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Secretariat records from 1981 echo current Commonwealth moves towards renewal and reform

5 April 2012
30-year old files also cover apartheid and sport, and Commonwealth membership for Zimbabwe and Antigua

London, 4 April 2012 – Records released today by the Commonwealth Secretariat show that the current debate on the renewal, reform and future of the Commonwealth was an equally prominent concern 30 years ago. 

The files from 1981 reflect issues raised by the 2011 Report of the Eminent Persons Group ‘A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform.’

The Review Group on the Objectives and Priorities of the Commonwealth Secretariat in the 1980s submitted its recommendations in a draft report in which it addressed the need to retain the relevance of the Commonwealth. The Review Group, comprised of eight representatives from Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Tonga and Zambia stated:

“There will of course be a limited amount that the Commonwealth will be able to do - - multilaterally, bilaterally, or through Commonwealth institutions. But what can be done, in those areas where Commonwealth programmes are of proven effectiveness and where the nature of Commonwealth contact offers the Secretariat a comparative advantage over other aid agencies, must be done.”

In recognition of similar economically straightened times, the UK government included a proposal that the Review Group’s assessment be combined with a separate review of the Secretariat’s management structures.

In his Memorandum to the Review Group, then Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal said: “At the political level, consultation remains the life-blood of the association.” He noted that if greater results from increasingly restricted resources were to be achieved, then the networks of Commonwealth contacts and the mobility of Secretariat staff should be greater enhanced.

The issue of human rights across the Commonwealth was also raised, and a specific role for the Secretariat was proposed. It was out of the recommendation of the 1981 Report that a Human Rights Unit, with a focus on the advocacy and promotion of rights was created within the Secretariat.

Also in the release of documentation are records relating to apartheid and sport, and Commonwealth membership for Zimbabwe and Antigua. The material includes the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Melbourne, where leaders addressed the implications of a renewed nuclear arms race and the global financial recession. 

A copy of the complete list of files is available on the Commonwealth Secretariat’s website at http://www.thecommonwealth.org/archive. The files are available for viewing in the Secretariat’s Library and Archives at Marlborough House. Appointments may be made with Hilary McEwan, Archivist, by telephone at +44 (0)20 7747 6167, by fax at +44 (0)20 7747 6168, or by e-mail at [email protected]