Wednesday 19 October 2011

The Commonwealth

When I was a kid we were taught about the Commonwealth. I even remember several trips to the Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High St; a truly beautiful building.

I doubt the Commonwealth gets much of a look in on the national curriculum these days. And like the fate of that wonderful building there seems to be questions about the usefulness of this modern day Commonwealth of Nations.

I've arrived in Perth. ( That's Perth Australia not Scotland ! ) for CHOGM; the bi-annual gathering of the heads of the Commonwealth- 15 of them with the Queen as Head of State. I'm here as part of the Commonwealth's civil society Committee which organises a big world wide civil society gathering and people's forum. I'm speaking on UK developments in civil society ( not sure the big society idea travels but we shall see ! ) And as well as taking part in the seminars I'm meeting Australian civil society leaders.

This year there is controversy because Commonwealth leaders are sitting on a groundbreaking report prepared by their own advisory group that has concluded the 54-nation organisation will lose international relevancy and moral authority unless it institutes key reforms.

The warning comes from the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, an 11-person panel appointed by Commonwealth leaders at their last meeting in 2009.

The group was tasked with raising the profile and influence of the Commonwealth. After a major review that included public consultation, the advisory group submitted its final report, " A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform ", about a month ago.

There are 106 recommendations in the report, and its direction is clear from a statement the group issued in the spring. They are proposing a Charter of the Commonwealth, and the appointment of a commissioner for democracy and the rule of law who would keep track of whether member nations are persistently violating "core values" in areas such as human rights.

Moreover, the group advocates more initiatives to battle HIV/AIDS, a stronger collective interest in the debt challenges faced by developing countries, a firm plan on climate change and measures to ensure women are treated fairly and equally.

The Commonwealth is in danger of becoming irrelevant and unconvincing as a values-based association the advisory group warned in a statement last March.

Earlier this month , the group submitted its final report to Commonwealth leaders and requested that it be publicly released before the Perth CHOGM.

But some countries have opposed that and as a result, because the Commonwealth operates by consensus, the document is remaining secret for now.

That has perturbed some of the advisory group's members such as Sir Ronald Sanders, who delivered an impassioned speech last week in London at the Royal Commonwealth Society ( the CEO is an ACEVO member ).

The world which the Commonwealth now serves is way different than what it was 50 years ago. The largest democracy in the Commonwealth is now India. The change in the way in which people live their lives has been remarkable. The challenges of poverty , sustainability and development are overwhelming.

The organisation could play a substantial role if its goals and principles are clear instead of being perceived as an international body that works behind the scenes and has little to say for itself . But it's a voluntary association of 54 countries and 2.4 billion people and could play a bigger role. The Tories said they would place more emphasis on the commonwealth but I'm not sure anyone has noticed.

At last week's speech, Sanders - a former high commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda to Britain - said he and other members of the advisory group believe CHOGM will be a "defining occasion" for the Commonwealth.

"As a result of the decisions made there, the Commonwealth will either go forward, reinvigorated and resolute as a values-based organization intent on making a difference to its people and the wider international community, or it will limp along as a much devalued grouping to a future of disregard, deterioration and disappearance."

Sanders said the advisory group received 330 written submissions from throughout the Commonwealth, including governments, trade unions political parties and civil society groups.

"If the Commonwealth continues with its business as usual, it will lose its moral authority and international respect, providing little benefit to its member states, particularly the small ones."

Apart from instances of unconstitutional coups of governments, he said, the Commonwealth has not spoken out or taken action, "to bring errant countries into compliance. This absence of action - and the silence of the Commonwealth collectively - has severely hurt the Commonwealth's credibility. It has resulted in the accusation that the organisation is hypocritical."

"If they fail to do so, the Commonwealth might limp along for a while longer, but it will surely lose its influence within its own membership and in the wider international community in which it has played an important role in the past."

But back to my opening;my first task tomorrow will be speaking to school children in Mandurah, a city down the coast from Perth! I'm sure it will be a memorable occasion...

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