The twice-postponed Kigali Commonwealth summit is now due to take place in the week beginning 20 June 2022. The leaders’ debate is likely to be lively. Can the significant decline in resources be reversed and new relevance and impact be restored to the Commonwealth’s programmes? With a hotly-contested election for the post of Secretary-General under way, a controversial Chair-in-Office, and Prince Charles assuming a greater role in representing the Head, will the Commonwealth have the leadership necessary for future challenges? With recurrent questions about Rwanda’s commitment to human rights and controversy about how Commonwealth nations should treat refugees and migrants, is the association doing enough to maintain its values? And can the Commonwealth’s networks sustain it as a relevant soft power organisation for the twenty-first century, given the current turbulence in international relations following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Is the Commonwealth working? This was the theme of a pre-CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] discussion held on 27 May at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.

This event, which included in-person and virtual panellists and audiences, was organised by The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth Association.

In her introduction at Senate House, University of London Vice Chancellor, Prof Wendy Thomson said that the role of international organisations was very much in the public eye today. She added that the job of such organisations has never been more difficult. “The Commonwealth, with its history and its membership, has a very important role to play,” Professor Thomson said.

The sessions focused on Networks, Leadership, Values and Programmes and included speakers from across the Commonwealth.

See session outlines and recordings below.

Session 1: Networks

Project Director at the Global Leadership Foundation and career diplomat, Amitav Banerji, chaired the first session. Panellists were: Commonwealth Foundation Director-General, Anne Gallagher, economist, diplomat and former Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Indrajit Coomaraswamy, and Jon Davies of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK.

Mr Banerji opened the session by pointing out that the Commonwealth was still flourishing even though many of its members had felt ‘the sharp edge of the colonial yoke’. One of the reasons it had managed to survive was that it was not just a network of member governments but a network of networks and of peoples.

Dr Gallagher spoke of the “strength and complexity” of the Commonwealth. She said that it was up to international organisations to create agency explicitly for civil society networks. In the Commonwealth, these civil society networks were “strong and flourishing … a tapestry of personal and institutional connections.” But too much of the networking and thinking was in London, and among ‘the old guard’ – it was “not sufficiently representative.” She also said there had been a “serious erosion of fundamental values” and the pandemic had exposed the Commonwealth as “failing to secure equal access to vaccines.”

CPA’s Jon Davies said that strengthening parliaments, by enabling them to learn from others, was a vital part of a healthier democracy. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (which included provincial parliaments and assemblies as well as national ones) provided a means of disseminating and sharing experience and best practice, and a “safe” Commonwealth space to tackle issues which might be difficult locally.

Dr Coomaraswamy said that “if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant, if must have strong developmental activity.” It was in the interests of the political pillar of Commonwealth programmes, that there should also be “well-designed and well-resourced development work”: “You cannot eat human rights.” He spelt out some key economic priorities including adapting to climate change, addressing the debt burden, promoting freer trade by breaking the Doha impasse, improving global supply chains, safeguarding food and energy security, and connecting an increasingly regionalised world. These were matters on which the Commonwealth could and should be taking a lead.

Panellists and audience contributors suggested using the 2023 tenth anniversary of the Commonwealth Charter to revise the work of the Eminent Persons Group and devise a more consistent reporting mechanism for monitoring democracy between elections.

Session 1 recording

Session 2: Leadership

Round Table Editorial Board member and former BBC anchor Keshini Navaratnam chaired the second session on leadership. Her panel consisted of the Professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London, Philip Murphy, career diplomat and former Cyprus High Commissioner to the UK, Euripides Evriviades, and former High Commissioner for Barbados to the UK, Guy Hewitt.

The panel explored the structure of the Commonwealth and the way the Commonwealth Secretary-General is elected, as well as the way the roles of Head of the Commonwealth and Chair in Office have evolved.

Professor Murphy spoke of the “deep structural problems” behind the leadership of the Commonwealth as a result of being it being “the product of a collapsing empire.”. He said that leaders had deliberately created a role of Secretary-General with “vague and weak” powers in order not to compromise their own independence. He thought there were many factors which militated against change. He also questioned the value of the roles of Commonwealth Chair-in-Office and Head of the Commonwealth. The experiment of having a Chair-in-Office had failed for three reasons: “(Mahinda) Rajapaksa, (Boris) Johnson, and (Paul) Kagame”.

Mr Evriviades said that the selection of the Secretary-General would be the “hottest issue” at the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. He said that the Commonwealth could not be everything to everyone, a sort of Christmas tree on which to hang every wish. He also said that high commissioners should not be “downgraded” and used for “rubber stamping” Commonwealth decisions and suggested that that the Commonwealth’s top civil servant “should be more Secretary than General.”

