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House of Lords International Relations Committee Evidence Session statement

20 July 2016
Statement by: Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland

I am very grateful to the Committee for giving me the opportunity to set out my priorities for the 53 countries and 2.3 billion people of the Commonwealth.

Having taken office on 1 April, this session takes place just after my 100th day in post, and I have already started work on the priorities set for me by Heads of Government.

  • tackling the existential threat of climate change by holding a high-level dialogue in my first week to develop a Commonwealth plan to deliver COP 21.
  • promoting trade, good governance and human rights for example, working with Lesotho, Malaysia and India on trade alongside the CWEIC, hosting the Tackling Corruption Together conference and announcing the creation of the Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform.
  • providing new opportunities for the young people of the Commonwealth enabling the next generation to achieve their full potential through the work of the Commonwealth Youth Council, Commonwealth Youth Networks and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Trust, including new partnerships with Common Purpose and UNESCO.
  • ending violence against women and girls and promoting gender equality holding our inaugural women’s leadership summit in July which produced an action plan for the Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting in Samoa this September.
  • launching the Commonwealth Hub to bring Commonwealth organisations together in a collaborative, dynamic and innovative way of working, bringing together the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Games Federation, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum and the Commonwealth Foundation.
  • expanding our strategic partnerships with other international organisations such as expanding and upgrading our presence at the UN in Geneva and New York though our small states office, and working more closely with the IMF, WHO and La Francophonie.

The Commonwealth Strategic Plan, which member states spent two years agreeing, reflects the aspirations of 53. Those aspirations were then mirrored in the 2015 agreement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly the agreement at CHOGM on climate change set the benchmark that was then agreed by everyone else in Paris.

This should come as no surprise and reflects one of the great strengths of the Commonwealth in setting out how progress can be made.

Because we cover five regions, countries of every shape and size and the diversity of human life, we are a pathway for others to follow. The Commonwealth should be proud of its pioneering advocacy and agreement we have led on that has been part of setting the global agenda for not just ourselves but for others too.

This all means we now have a clear agenda focused on the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris climate agreement and the values of the Commonwealth Charter. We can achieve this because the Commonwealth is seen as a valued partner by member states as we advocate for global change.

The Commonwealth shares the common law, common values and common institutions. SDG 16 on good governance and the rule of law is particularly appropriate for us which is why I have proposed the creation of a Commonwealth office of civil and criminal justice reform. We have a natural strength and our citizens worldwide have a natural expectation that the Commonwealth will deliver responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

They expect us to strengthen fundamental freedoms; to stamp out corruption; to end abuse and violence; to promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws; and, to build the national institutions that deliver these.  

The Commonwealth can also be a driver for delivery of the agreement reached at COP21. The Commonwealth has always been a leader on the environment going back to the Langkawi declaration in 1989.

This time, in advance of COP 21, the Caribbean countries and the Pacific Island Forum united in calling for a 1.5 degrees limit in global temperature rises. Those 24 countries then joined with the remainder of the Commonwealth when we went to Malta for the Heads of Government Meeting immediately before Paris.

There was an agreement that 53 of us would commit to 2% with 52 of us saying 1.5% would be our aspiration. Collaboration has been the hallmark of the Commonwealth creating the symbiotic approach to development based on new economic models of growth.

So now, having been instrumental in achieving the Paris agreement, the Commonwealth now has to be instrumental in delivering it.

And there is the opportunity for the Commonwealth to be ahead of the curve: to start moving beyond climate change mitigation and adaptation to climate change reversal where feasible becoming a co-pilot with nature to create a truly sustainable environment.

As I said, this work is underpinned by the values of the Commonwealth Charter that was agreed in 2013.

The Charter brings together the values and aspirations which unite the Commonwealth - democracy, human rights and the rule of law – and expresses the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth.

Of course, this session also takes place at a time of uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Many Commonwealth members’ leaders urged the UK to remain, but they will naturally respect the will of the people and decision taken in this country. They will all now, from their own national standpoints, be evaluating how the decision affects them and what priority should be placed on post-Brexit engagement with the UK.

A slow-down in the UK economy and uncertainties in both the UK and the EU will be particularly felt by members who are trade dependent and/or linked by their currencies to Sterling – including those reliant on commodity exports and tourism. The consequences of the need to rearrange the financial furniture following years of negotiating Economic Partnership Agreements will start to materialise, and will concern all developing states in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group how it is to be done and how should the new structures should be fashioned.

In this new paradigm the Commonwealth advantage, which flows from such an alignment of interests and history, is not only worth having but is needed, and never more so than now when the international community and members of the Commonwealth are seeking greater fiscal security and an anchor in these turbulent times.

The analysis of the benefits which flow from coming together in consensual alignment, have been made and the outcome is impressive.

Bilateral trade costs between two Commonwealth members are on average 19 per cent lower compared to those between any other country pairs.

It is clear that together we can, if we choose, create Commonwealth best practice models which could make operational interoperability in trade and business practices a reality.

In conclusion, as we look to the future role of the Commonwealth, I would make the following four points:

  1. The Commonwealth has a pedigree of constantly reforming, adapting and innovating in order to be relevant to contemporary times. This determines our priorities, our continuing leadership as a thinker, an advocate and a doer for small and vulnerable states.
  2. The Commonwealth is a group of equal partners. This is very much a community of 53 equal partners who have equal shares in deciding its future direction and priorities.
  3. The Commonwealth remains a platform for any of its members – including Britain – to advance their national interests across the globe. It is a bridge to a community of like-minded countries and, because of our shared commitment to its political and economic values, and largely shared history, there is considerable comfort and political will to strengthen the ties with each other where opportunities arise.
  4. The hosting by Britain of a Commonwealth Trade Ministers Meeting in 2017 and of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018 are opportunities for Britain to play a leading role with the Commonwealth.

I’m excited by the opportunity we have to put the Commonwealth back on the map and I am determined to build the partnerships we need to succeed, both inside and outside the Commonwealth as we advocate for our members.

I want to put the wealth back into Commonwealth and the common back into wealth and the ability of this eclectic family to respond to the new complex challenges is second to none.

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