

The conventions of CHOGM decree that any actions agreed upon at the meeting must be reached by consensus. With a membership ranging from tiny, impoverished Pacific island nations, to the world’s new economic powerhouses, finding common ground is an enormous ask. But if consensus cannot be reached on anything other than the blandest of declarations, then the cost and relevance of CHOGM is sure to be questioned. And rightly so. 

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings are rare – and precious – opportunities for the association to define its contemporary role on the global stage. 

Secondly, if the Commonwealth is to prevent its Summits from being dismissed as ineffectual talking shops, then it must place much greater emphasis on measuring and demonstrating impact. The communiqué issued from the 2009 CHOGM was an interminable list of largely unrelated topics running to a total of 117 paragraphs. No one issue was prioritised over another, and there was no indication of how this would translate into a workable agenda for the coming two years. 

The intergovernmental Commonwealth currently operates on a tiny budget in comparison to other international organisations. If it is ever to attract more investment, it must seek to identify the specific functions it can fulfil more effectively than any other multilateral organisation and, on this basis, leaders must use the CHOGM process to produce a clear, targeted mandate for the Commonwealth. 

Thirdly, the opportunity offered by CHOGM for meaningful interaction between leaders and civil society must be dramatically improved. Non-Commonwealth NGOs, including the most prominent and influential in fields that are at the heart of the Commonwealth agenda, do not view CHOGM as a useful lobbying opportunity. Their disinterest is a worrying sign. Yes, some 200 civil society representatives will take part in the People’s Forum in Perth, but how many will be familiar from Commonwealth meetings in London? The fact that CHOGMs do not attract external NGOs sends a powerful message about the poor interaction between civil society and leaders, as well as hinting at the Commonwealth’s perceived impotence. Of course, civil society shares some responsibility here. A statement of 134 paragraphs – like the one submitted to leaders at the 2009 CHOGM – will never be a useful tool for lobbying governments. 

The 2011 CHOGM will be of particular importance. The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) – tasked two years ago with exploring options for Commonwealth reform – is set to present its final recommendations to leaders. But leaders will need to do more than simply listen and endorse if the EPG’s report is to result in more than a mention in some lengthy communiqué, filed for posterity on a dusty shelf in Marlborough House. They will need to mandate a designated taskforce to implement the Group’s core recommendations. They must establish a timeline and a reporting mechanism, for, without this structure, it is likely to be many years before the proposed changes materialise. 

In many ways, whether this CHOGM manages to stimulate or stifle progress towards Commonwealth reform is the ultimate test. If CHOGM can’t be used to set the Commonwealth’s own house in order, then what hope is there of it solving the rest of the world’s problems?

About the author:

Joanna Bennett is Head of External Affairs at the Royal Commonwealth Society


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