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The future of the Commonwealth: Sir Anand Satyanand reviews the relevance of the unique, respected world-wide organisation to New Zealand.

A grouping of 52 states, the Commonwealth has deep roots in the British Empire. As a form of association, it grew out of meetings of heads of government as the constitutional framework evolved during the 20th century. Pivotal decisions in 1965 provided the basis of today's institution. The Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation, established then, have played key roles in the last half-century. Much of value has been achieved, but there is a need, in present conditions of the world, to review the relevance of the Commonwealth with a view to both taking advantage of opportunities and resetting compasses.


Why should now be especially important in reviewing the future of the Commonwealth and its relevance to New Zealand? In her role as administrator of the UN Development Programme, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark delivered a notable Commonwealth lecture in London in 2015. She said that the present time offered great opportunities to reset compasses. She was speaking of work being done in the United Nations on recalibrating the Millennium Development Goals and on climate change. Each of those matters led to major conferences and decisions. A similar debate had occurred within the remit of the Commonwealth; the then present year for that institution, she said, was also one of great change, including the installation at its end of a new secretary-general, Baroness Patricia Scotland.

In modern-day terms, the Commonwealth can be defined as 'a voluntary association of 52 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development'. Previously there had been no Commonwealth but rather an empire led from London. So far as New Zealand is concerned, there was from 1769 onwards a relationship forged with the British crown, notably in 1840, when New Zealand became a colony. At the beginning of the 20th century that relationship matured into New Zealand becoming a Dominion. Later, at an Imperial Conference in 1926, the United Kingdom and its Dominions agreed they were to be from then on 'equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated'. Following the British Parliament's Statute of Westminster in 1931, the die was cast for each of the former colonies to function independently. Nothing legislated in the United Kingdom would be part of the law in New Zealand unless expressly asked for and consented to. In colonial times, New Zealand was described as part of the British Empire and some of us remember atlases from school time when a significant part of the world on a map was coloured red.

Many may think that the term Commonwealth is a modern term, particularly in relation to the post-Second World War period. That may be so in formal terms, but in as early as 1884 a British statesman, Foreign Secretary Lord Rosebery, spoke of the Empire being a 'Commonwealth of Nations'. The former empire had many connotations of a family, but it had a definite head, and the colonial governments did not gain their independence and right of individual action until well into the 20th century. One of the Second World War's many effects was to foreshadow the end of the former arrangements and those with countries like India, Ceylon, Malaya and South Africa.

The London Declaration of 1949 is said to be an important waypoint because it marked the beginning of a time when it was agreed that Commonwealth members could be republics as well as realms--as in India and Pakistan, for example, where presidents are the heads of state. It was also agreed that the name of the group should be the Commonwealth of Nations, not the British Commonwealth. An essential central spirit was that the members were free and equal, freely co-operating in the pursuit of liberty and progress.

This gives context to the anecdote in Sir Don McKinnon's published memoir, In the Ring. This interesting and well written book records a time when he was referred to by the British prime minister as 'the Head of the British Commonwealth'. Sir Don, who was then Commonwealth secretary-general, had to offer a quick and polite rejoinder to the prime minister, saying that, first, the head of the Commonwealth was the Queen and, second, that the organisation had not been the British Commonwealth for a great many years!

Pivotal decision

For some fifteen years after the 1949 London Declaration, Commonwealth prime ministers used to meet in London on a regular basis. In 1965 came a pivotal decision: that there should be a stand-alone organisation called the Commonwealth Secretariat, based in London and housed at one of the royal palaces, Marlborough House, in Pall Mall. It has remained in operation during the following half-century, during which the Commonwealth has grown to 52 members. Many of them are republics. Some, like Mozambique and Cameroon, have come from a Portuguese or French, rather than a British background.

The Commonwealth is home to more than two billion citizens of all faiths and ethnicities and includes some of the worlds largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries. Over half of its citizens are 25 or under. Its combined GDP is more than US$8 trillion with impressive annual growth--in world terms. A key feature is that membership is entirely voluntary. Only four countries have ever left and two of those sought and gained re-entry. Member countries come from six regions --Africa (eighteen); Asia (seven); the Americas (three); the Caribbean (ten); Europe (three); and the South Pacific (eleven). Most recent members are Rwanda, Cameroon and Mozambique. Seven Commonwealth nations are in the top 25 of the worlds ease of doing business rankings. Six Commonwealth nations are in the top 25 least corrupt nations in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index.

