Commonwealth Day 2015
Each year the Commonwealth is celebrated throughout the world on the second Monday of March. Commonwealth Day is a unique opportunity to promote understanding of global issues, international co-operation and the work of Commonwealth organisations. In London the Royal Commonwealth Society hosts the Commonwealth Observance: a special multi-faith event held at Westminster Abbey and attended by Her Majesty The Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, High Commissioners, dignitaries from around the Commonwealth and specially invited guests, as well as 1,000 young people.
The Commonwealth Day theme also acts as catalyst for broader appreciation of the Commonwealth for the rest of the year. This year the theme is ‘A Young Commonwealth’, underlining the fact that more than half of the people in the Commonwealth are aged under 25. ‘A Young Commonwealth’ also recognises the capacity, contribution and potential of young people, particularly in 2015 when the world will define a new global development framework. Over the course of the year the Royal Commonwealth Society, along with many other Commonwealth organisations, will contribute to projects, programmes and competitions that celebrate ‘A Young Commonwealth’.
After an apparently successful rotation of the democratic process in Sri Lanka, more elections will follow across the Commonwealth in 2015. Democratic rule is a central value of the Commonwealth Charter. Nigeria, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada and the United Kingdom all have national elections scheduled for this year. As well as being significant in their own right, these elections are important in that they can also influence the Commonwealth by bringing political parties with different foreign policy priorities into government.
This is particularly true of the UK election as the UK government is the largest funder of the Commonwealth. Nigeria and Canada’s elections are also significant in this regard. UK foreign policy is a prominent issue in election media coverage as debate over EU membership is particularly loud. Some political actors have suggested that, a renegotiation of the country’s relationship with Europe is a chance to reframe the UK’s commitment to the Commonwealth. The UK’s elections are also relevant to the Commonwealth as all Commonwealth citizens living in the UK can vote.
In November 2015 the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held in Malta. Many commentators are looking for Malta to move the Commonwealth beyond the controversy of the last CHOGM’s host, the Sri Lankan government (which at the time was facing serious allegations of war crimes) and produce Commonwealth initiatives that will signify tangible benefits to citizens in the 21st century. Already, the Maltese government seems up for the challenge. The Prime Minister, Dr Joseph Muscat, has outlined a number of different visions for the modern Commonwealth. His emphasis has been on relevance and commitment from its members. The theme for CHOGM, The Commonwealth – Adding Global Value, certainly reflects this emphasis on relevance and seeing tangible benefit to Commonwealth membership.
At the moment it is difficult to know exactly which Commonwealth reforms Dr Muscat will be successful in seeing adopted, and there are rumours that some ideas have already been rejected by Commonwealth governments, which have to reach agreement by consensus. However, a number of changes to the CHOGM process can already be seen. Most significantly Malta will host for the first time a Women’s Forum to place women’s economic and social issues high on the Commonwealth agenda and create networking opportunities for those working on these issues. The Women’s Forum will sit alongside the usual People’s Forum, Youth Forum and the Business Forum. The latter is hoping to draw 1,000 delegates to discuss trade and investment opportunities.
The Malta CHOGM meeting is well-placed in the global meeting calendar, coming as it does so soon after the September meeting of the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA), at which the new post 2015 development framework will be agreed. Implementation of the new Goals is likely to be a priority area for Commonwealth inter-governmental and civil society discussion. The CHOGM also takes place before the Paris COP 21 (Conference of the Parties – UN Climate talks), which is a critical meeting, given difficult negotiations and compromises in Lima, Peru in July 2014 and the divide between rich and poor nations. It was in similar circumstances back in 2009 that the Trinidad & Tobago CHOGM became important in the run-up to COP Copenhagen, with at least a measure of Commonwealth consensus helping to facilitate wider global agreement at the time on climate change.
This important Commonwealth summit will give a chance for numerous Commonwealth citizens - from Prime Ministers and Presidents to activists and young people - to discuss the pressing issues facing the Commonwealth as an organisation as well as those facing its citizens and the global community.
A New Secretary General
CHOGM will also provide the setting for the election of a new Commonwealth Secretary General. With the current Secretary General HE Kamalesh Sharma due to finish his second term in office in March 2016, the hunt is on for his successor. At the moment there is much speculation about who may run for this position. The Caribbean press has been particularly active in covering the contest, and the lack of consensus in the region over a preferred candidate. According to the Jamaica Observer, Dominican-born Baroness Patricia Scotland, former UK Attorney General, and Trinidad and Tobago Planning Minister, Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, are both said to be in the running. The respected Baroness Valerie Amos is also thought to be a potential candidate as she stands down from her high profile appointment at the UN. The experienced High Commissioner to UK for Antigua and Barbuda, Sir Ronald Saunders, had declared his interest in the position but his intentions are now less clear and no doubt, will depend on later indications of support he might get. In addition to these candidates, former Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba has also declared her interest to stand. Like the two Baronesses, if Botswanan Masire-Mwamba is elected she would be the first woman to hold the position. It seems highly likely that new and late runners will appear in the next few months and that this contest will draw huge levels of interest and discussion from across the Commonwealth. Whoever becomes the next Secretary General will have to engage with the post-Malta agenda and ensure the continued relevance and efficacy of the Commonwealth.