A wounded organisation? Commonwealth reassessed post-CHOGM

Katie Silvester

Is the Commonwealth still a relevant organisation for its member states in 2014? This question was one of several debated at a post-CHOGM conference in January, hosted by Commonwealth journal the Round Table. 

Delegates heard that the choice of Sri Lankan capital Colombo as a venue for 2013’s CHOGM meant that almost all press coverage of the event focused on Sri Lanka’s human rights record and journalists’ difficulties covering the event due to interference from Sri Lankan officials. 

One delegate spoke of “manifestations of discord and division” at CHOGM meetings. 

The conference, ‘An Enduring Family of Nations? The Commonwealth After Colombo’, was held in Cambridge under Chatham House Rules, so Global cannot attribute any of the comments from the Round Table event. 

The conference heard that there were “some unpleasant moments of tension” during CHOGM, mainly at the preparatory meeting of senior officials. “Differences of opinion are nothing new to the Commonwealth, but we have always managed to overcome them. The polarisation this time had been building since the last CHOGM,” said the participant. 

He added that the main problem seems to be that developing countries believe that the richer member countries place too much emphasis on human rights. The opposing view is that part of the Commonwealth’s strength lies in promoting its core values. 

Another conference delegate elaborated on the split. “Curiously, the debate is being framed by some developing countries as one in which ‘white’ Commonwealth countries are pressing for good governance and values at the expense of development. 

“But the evidence is clear that the bulk of Commonwealth resources are spent on development and only a small portion is dedicated to democracy. From last year’s combined budgets of the Secretariat and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, £14.3 million was spent on development and £2.7 million on democracy.” 

He also spoke about the disappointingly low attendance of Heads of Government at CHOGM – only 26 of the Commonwealth’s 53 Heads of Government attended in person, most of the others having sent other ministers in their place. “To some degree, poor attendance by Heads may be a consequence of holding Foreign Ministers’ meetings as part of CHOGMs and assigning the agenda of the Heads of Government Meeting for review by Foreign Ministers,” he added. 

“It may well be that given this role of Foreign Ministers – which started only in recent years – many Heads of Government see little compulsion to attend.” 

The same participant opined that the “club” of Commonwealth Heads was no longer a “private and intimate environment” for frank discussion, warning that “the Commonwealth is now a wounded organisation”. 

On a more positive note, the Commonwealth’s scholarship programme was praised with an appeal for greater use to be made of harnessing the knowledge of its alumni.


Conference chairman Stuart Mole sums up delegates’ comments about the next Secretary-General 

The importance of selecting an outstanding successor to the current Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, when his final term of office concludes in 2016, is of paramount importance.

To the extent that regional rotation was ever a factor in the selection of the previous five SGs, this can no longer be the case in 2015. Clearly, the overwhelming criterion must be the best-qualified woman or man for the job (as indeed it has been throughout).

But it is also necessary that Commonwealth Heads of Government – and indeed the whole Commonwealth – are far more systematic, painstaking and transparent about the process of selecting the next Secretary-General.

The Commonwealth, so often an innovator, has for too long held on to a process which is old-fashioned and secretive – and which does not include in the consultative stages the involvement of Commonwealth civil society, now a significant force. This must change. Many of these issues were addressed in a Commonwealth Advisory Bureau publication submitted to the 2011 Perth CHOGM but not taken forward.


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