Prime ministers meet every two years to discuss matters of mutual interest and advancement. The last Commonwealth heads of government meeting occurred in Malta. The next, in 2018, will be in the United Kingdom. It is also a practice developed over the lifetime of the Commonwealth that, in addition to the meetings of the heads of government, ministers responsible for education, environment, civil society, finance, foreign affairs, gender affairs, health, law, tourism and youth all meet regularly and in various capitals of the Commonwealth. The Queen, who since 1952 has made support for the Commonwealth a central tenet of her reign, said in 2009 that
   the Commonwealth is not an organisation with a mission.
   It is rather an opportunity for its people to work together to
   achieve practical solutions to problems.

Founding member

How then does New Zealand fit into the Commonwealth? It can immediately be said that our country has always been part of it. New Zealand was a founding member of the Commonwealth and has long been involved in a wide range of its activities. A great many Commonwealth meetings and consultations have been hosted in New Zealand cities, including the 1995 Chogm meeting in Auckland and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Meeting in Wellington in 1998. New Zealand, it will be recalled by many, has been the host of three Commonwealth Games--in 1950,1974 and 1990.

New Zealand is currently the sixth largest contributor to the Commonwealth budget by volume. New Zealand has actively promoted the Commonwealths core beliefs and principles through membership of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and continuing membership of the Commonwealth Ministerial Group on Small States. The ministerial action group method is a potent working arm of the organisation, and it is as a result of its actions that some countries have had sanctions mounted against them, including dismissal, as in the cases of Pakistan and Fiji. Over time, New Zealand has contributed a number of people to positions in the Commonwealth's workings, of whom five examples suffice: Sir Don McKinnon was secretary-general; Simon Gimson, a New Zealand diplomat, served as director of the secretary-general's office for nearly ten years, Dr Linda Sissons of Wellington is chairperson of the Commonwealth of Learning, Lawrence Yule, the mayor of Hastings and recently elected MP, was chair of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum and I was chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation.

The Chogm's relevance in focusing ideas was illustrated at the last meeting, in Malta. Its deliberations there ended in favour of its first woman holder of office, Baroness Patricia Scotland as secretary-general. In all its life there have only been seven secretaries-general --Arnold Smith, a Canadian; Sonny Ramphal, a Trinidadian; Emeka Anyoku, a Nigerian; Don McKinnon, a New Zealander; Kamalesh Sharma, an Indian, and now Baroness Scotland, who was born in Dominica in the Caribbean but who has lived most of her life in the United Kingdom. In Commonwealth circles there has always been much discussion of whether the secretary-general should be a politician or a diplomat and the members have voted in favour of each kind of person during the 50 plus years of existence.

Small states

The second matter of relevance for Chogms was the great deal of alignment work done by the Commonwealth with United Nations efforts on the recalibrated Millennium Development Goals, work for example on climate change and on small states. Thirty-one of the Commonwealth's 52 members are described as small states--that is, those with populations of less than 1.5 million. In New Zealand's sphere of much influence in the South Pacific, there are a number of small states like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

At the end of 2016 I completed a second and concluding term as head of the Commonwealth Foundation, which is the counterpart to the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is the people's organisation. Instead of having a political and economic remit, the foundation deals with people's aspirations and pursuits. It is centred on matters of citizen advancement and cultural and literary and professional matters--things like the Commonwealth short story prize, the Commonwealth lecture, Commonwealth writers and the Commonwealth short films exposition are all matters transacted by the foundation. More formally, the foundation can be described as an intergovernmental organisation, resourced by and reporting to Commonwealth governments and guided by Commonwealth values. Its mandate is to strengthen civil society in the achievement of Commonwealth priorities, focusing on things like the advancement of democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and gender equality, diminution of corruption, poverty eradication and sustainable development and the promotion of arts and culture.

The foundation was established by the heads of government at their meeting in 1965. With admittance open to all members of the Commonwealth, its membership is currently 48 out of the 52 member countries. Its size and budget are modest--twenty or so staff compared with 300 or so in the secretariat and 3.4 [pounds sterling] million compared with much more for the secretariat--but it is independent, vibrant and helpful and functions as a kind of conscience. Interestingly, it has always been chaired by an external Commonwealth citizen, not an insider from London. Regular liaison and co-operation between the secretariat and the foundation is in place. New Zealand has always supported the foundation but had never offered any person to be its chair until my appointment. The foundation undertakes at the same time as a Chogm, or just before it, a peoples forum involving several hundred people from civil society from all over the Commonwealth joining people from the host country.

