‘Every human community in the world has an equal right to a place in the sun’

Kamalesh Sharma

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma discusses his hopes for the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka 

The Commonwealth’s Secretary-General is a busy man. Global has managed to get a slot to see him at Marlborough House – the Secretariat’s London headquarters – in between the Kenyan Minister of Foreign Affairs and a reception to commemorate the anniversary of Papua New Guinea’s independence. 

And Kamalesh Sharma is about to get even busier. The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is just around the corner – it will be the third CHOGM for the Secretary General, who has been in post for six years. It is one of the most important events on the Commonwealth calendar. Is he looking forward to it? 

“I feel energised! I think any Secretary-General should have four CHOGMs in him or her. If they don’t have four CHOGMs in them, they shouldn’t aspire to this position! You are always pursued by the thought: are you doing justice to the membership? I do feel that when my time is up, people will say, well whatever he may or may not have achieved, he was always honest with the organisation.” 

Even before it starts, this CHOGM has been controversial. The venue is to be Colombo in Sri Lanka. But human rights abuses in Sri Lanka – including alleged ‘disappearances’ and war crimes during 16 years of civil war against the Tamil Tigers (see news story on page 89) – have made some Heads of State question whether they ought to be going there. Has Sharma had any qualms about the decision to stick with Colombo? 

“The Commonwealth is about engagement – it can’t be about disengagement,” he says. “We had a round-table here on Sri Lanka where we looked at reconciliation and that was very successful. For the first time in their history, we were able to carry conviction that they should invite a team to observe elections and a team is there now observing elections in the Northern Province. CHOGM, in its own right, is the most important Commonwealth event and all the heads want to do justice to it.” 

The theme of CHOGM 2013 is ‘Growth with equity: inclusive development’. But in today’s Commonwealth, many minority groups face discrimination. Women don’t always have the same rights as men, for example, and homosexuality is still outlawed in some member states. Economic disadvantages are widespread too, with income levels – and incidents of extreme poverty – varying drastically from one country to another. So is inclusiveness realistic? 

“When you talk about marginalised groups, the oldest prejudice of mankind is against women. So you can’t possibly talk about equity and uniting people without talking about what you’re doing with women and young people.” 

Sharma believes that, when it comes to inclusion, technology is a major leveller. With handheld devices now commonplace in previously undeveloped areas, IT is bringing new opportunities to ordinary people. “You can’t draw a distinction now between high technology and your level of development. The technology is the bridge through which the development arrives.” 

Before joining the Commonwealth Secretariat, Sharma, 72, had a long diplomatic career. After studying literature at Cambridge University, he joined the Indian civil service, working his way up to the role of High Commissioner to the UK. Has he seen improvements in inclusion and equality during that time? 

“One of the most memorable things said about the Commonwealth was by Nelson Mandela. When he landed in London, he said: ‘Take me to Marlborough House first for what they’ve done for South Africa.’ When he came here he said: ‘The Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity.’ 

“Women are in a better place than they were a few years ago,” he continues. “But ideas and implementation are two different things, though – there’s always a lag between recognition and achievement. And the same with the youth, if you are not able to serve the youth, who are you serving? The future is before them.” 

Sharma would like to see debt, climate change and immigration on the agenda at CHOGM. “We were the first organisation that said something about climate change.” 

In the early days of the Commonwealth, he says, citizens of Commonwealth countries had certain privileges when it came to relations with other Commonwealth countries – for example favourable trading conditions and fewer visa restrictions. But some of these privileges have now been eroded, particularly when it comes to ease of movement between countries. “We need to revisit what it is in today’s world we can make the citizens of the Commonwealth feel. When we go to each other’s countries, we don’t even have embassies, we’ve got high commissions. There has to be a meaning to this kind of commonality. I want to make the Commonwealth into a contemporary, modern, 21st-century organisation. 

“Another simple, but potentially huge idea, is why don’t we create a database that contains in a one-stop shop all the possibilities that exist within the Commonwealth to share technical collaboration with other members? Many countries have developed professional abilities that can be captured in this way.” By way of example he references the professionalisation of the Sierra Leone police force, which was achieved with help from Botswana. “Botswana, as far as I know, doesn’t have a formal technical collaboration programme. But we can make a Commonwealth product out of this sort of arrangement.” 

CHOGM is unique in that it offers an informality that no other international summits do. Known as a ‘retreat’, the main meeting has a ‘no necktie’ rule. There are no nameplates and Heads of Government in attendance are encouraged to sit wherever they want. “It’s the only organisation where the smaller country members speak and the bigger ones listen,” says Sharma. 

During the meeting only the Heads of Government, accompanied by the Secretary-General and just one assistant to help with the agenda, are allowed in the room. “It really is a meeting of the heads, which is why they are able to say, ‘Yes, this looks like something the Commonwealth should be doing.’ And once they have said that, the SG is there listening in to create a product out of it, it’s really quite simple.” 

Trade between member countries has always been an important aspect of the Commonwealth and this is something the Secretary General would like to see addressed at CHOGM. “This is one organisation that works entirely for the weaker players in the global trading system,” he says. “The many products that we’ve driven in the past both in debt, finance and trade have been for them.” 

He’s particularly keen on the concept of ‘export finance’, which will allow smaller countries to keep trading, even in challenging economic times. “One of the ironies of the world is that a crisis begins in the industrial world, but it inundates the smaller countries and they’re the ones that get starved. The banks run out of money, so they cannot give credit guarantees or export guarantees to support exporters.” 

Some of the products that the Commonwealth has developed have been in demand by non-Commonwealth countries too. “Our debt tool is a world leader,” says Sharma. “Even China uses it and we keep on upgrading it. And you know HIPC was a Commonwealth idea – the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative. It lets you know, in a sophisticated way, the extent of financial exposure at all levels, whether it’s private, federal, provincial level or consolidated.” 

The Commonwealth has achieved a great deal under Sharma’s tenure. What is he most proud of? 

“Well I do feel I’ve not let up on any idea which I thought was an important one. One example is the Commonwealth Electoral Network, which I’m told is one of the greatest election monitoring bodies in the world. It has a lot of credibility for citizens.” 

He’s also pleased with the progress of the Education Hub, the Health Hub and Commonwealth Connects – a vehicle for technology and knowledge transfer. The Marlborough House Declarations were signed just after he joined the Secretariat and he believes they have great value for the organisation. “It was the first time you had a meeting of the heads outside CHOGM for something like this. It is about equity, inclusiveness, fair-mindedness. Every human community in the world has an equal right to a place in the sun.” 

No doubt 2013 will bring another memorable CHOGM, which looks set to introduce ideas that will influence international relations in the years to come.

Interview by Katie Silvester

About the author:

Kamalesh Sharma is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth


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