“Support for democratic principles”

Lord David Howell

Lord Howell was appointed minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in May 2010, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took office. Global caught up with him on the fringes of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. Here, he talks frankly about the benefits Britain receives from Commonwealth membership, as well as his government’s support for South Sudan’s application to join the association and the possible appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.


Global: The coalition government talks about putting the ‘C’ back into the FCO, but what is the current administration doing to achieve this?

Lord Howell: Well, first of all, it’s a question of communication, resources, emphasis and the adjustment of foreign policy. In all four areas, the UK government is taking steps forward. We can’t do everything overnight but we are making progress on all these fronts. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary himself [William Hague] has spoken very clearly to the effect that Britain’s participation in an invigorated Commonwealth network is, and I quote him, “a cornerstone of British foreign policy”. In parliament and in many sectors of business and civil society, it is now being understood that the Commonwealth really is a valuable platform for the future and that Britain should play a part in it. Our aid programme, which has not been curtailed by present austerity needs – indeed, it’s been expanded – is giving renewed emphasis to Commonwealth partners.

What benefits does Britain receive by being a member of the Commonwealth?

This is a big and very central question. What we get is renewed and invigorated links within a changing international landscape. What do I mean by that? I mean that 60 percent of the world’s GNP now lies outside the OECD area. I mean that while we may remain good friends with the United States and good Europeans in the European Union, the wider world outside – what the Foreign Secretary calls “the beyond” – is becoming the great new area for our markets and our exports. We have to have access to the gigantic emerging economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America. To get that access we need to use every conceivable linkage and network we can, and of course one of the wonderful readymade networks which we have to hand is the Commonwealth itself.

And what does Britain give to the Commonwealth?

We give a very substantial aid programme. We give foreign investment, although we also take foreign investment from the Commonwealth – it is a two-way process. We give technical skills. We support the development of our core principles and values: building democracy and upholding human rights, upholding the rule of law and general social and economic and cultural development. We give all that we can from our culture and language through the British Council, the World Service [and] the BBC. We have much to give, but it’s not all give, it’s take as well. Some of the richest and fastest growing countries in the world are now members of the Commonwealth. Countries with vast sovereign funds are members of the Commonwealth – we’re going to need their funds, just as in the past they needed British funds.

At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Rwanda was welcomed as a new member. Before the Summit in Perth, South Sudan applied for membership. Does the British government support the application of South Sudan?

Very strongly, we do. The British government has put a lot of effort and a lot of resources into enabling the division between Sudan and South Sudan to be conducted in as peaceable a way as we can achieve. It’s not at all easy [and] not all the problems are being solved. South Sudan is a poor country that needs a lot of support. We think that South Sudan is a good candidate and would qualify. It’s not the only country that wants to join the Commonwealth. When people ask, “What’s the point of the Commonwealth?” I say, “Well, ask all the people who are trying to join!” A club that everyone wants to join must have some point to it.

As with Rwanda’s application for membership, there will be people who say that South Sudan’s record on human rights disqualifies it from joining the Commonwealth. What are your feelings on this?

I’d say it’s a question of direction of travel and aspiration and determination. The leaders of South Sudan in making their application have shown that they recognise the criteria and values of the Commonwealth and aspire to them. As I think does Rwanda – but they haven’t found it easy. Talking to my Rwandan friends two years after they joined, they say that being members of the Commonwealth has enabled them to make political reforms and changes of a constructive kind and that they really find that they are getting benefits – both political and economic – from being members.

With the Arab Spring, we’ve witnessed a flowering of democracy in North Africa. Do you think the Commonwealth should be actively seeking to encourage the membership of countries like Tunisia and Egypt which could benefit from joining the association?

I think the Commonwealth should take a very sympathetic interest in those countries that say they want to join but it shouldn’t go out and solicit membership. It should say, “We are a group of countries with strong principles and a strong determination to uphold these principles. If you are interested in joining, then we will certainly consider that matter sympathetically.”

Here in Perth, the Commonwealth heads of government are discussing the final report of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG). There has been a lot of criticism in the press and also from members of the EPG that the report hasn’t been made available to the public. Do you think that the report should have been published before the heads of government had a chance to discuss its findings?

