Time to shape up

Richard Ottaway MP

Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway, calls for the Commonwealth to reassert its place at the forefront of the global community by speaking out in defence of its key principles – ensuring the organisation’s bright future as well as its proud past.

In an uncertain world, no one can doubt the importance of the Commonwealth’s core values, especially belief in the promotion of human and political rights. The Commonwealth enjoys a huge global reach, with member states including some of the fastest growing countries in the world as well as some of the poorest. In the past, the association was influential in the international community, taking its place at the forefront of diplomatic action on major international issues, such as the fight against racism.

But today, the Commonwealth is at a critical point because it is failing to realise its great potential. In recent years it has been too often both silent and invisible: silent on occasions when members flout its principles, and invisible to its people. It needs a higher and more active profile. The recent report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee contains worrying evidence that the Commonwealth has recently missed opportunities to influence key international issues such as climate change and the economic crisis. We call on the Commonwealth Secretariat to sharpen and strengthen its diplomatic performance.

We were also disturbed to note the ineffectiveness of some of the mechanisms for upholding the organisation’s values. We concluded that continuing evidence of serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka shows that the Commonwealth’s decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo was wrong. We call for convincing and independently verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka.

More broadly, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) needs to make full use of its new mandate to promote Commonwealth values in member states. Above all, CMAG must respond robustly to cases of repression or abuse.

There are also concerns on development. The Commonwealth’s performance as a provider of aid has been disappointing in recent years, and needs to improve substantially if its reputation is to be restored.

The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the Commonwealth must move quickly along the road to radical institutional reform if it is to overcome these problems. If the Commonwealth takes the right decisions in the next few months, we are confident that it can protect and promote its values and benefit the interests of all of its members. But it needs to act quickly and decisively.

Central to the prospects for reform are the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which reported to the 2011 CHOGM. Two of the EPG’s recommendations were seen as especially significant by the UK and others: a proposal for a Commonwealth Charter, which was accepted and is now the subject of a public consultation; and a proposal for a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.

We recognise that the proposal for the latter has not found favour right across the Commonwealth. Yet the Committee was clear that the intention behind the recommendation for a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights is an important one, and goes to the heart of what the Commonwealth is about.

The key elements of the EPG’s recommendation for a Commissioner must be implemented. In particular, we believe that it is important that the mechanism that emerges from the negotiations should reflect the EPG’s recommendation that the Commissioner should provide “well-researched and reliable information” on “serious or persistent violations of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in member states”, and should “indicate approaches for remedial action”.

The Committee welcomed the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members; there are clear advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However, it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth ‘family’, closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.

The economic dynamism of many Commonwealth countries, such as India and South Africa, cannot be doubted. However, we were far from convinced that member states are making the most of the economic and trading opportunities offered by the Commonwealth’s rapidly emerging markets. Governments should give a higher priority to making the most of those opportunities.

Public understanding of the work of the Commonwealth is limited in many member states, so we welcomed ideas for a more active programme of education and engagement – for example, more medical, teacher and youth exchanges and greater attention to the Commonwealth in school curricula in the UK. The British government should expand the programme of Commonwealth scholarships, which can strengthen ties between future leaders in Commonwealth countries.

The Commonwealth could have a bright future as well as a proud past: but that will require change. The UK can and should play a prominent part in that process, but the Commonwealth itself will need to lead the way in renewal.

About the author:

Richard Ottaway MP is Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee


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