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UK international relations debate focuses on Commonwealth benefits

1 February 2017

“Post Brexit must mean enhanced Commonwealth engagement” the British politician Baroness Berridge urged during a parliamentary debate.

The Conservative peer is the director of the Commonwealth Initiative for the Freedom of Religion or Belief - an influential project which supports parliamentarians to speak out and defend one of our key human rights - the freedom of religion and belief. She joined other members of the House of Lords in highlighting the critical importance of the Commonwealth in international relations.

She said, "Part of the answer, in my view, to both post Brexit international relations and the UK engagement with the United Nations (UN) was stated by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs - the Commonwealth ‘yet another forum in which Britain, our country, is able to express our values, to get things done and to get things moving’.” 

The peers were debating the “UK’s international relations in the light of Brexit, including its future engagement with the UN and the United States”. They were also reacting to a report from the International Relations Committee on the priorities of the new UN Secretary-General.

Responding to former UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, Baroness Amos’ evidence to the report that there was “little or no visibility’ of the Commonwealth at the UN, Baroness Berridge stressed that this was a consequence of a lack of resources. She questioned whether the UK will “ensure resources for the visibility of the Commonwealth” beyond the support given to the small states offices in New York and Geneva.

Emphasising that the Commonwealth could be instrumental in specific UN priorities such as boosting trade and addressing climate change, Baroness Berridge asked, “When will we, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, ‘utilise this underutilised network’.” She also urged that “the UK should look to encourage the UN and its Secretary-General to engage with religion and freedom of religion or belief”.

Other peers, including Baroness Deech, also called for more focus on the Commonwealth. The UK minister for the Commonwealth, Baroness Anelay, spoke about the intergovernmental organisation’s “immense global reach” and “huge potential to exert influence on issues of global importance.”

After the debate, Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Scotland said:  "I am pleased to see that there is recognition of the power of the Commonwealth to influence positively and bolster international relations and to facilitate thriving trade. Commonwealth members are geographically dispersed covering almost all the regions of the world from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas, Europe and Asia to the Pacific.  In spite of this diversity, our 52 members have a ‘Commonwealth advantage’ which stems from sharing a common language, and similar institutions and legal systems. This makes any two Commonwealth countries trade an average of 19 to 20 per cent more with each other, when compared to their non-Commonwealth partners. We aim to increase this to 30 per cent.”

She added, “I am determined to capitalise on these commonalities and to persevere with the commitments I made at the beginning of my tenure as Secretary-General. I will honour my promises to tackle the existential threat of climate change; promote trade, good governance, the rule of law and human rights; address domestic violence, in particular violence against women and girls; and provide new opportunities for Commonwealth young people.”