Yes I do, and the British ministers have made it clear that we think publication was right. But the Commonwealth is an organisation based on consensus, and the majority view appeared to be that it was a report to heads of government and they should have first bite. I think it was bound to leak and pull a few hairs, which was partly the reason why we thought why not publish anyway. But the [other] view prevailed, and in the Commonwealth we listen and respect the prevailing view.

The EPG has recommended the appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. What is Britain’s position on this and do you think that it’s likely that there will be a Commissioner?

The Commonwealth, at the governmental level, needs to respond. There are huge forces at work. In business, in civil society, in local government, amongst the youth of the Commonwealth – tens of millions of them – and amongst many other trans-Commonwealth organisations, [there is] a tremendous demand for reform and a stronger platform. The message coming to all governments is let there be a stronger assertion of standards, a stronger pattern of advice and support for upholding democratic principles and the rule of law. Those standards are the ones that create the kind of trust and the kind of network of principles in which everything else is going to operate, including business. It’s a bottom-up demand.

Now the EPG understood that, made a thorough report and believed that these principles needed strengthening. In this they were running parallel with the report from the Commonwealth Ministers Action Group (CMAG). But the EPG went further and proposed some institutional changes – a Charter and a Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights. That has been debated, [but] exactly how this is going to be expressed I don’t know. I do know that there’s universal acceptance that there needs to be a strengthening of the methods for maintaining standards in the Commonwealth. That is agreed. In what way this is turned into institutional changes is yet to be agreed. [Ed: Commonwealth heads of government agreed to postpone the decision to appoint a Commission for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights pending a further evaluation of the role itself.]

And Britain’s position on the Commissioner?

Our position is we think the further we can go on this the better. We like the EPG report and our ideal would be to get the institutional changes. In Britain, we are not impatient and we see it’s necessary to go forward step by step.

If the recommendation for a Commissioner isn’t accepted would you support a strengthening of the Secretary General’s voice and a widening of CMAG’s mandate so that it can intervene to prevent countries violating Commonwealth values and principles?

I repeat my concept of a step-by-step advance. We think those are directionally the right moves, yes. This doesn’t mean to say that we’ll be necessarily satisfied with it. There are heads of government who are creating pressures for reform.

Another key issue of contention at the Summit is the decision taken in Trinidad two years ago to hold the next heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka. I know that Prime Minister Harper of Canada has spoken out against Colombo being the venue for the 2013 CHOGM. What is Britain’s position on this?

We want to see Sri Lanka – and we intend to put pressure on Sri Lanka, with other Commonwealth members – conform to the highest Commonwealth principles. Over the next two years we expect to see a greater resonance from Sri Lanka to uphold those principles, to meet certain international claims that need examining properly, to give greater validity to the reconciliation process and, in doing so, prepare itself as a suitable venue for the CHOGM in 2013.

You mentioned earlier that the pressure for change and reform in the Commonwealth is coming from the ground up. The EPG has also called for more involvement of the civil society within the processes, deliberations and decisions of the Commonwealth, at the highest level. Do you think this is practical?

Yes, [but] very clear thinking is needed. Remember when one talks about improved democracy one is saying “let us make the governmental process more democratic”. Now along comes a vast range of nongovernmental organisations in support [of this] but it needs to be remembered that they aren’t necessarily a substitute for government. After all, so many of them are not actually elected and although they want to be fully accountable, and probably are in many ways, we have to get away from the idea that somehow non-governments can replace governments. They have to work together. 

The Queen has received a very warm welcome here in Australia. She will eventually have to retire from her role as Head of the Commonwealth. Do you think that the baton should pass to her son, Prince Charles? After all, it’s no longer the British Commonwealth.

That’s a matter for the Commonwealth’s 54 members to decide, obviously. The Queen is a much admired and desired leader of the Commonwealth. If and when she retires, or a sad day comes years ahead, the Commonwealth would have to get together and decide.

About the author:

Lord David Howell is the UK Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth


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