Dipped interest

The two organisations (Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth Foundation) are broadly accepted. But there is also the impression that in recent years the Commonwealth has perhaps dipped beneath the radar, so to speak, as New Zealand makes its way as an international citizen. Our country, which is remote, relatively small in population and without unbounded resources, plies its membership of the United Nations, connects with APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Community), ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and the Pacific Islands Forum. These latter mentioned organisations can be said to be more closely aligned with New Zealand's precise needs, and have perhaps come to play a larger contemporary role in the consciousness of the government and our population. Additionally, for the present generation, London does not function so much as a magnet in the way that it did for the parents and grandparents of this generation.

Added to this is the matter of the Commonwealth having a long history and suffering as a result and, one might say, of necessity periods when its fortunes may wane. This matter of periodic loss of traction has been experienced in other international agencies also. As a result, the Commonwealth assigned a group of eminent persons whose backgrounds had been in a number of pursuits--politics, law or diplomacy, for example, and charged them with examining and reviewing it with a view to revitalising it. Over two years from the end of 2009, the group worked their way through some 300 submissions about what ought to be done to make the Commonwealth more resilient and progressive. The report can be described as a document bringing to the forefront many of the pressing issues of today--maintenance of the rule of law, preservation of human rights, dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning number of youth and so on.

One of the big developments was the formulation of a Commonwealth Charter. This needed negotiation and no doubt argument over phrasing, but in London on Commonwealth Day, 11 March 2013, the Queen signed a new charter. It is a vitally expressed document. To quote from her speech, 'it represents a significant milestone as the Commonwealth continues its journey of development and renewal. We now have,' she said, 'for the first time, a single document that captures the core values and aspirations of the Commonwealth and all its members. It will light the path of all those involved in the work of the Commonwealth, and of those who follow in our footsteps'.

Contemporary challenge

The Commonwealth presents a contemporary challenge for our own lives and those of a great many in the world. New Zealand, and we its citizens, should keep the Commonwealth on our radar for good reasons, that of association with people of goodwill, who have a similar history, similar traditions and a similar outlook.

Some things have always been best expressed by other people and I have reason, in that regard, to return and quote from Helen Clark's Commonwealth lecture, in the course of which she said:
   The Commonwealth, like the United Nations, spans every region of
   the world. It constitutes nearly a third of the global
   population--some 2.2 billion people, and a quarter of our planet's
   land area. But it has not relied on its size and geographical reach
   alone in making its mark in a world of many multi-country
   organisations. The Commonwealth's unique value has been its
   commitment to development, democracy, and diversity.

She concluded:
   The Commonwealth, home to a third of the world's people,
   combines the strength of its youth, its values of democracy
   and diversity, and a deep commitment to development. Over
   the past years, the Commonwealth has shown a capacity to
   reinvent itself continually. It would have been all too easy for
   a voluntary association of nations drawn from where the same
   imperial flag once flew to lose its relevance. "The triumph of
   the Commonwealth is that it hasn't. It has developed a shared
   vision and set of values which aim to shape our common future.

I endorse what Helen Clark said. Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, in a speech she made before commencing duties just over a year ago, declared that she wanted 'to put the wealth back into Commonwealth' and 'the common back into wealth'. She spoke of four themes on which she wanted to focus--tackling violence against women and girls, second, what she called the existential threat of climate change, third, trade and good governance and fourth, young people. She ended saying that 'our real wealth is what we have in common--our shared humanity'.

In the next 50 years New Zealand can derive benefit from continuing to be a respected contributor to a unique, respected world-wide organisation which provides access to expertise for so many and collectively undertakes useful tasks.

Sir Anand Satyanand GNZM, QSO is a former governor-general of New Zealand and chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation. This article is the edited text of an address he gave to the Probus Club of Wellington on 15 September 2017.

Caption: Patricia Scotland

Caption: Map showing the 52 members of the Commonwealth

Caption: Sir Don McKinnon
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Author:Satyanand, Anand
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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