Revd Hewitt said that there was a “cloud of uncertainty” over the leadership of the Commonwealth. This included “a personally embattled chair” and the “question of who will be the next SG.” He called for more transparency and accountability in the running of the Commonwealth Secretariat and suggested a greater role for foreign ministers and high commissioners. He drew a distinction between supporting “republicanism in Barbados” and “democratising the Headship”, a proposition he would not support until member countries found a viable replacement. He said that it was time for a new system of governance and that CHOGM 2022 needed to reverse “the present path of descent and decline.”

The Q&A session discussed the need to look at follow-through and accountability on major decisions and principles. The suggestion was made that the election of the Secretary-General should take place before the CHOGM, in order not to crowd out other substantive issues. Discussants also questioned the need for a chair-in-office.

Session 2 recording

Session 3: Values

Former Commonwealth Foundation Director-General Vijay Krishnarayan chaired the session on values. His panel consisted of the Professor of Constitutional Governance and Politics at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Cynthia Barrow-Giles, Commonwealth Journalists Association executive member and former BBC foreign correspondent, William Horsley, and Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Association’s London office, Sneh Aurora.

Mr Krishnarayan began the session by saying that he had a passion for the institution but that ten years after the adoption of the Commonwealth Charter, “the Commonwealth needed to live up to its values.”

Prof Barrow-Giles said that the Commonwealth Charter had codified the values of the Commonwealth but that member governments could still undermine the Charter’s values without repercussions. Indeed, even the Chair-in-Office was doing so in the British Virgin Islands. She questioned whether the Commonwealth was “walking the talk” on the Charter and its principles. She also pointed to the “silence of the Commonwealth” on key issues. “It did too much on elections but not enough on parliaments or issues of human sexuality.” It was, however, “one of the loudest voices championing small states.”

CJA’s William Horsley said the Commonwealth was being killed by “courtesy and deference”. He said that, while media freedom and freedom of expression had become big issues at other multilateral organisations, and in a context where media freedom was under attack in many Commonwealth countries, the Commonwealth had been “not just missing a trick but absent without leave”. “Why is the Commonwealth absent from the debate about media freedom?”, he asked.

CHRI’s Sneh Aurora said that human rights more generally were under threat across the Commonwealth. As well as media freedom she raised concerns about political persecution, attacks on the rule of law, and modern slavery. The Commonwealth’s human rights were embedded in shared values. She called on the Commonwealth to “operationalise” its policies and principles and spoke of the “institutional reluctance” to follow things through.

Session 3 recording

Session 4: Programmes

The Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Sue Onslow, chaired the final session of the day. Her panel consisted of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Senior Director of the Governance and Peace Directorate, Professor Luis Franceschi, who will be the Conference Secretary of the June CHOGM in Kigali, former media consultant at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Mischa Manderson-Mills, and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Nicholas Watts.

Chair Dr Onslow kicked off the session by pointing out that, whilst in the past, the Commonwealth contributed significantly on a range of issues and programmes, the Secretariat’s capacity and financial resources have been significantly reduced: “Is the Commonwealth working and, if not, why not?”

Prof Franceschi said that the theme of the conference was a question he asked himself every day. “And I say ‘yes’ but we can do better,” he said. He added that “the Commonwealth is working … but we are not very good at promoting ourselves”. He outlined behind-the-scenes successes in Zambia and Guyana, election observation work, the importance of background toolkits, and ongoing programmes and projects. “Sometimes, these things go unnoticed and cannot be said publicly,” he added. He outlined some areas where the Commonwealth could do more or better but underlined the budget restraints the Secretariat faced.

Dr Watts spoke about the need for a matrix to measure how the Commonwealth is working and the role of its various networks. He argued for greater engagement, communication and cooperation between the Secretariat and civil society organisations. The Independent Forum of Commonwealth Organisations had been working to give Commonwealth organisations a collective voice, but it was still very much an uphill struggle to be heard.

Mischa Manderson-Mills spoke of the Commonwealth’s “communications problem” and the need to get through to young people. “Is the Commonwealth getting its message across? I think the answer is ‘no,”, she said. She referenced how difficult it was to find even basic and foundational documents on the Secretariat’s website, and the lack of engaging material. If the Commonwealth Secretariat had success stories, it was very bad at making them known.

The Q&A session looked transparency and accountability, monitoring and oversight of programmes, cooperation and complementarity. Comments included the need and means to make the Commonwealth less London-centric; and the ongoing discussion with the CHOGM 2022 organisers in Rwanda to open up sessions virtually beyond Kigali.

Session 4 recording