(The author is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College at the University of Toronto The opinions expressed are entirely hers.)
It is good to see that the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, has appointed his Cabinet Secretary for Defense, Monica Juma, as Commonwealth Secretary General.
Kenya’s candidacy suggests that African nations still believe that the Commonwealth remains potentially relevant to its 54 member states and to the international community, despite losing the radical voice for which it became known and respected in the 1970s. , 1980 and 1990.
During these decades, with Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal as Secretary General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth was a leader in the fight against racism, including the horrific apartheid regime in South Africa; initiate a global engagement on climate change and its harmful effects; document international economic inequalities and establish a reform program; and put the multidimensional security concerns of small states on the global agenda. Sir Shridath’s successor, his former deputy, Emeka Anyaoku, continued this leadership role.
In the years since then until now, the Commonwealth and its main engine, the Commonwealth Secretariat, have relinquished their role as thought leader and innovator of creative solutions to problems within the Commonwealth and around the world. This prompted the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) at the University of London, Philip Murphy, to write in his 2018 book, “The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth”, that the Commonwealth ” doesn’t do much, but then it doesn’t cost a lot. ”This was an extraordinary statement from the director of ICwS, who was born in the same year as the Modern Commonwealth in 1949. Although she caused great concern – and even anger – among Commonwealth worshipers, it emboldened those who saw the Commonwealth, in its radical stance for years, as a nuisance and an obstacle to the maintenance of the old order that suited them .
The last two decades of paralysis of the official intergovernmental Commonwealth, captured in Murphy’s throwaway phrase that he “doesn’t do much”, also encouraged those who saw no particular advantage in the Commonwealth and, therefore, no value in an institute dedicated to Commonwealth Studies, such as ICwS.
Therefore, in October 2020, the University of London announced the closure of ICwS. Much to the amazement of those who thought the Commonwealth was on sufficient life support that no one objected to the burial of ICwS, more than 90 Commonwealth non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed a strong objection. This persuaded the university’s vice-chancellor to set up a committee to investigate Commonwealth Studies, chaired by former British Foreign and Defense Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. I was invited to sit on the committee and wrote the report which was finalized by its other distinguished members of government and academia.
In our report, delivered on July 21, 2021, the Committee concluded that not only should ICwS continue to operate, but that it should be strengthened to serve a contemporary purpose as articulated in the first declaration of the “Commonwealth Charter”. 2013 which reads: “Recognizing that at a time of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security and increasing popular demands for democracy, human rights and broader economic opportunities, the potential and necessity of the Commonwealth – as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for cooperation and promotion of development – has never been so big ”
The Committee’s report has been accepted by the University, and hopefully the strength and passion of Commonwealth NGOs, along with the report’s compelling arguments, will lead to the implementation of its recommendations.
But the question of whether or not the Commonwealth is important and should be removed from drifting into insignificance requires more than the passion of NGOs. In particular, there is an urgent need for governments to believe that it has a role to play in addressing their concerns in their own countries and around the world.
At the heart of this belief among governments is the Secretariat and the Secretary General. In appointing Monica Juma as Commonwealth Secretary General, President Uhuru expressed his own dissatisfaction with the recent performance of the Commonwealth Secretariat, stating: “The success of our organization lies in its ability to respond effectively to needs. member states, shape the collective agenda and implement its decisions to achieve our common aspirations. All of this requires unwavering leadership in the Secretariat to create a vibrant and influential Commonwealth ”.
In 2011, I was a member and rapporteur of the Panel of Eminent Persons (EPG) which submitted a report to Commonwealth Heads of Government, at their request, proposing urgent Commonwealth reform. In that report, which recommended, among other things, the creation of the ‘Commonwealth Charter’, the EPG noted: ‘Revitalization and refocusing do not happen through complacency or inertia. It is complacency and inertia in vital aspects of Commonwealth values that presently pose the most serious threats to the continued relevance and vitality of the Commonwealth itself ”. Unfortunately, in the almost 10 years since the EPG submitted its report, many of its main conclusions and priority recommendations remain unfulfilled.
Neither the Secretariat nor the intergovernmental leadership of the Commonwealth took on the objective of Ramphal and Anyouku, nor the vision of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago who in 1964 proposed and fiercely defended a meaningful Commonwealth Secretariat; which would generate ideas and propose new directions. This battle was not easily won. Britain and Australia in particular wanted a Secretariat without authority and capacity that would “transcend” the authority of governments.
If the latter position were followed by Arnold Smith, the first secretary general, and by Ramphal and Anyouku, the battles to extricate Southern Rhodesia from the domination of the white minority to create Zimbabwe, and to end apartheid in South Africa and liberate Nelson Mandela, could they have been postponed for many more oppressive years.
There is no doubt about the past value of the Commonwealth and its future potential. Therefore, it is good that President Uhuru has proclaimed Kenya’s interest in “unwavering leadership in the Secretariat to create a vibrant and influential Commonwealth” which he clearly recognizes is absolutely necessary.
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