In what has been a true breakthrough for gender equality in the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland of Dominica was selected new Secretary-General - the first woman to hold the post. Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat made the announcement at a press conference during the Commonwealth summit.
Baroness Scotland, former UK Attorney General, will take office on 1 April 2016 as the sixth Secretary-General since the Commonwealth Secretariat was established in 1965. She will replace Kamalesh Sharma of India, whose eight-year tenure comes to an end in March next year.
While talking to the press, she singled out climate change as an “existential threat” to small island states and reminded the audience about the extensive damage caused to her country by Tropical Storm Erika. She referred to the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December as an opportunity for the Commonwealth to really make its mark.
“COP21 gives us an opportunity to put the Commonwealth on a different path. I hope the Commonwealth will be a beacon of knowledge and care to put this right,” said Baroness Scotland.
In her remarks, Baroness Scotland pledged to prioritise gender equality and combat domestic violence. “I am incredibly proud to be the first woman Secretary-General,” she concluded.
The selection of the new Secretary-General took place in a closed session during the 24th biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The process was overseen by the CHOGM Chair-in-Office and the Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat.
At the end of the summit, which runs from 27 to 29 November, leaders will release a statement cementing actions on issues such as migration, violent extremism and climate change. They will also issue a separate statement on climate change, supported by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the President of France, François Hollande, which is likely to influence the outcome of climate change negotiations at COP21.
Candidates for Secretary-General must be citizens of Commonwealth countries and can serve two terms of four years. The role is to promote and protect Commonwealth values and principles set out in the Commonwealth Charter, represent the Commonwealth globally and manage the Commonwealth Secretariat and its programmes.
The Secretary-General facilitates consultation and is responsible for convening the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, Commonwealth Ministerial Meetings and a range of other meetings. He or she maintains contact with Commonwealth governments as well as with civil society and other leaders. Another important function is to exercise ‘Good Offices’ when the Commonwealth’s fundamental values are threatened or when political tensions arise in member states.
The post of Secretary-General was created together with the Commonwealth Secretariat at the 1965 Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in London. Since then there have been six incumbents: Kamalesh Sharma (2008-2016) of India; Sir Don McKinnon of New Zealand (2000-2008); Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria (1990-2000); Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal of Guyana (1975-1990); and Arnold Smith of Canada (1965-1975).
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