World leaders, community groups and schoolchildren across the globe were united on Commonwealth Day in celebrating the 2016 theme of inclusivity, which promotes values of tolerance, respect for diversity, participation, equity and fairness.
Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General speaking on Commonwealth Day 2016
The Commonwealth flag was hoisted from Cameroon to Solomon Islands, while more than 300 schools around the world connected for a global assembly webcast organised through the Commonwealth Class initiative.
The Head of the Commonwealth, The Queen, in her annual message, urged people everywhere to give practical effect to the theme by “supporting those in need and those who feel excluded in all walks of life”.
“Being inclusive and accepting diversity goes far deeper than accepting differences at face value and being tolerant. True celebration of the dignity of each person, and the value of their uniqueness and contribution, involves reaching out, recognising and embracing their individual identity,” she said.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma, who steps down on 1 April after eight years of service, addressed a multi-faith Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London, which was broadcast live on television by the BBC.
“Taking strength from its diversity, the Commonwealth succeeds in creating common ground on which to stand together in answering the challenges of our times,” Mr Sharma told the gathered guests, including Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta, religious leaders and over a thousand young people.
Ellen Lebe, the former apartheid activist and member of the South African National Congress, said: “I am an African but when I speak to some of my friends from the Caribbean, we discover that we have so much in common. We also share values such as human rights, democracy, the rule of law, equality, fairness and respect for each other.”
A service of remembrance at the Memorial Gates, London, UK celebrating the contribution of those who served in the First and Second World Wars.
The Commonwealth Service saw performances by South African bass-baritone Simon Shibambu and British singer Ellie Goulding and an address by Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations. “It has never been more important for the Commonwealth to stress the bonds of human compassion and solidarity that unite us across the divides of race and religion, gender and geography,” said Mr Annan.
Prime Minister Muscat, who is Commonwealth Chair-in-Office having hosted the organisation’s Heads of Government summit last November, said he hoped the Commonwealth would continue to “act as an inclusive network for mutual support, development and growth of opportunity and rights for all.”
His was just one of many Commonwealth Day messages issued by Heads of Government. Ernest Bai Koroma, President of Sierra Leone, said: “An inclusive Commonwealth means coming together to promote equality, to strengthen the bonds of partnership and to work together in addressing common challenges. It means upholding the vision of breaking cultural and religious barriers and certainly overcoming discrimination.”
Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, said: “Bound by our collective commitment to the core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the Commonwealth is a testament to the principle of inclusiveness. The Commonwealth promotes mutual understanding and respect for different cultures, while rejecting intolerance, prejudice and racism.”
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, pledged that his country would remain “committed to protect and promote the key principles of the Commonwealth: democracy, inclusivity, and accountable governance.”
Maithripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka, stated: “The Commonwealth unity on pluralism, liberalism, democracy, and shared history is a unique testament to our strength. That, no doubt, rests on the foundation of inclusiveness. We are proud to celebrate these outstanding tenets.”
David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said: “At a time of unprecedented global challenges, the Commonwealth is more important than ever – bringing together a unique family of 53 nations, spanning every continent, to promote respect and understanding and to uphold our shared democratic values.”
Later in the day, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma hosted a reception at the Commonwealth Secretariat joined by the Head of the Commonwealth, The Queen, and the Duke of Edinburgh among other dignitaries. Among those in attendance were para-athletes who are set to compete at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018 as well as the finalists for the Commonwealth Youth Awards 2016.
One young person celebrating Commonwealth Day, Christine Shahbenderian from Cyprus, said: “One of the wonders of the Commonwealth is its special work as a champion for the vulnerable - both for the young people and small states. Coming from a small island like Cyprus, the support and wide array of possibilities given by the Commonwealth to the island state stands as one of the most tangible examples of the organisation’s inclusiveness.”