The Commonwealth London Summit 2018

By Syed Sharfuddin

A two-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, known in the Commonwealth family as CHOGM, concluded on Friday 20 April in Windsor, the home of Windsor Castle in England, after a busy week of activities ranging from celebrating Commonwealth linkages between diverse groups of people and organisations to Foreign Ministers’ and Heads of Government consultations on global issues, including democracy, cyber security, protecting oceans, climate change, immigration, trade and investment. 

The meeting could not have come at a better time for Great Britain whose Prime Minister became the chairperson of the organisation for the next two years in addition to the British monarch remaining the Head of the Commonwealth after Queen Elizabeth II. For the first time in Commonwealth history the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is also a British national, Baroness Patricia Scotland, who was elected at the last CHOGM as Secretary-General replacing a former Indian diplomat Kamalesh Sharma. As Chair of CHOGM, Britain is also represented on the reconstituted Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group which monitors compliance of Commonwealth Charter by member states.

The 25th CHOGM was originally planned to be held in Vanuatu late last year but it could not be held there because of severe floods which seriously affected the infrastructure of the small island state in the South Pacific. Britain came to the fore and volunteered to host the Summit in the summer of 2018 in London. The last CHOGM hosted by Britain was 21 years ago in Edinburgh in 1997. Pakistan was represented at both these meetings by a PML(N) government’s Prime Minister.

By hosting the London CHOGM almost by chance, Britain has successfully settled an old in-house debate in the Commonwealth, going as far back as 2005, about the role of the British monarch in the Association after the departure of Queen Elizabeth II who has admirably guided and led the Commonwealth since 1952 but is now showing signs of old age and fatigue. On her birthday on 21 April she will turn 92. The Queen has already cut down her official engagements and is no longer travelling overseas. At Commonwealth receptions and other public events, she has been represented by Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. 

The Opening Ceremony of CHOGM was held on 19 April at the official residence of the Queen at Buckingham Palace, London. It was for the first time that the question of succession was mentioned in the speeches of the outgoing Chairman, the Prime Minister of Malta, as well as by the Queen herself. In 1952, the mantle of Commonwealth leadership passed from King George VI to his daughter Elizabeth II on his sudden death almost without any discussion by the membership which then comprised only eight countries. The shock of a young King’s death and a 25 years old princess holidaying in Kenya taking over as the Queen, as well as the close post-colonial association of the newly independent states with Britain left no room for a debate or discussion on the heredity principle to apply to the Commonwealth’s 1949 Declaration which founded the modern Commonwealth and required the newly independent states of the former British Empire, if they opted to become republics but wished to remain in the Commonwealth, by recognising the British monarch “as a symbol of their association and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.” Pakistan is a founding member of the modern Commonwealth born out of the London Declaration in 1949.

While it is an agreed convention for the British public to have the crown pass on from the British monarch to the Prince of Wales as the new Head of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and 16 other Commonwealth realms, there has been no such convention for Commonwealth member states to follow this principle in selecting the Head of their Association after the departure of Queen Elizabeth II. Although the Queen has admirably served the Commonwealth for over 6 decades in ways that perhaps no other Head could, always being there as a pillar of strength and symbol of unity in times of crisis, there have been open and muted republican voices in Australia, New Zealand and Canada not to continue with the tradition of the British monarch as the head of the modern Commonwealth. In the past, some nationalist African states also seemed to hold the view that an organisation of free states which promotes the values of democracy, equality and sharing power should do away with the British royal presence at the top of the organisation after the departure of the present Head of the Commonwealth. In other countries such as India or Pakistan, the sensitivity to Britain’s overwhelming weight in the Commonwealth, but not to its symbolic royal presence, remains strong but is never mentioned in official discussions. Pakistan allows its nationals to keep dual nationality with Britain but bars them from contesting the general election to parliament or from holding top positions in public office.

This matter concluded successfully at the Windsor Retreat on 20 April after 46 Heads of Government and seven Foreign Ministers representing their countries unanimously agreed in principle to have Prince Charles succeed the Queen as the new Head of the Commonwealth at the appropriate time in the future. A separate Statement of Leaders issued at the conclusion of their meeting confirmed this arrangement in the following words: “We recognise the role of The Queen in championing the Commonwealth and its peoples. The next Head of the Commonwealth shall​ be His Royal Highness Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales.”

This was, however, a foregone conclusion. A consensus on this agreement had been carefully developed through informal consultations among member states in the weeks preceding the CHOGM. Earlier, in his address at the Opening Ceremony of CHOGM the outgoing Chairman of CHOGM, the Prime Minister of Malta had praised Prince Charles for his commitment to the Commonwealth values and said: “We are certain that when he will be called upon to do so, he will provide a solid and passionate leadership for our Commonwealth.” In her address The Queen also said: “It is my sincere wish that the Commonwealth will continue to offer stability and continuity for future generations, and will decide that one day the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949.”

For some years, the Prince of Wales has been making occasional low key appearances in Commonwealth receptions and gatherings. He has established beyond doubt that he is a Commonwealth man and the most suited replacement to head this organisation after the Queen. He represented the Queen at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. He also addressed the Opening Ceremony of the London CHOGM in addition to the Queen’s valedictory address. It is most likely that Prince Charles will attend the next CHOGM in Rwanda in 2020 in lieu of the Queen. 

Britain also benefited from hosting the CHOGM at a time when the Parliament is discussing UK’s Brexit negotiations with the EU. Although the economies of Commonwealth countries do not offer an alternative to European technology, goods and expert services traded by the UK, the Commonwealth statistics give an impressive picture of finding new partners and markets for Britain outside the EU in the area of trade and investment. The Commonwealth’s strength lies in its 53 diverse nations, six continents outreach, 2.4 billion population, a robust combination of three developed and half a dozen rapidly developing economies, and a huge network of civil society organisations and professional associations kept together by a common language and shared principles and values.

The London CHOGM discussed the overall theme: ‘towards a common future and how to make it fairer, more secure, more prosperous and more sustainable’. Heads of Government adopted a Communique at the end of their meeting which reiterated Commonwealth’s established position on trade, health, education, gender equality, protection of the environment, cyber security, immigration, human trafficking and child exploitation, supporting UN efforts toward peace and dealing with violent extremism, elimination of chemical weapons, organised crime and economic sustainability. Heads of Government adopted a Commonwealth Blue Charter on ocean governance and committed themselves to taking action on safeguarding the ocean for future generations. They also agreed to enhance intra-Commonwealth trade and investment using the comparative advantages of member countries.

The side events of the Summit, namely the Commonwealth Youth Forum, Commonwealth Business Forum and Commonwealth People’s Forum covered a host of other related discussions in which the Commonwealth has developed a high degree of expertise and shared knowledge. These include human rights, gender equality, sports development, youth empowerment and leadership, international trade, technical assistance, support to small and vulnerable states and people to people contacts. 

The challenge for the Commonwealth now is to put into action the commitments its leaders have made for a better future for their 2.4 million people and the world at large.

London: 20 April 2018
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The author is a former Deputy Conference Secretary of CHOGM and served as Special Adviser in the Commonwealth Secretariat from 2000-2006. Email: sharfuddin@commonwealthconsultants.co.uk