Commonwealth: Democracy and Development — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:07 pm on 10th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa and UN) 2:07 pm, 10th December 2009

My Lords, of course, I should like to thank noble Lords for their contributions to this constructive and stimulating debate. In particular, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, as everyone has done, for initiating the discussion and for identifying many of the key Commonwealth issues-namely, its core value of democracy, and the development that affects so many Commonwealth member states. I very much concur with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Hughes, who acknowledged the breadth of knowledge shown by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, in his intervention.

The democratic promise of the Commonwealth, which we are discussing, was set initially by the pledges made in 1971 in the Singapore Declaration, and subsequently two decades later in the Harare Declaration. The Commonwealth is indeed, as many noble Lords have said, committed to the promotion of representative democracy, individual liberty, the pursuit of equality, opposition to racism, the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease, and opposition to gender discrimination.

When the modern Commonwealth was born, the defining features of international relations were the beginning of the Cold War, the end of empire, and the emergence of the post-colonial age. Sixty years later, the world has obviously changed. Imperial ties and imperial rivalries have been replaced by unprecedented global trade, travel and communications that make the world's people more directly linked and interdependent than ever. As many noble Lords have said, that global reach is the Commonwealth's global strength.

At the Commonwealth summit in Port of Spain, at which I was proud and privileged to be present, I was certainly reminded that no individual nation can act on any environmental or developmental challenge unless we work together. There are no single-country solutions to planetary, political, financial or economic crises. That is why the Commonwealth has an enduring utility. It has a legacy of achievements on political, diplomatic and economic issues, and retains a very distinctive voice, as we saw last month, on matters that remain politically divisive and contentious-there were many contentious issues at CHOGM-in today's world. I saw at CHOGM that, where many international institutions often struggle to achieve the consensus that is necessary for action, the Commonwealth can put its principles into practice: whether on climate change, Sri Lanka, MDGs, or indeed the need for reform.

In Trinidad, the reasons for action in relation to the Copenhagen summit were obvious. The 54 Commonwealth nations contain a third of the population of the planet: 2 billion people, including those who are most exposed to the most devastating effects of climate change. If the pressures of carbon emissions continue on current trends, countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania face a potential drop of more than 20 per cent in some crop yields. Rice yields in India and Bangladesh will fall by as much as one-third. Large swathes of the Commonwealth's small-island member states could disappear under the sea.

These are some of the realities that compelled a coherent voice from the Commonwealth, and a strong statement on 2 degrees; additional funding for adaptation; and Fast Start funding for the Copenhagen Launch Fund, starting in 2010 and rising to £10 billion a year by 2012. We believe that this statement will influence the debate at Copenhagen, but we know that this organisation has been the subject of many, many obituaries from those of little faith and little realism.

The fact is that the Commonwealth is doing remarkably well, so while we should welcome the affirmation of Commonwealth values and principles made at CHOGM-I urge noble Lords to look at that affirmation-we should also call for further and re-invigorated reform and the promotion of democracy. Both are essential to the sustained vitality of the Commonwealth. I would go so far as saying to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that the Commonwealth should be defined by its commitment to democracy. The definition should not be theoretical or technical; rather, it should be broad, inclusive and applied. As noble Lords have said, membership of the Commonwealth should invariably mean conditions of freedom: to engage in the political process, to devolve power, to promote gender equity, to enjoy equality before just laws, to deal with religious intolerance, and to encourage young people to participate.

No model can or should be imposed on Commonwealth members. However, when we talk about a more equal Commonwealth, we must address the marginalisation of people who are still excluded from the political process. Many Commonwealth citizens face enormous pressure from increased migration, state fragility, less security and more instability. The solidarity of the Commonwealth-we have seen this today-will as always be tested, but it will be the most essential characteristic. In all circumstances, there must be practical assistance, advocacy and protection. There must also be visionary leadership both from the Commonwealth Secretariat and from Heads of Government. That means, for instance, that election observation carried out by the Commonwealth should ensure more follow-up and continuing political dialogue. There is a need for more consistency in the process that is applied when countries are suspended from the membership of the Commonwealth, and, while we now largely focus on those who usurp power, there should also be a more rigorous commitment to addressing violations of human rights.

There must be leadership on how we deepen democracy and challenge those Commonwealth Governments who do not in reality tolerate open political competition and who continue to take advantage of their incumbency. We must be seen and heard to challenge intolerance and authoritarianism. The Commonwealth has the potential to be a really impressive champion of the universality of human rights. As a direct result of CHOGM, I am pleased to say that a working group will be set up to streamline and improve a rather unsatisfactory process.

I am glad that the theme of this debate brought democracy and development together. No lasting progress on tackling poverty can come about without good governance. That includes genuine respect for human rights, transparency, accountability, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. The interdependence of development and democracy is a natural issue for the Commonwealth, and I welcome the call made in the CHOGM communiqué for renewed global action to accelerate progress towards achieving the millennium development goals.

I do not think any noble Lord mentioned that the communiqué also referred to a health compact, which involves issues such as providing health services that are free at the point of use particularly for women and children. This is fundamental to fulfilling the health-related MDGs, which I am sure noble Lords are aware are particularly off-track. There is some encouragement, however. Since 2001, seven Commonwealth countries have removed user fees in their countries either for the whole population or for vulnerable groups. Malawi, Sierra Leone and Ghana all announced in New York in September that they would expand access to health services, giving millions more people access to free healthcare.

With 27 million Commonwealth children out of school, education, which is such a vital component in helping people out of poverty, is an urgent priority for Commonwealth countries. I welcome the fact that leaders in Port of Spain called for the replenishment of the Education for All task force initiative and unanimously supported the 1GOAL campaign.

I particularly welcome CHOGM's recognition of the need to give women a stronger voice and greater influence in their communities. The case for action is overwhelming. In Africa, children of mothers who have spent five years in primary education are 40 per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five. In India, if the female/male ratio of workers went up by 10 per cent, GDP would be expected to rise by 8 per cent.

At CHOGM, we were pleased to welcome Rwanda into the Commonwealth as its 54th member. Membership will bind Rwanda to the values of the Commonwealth, including respect for human rights and a commitment to democratic principles.

I will now attempt to answer as many of the many questions that were asked as is possible. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, asked how the Commonwealth can support youth. There are Commonwealth youth programmes, especially the scholarship and fellowship programmes, through which the Commonwealth provides young people with access to higher education and enables graduates to go back to their countries to contribute to local economies. The Government provide 30 per cent of funding for the youth programmes.

The noble Lord asked whether the reallocation of Commonwealth Foundation funds would undermine efforts to tackle HIV. I reassure him that the same amounts are available, but we have seen quite welcome changes to the way in which the money is being spent.

The noble Lord also asked about the relationship between the G20 and the Commonwealth. The UK is a member of both the Commonwealth and the G20, and we recognise that we have a very special responsibility to ensure that, along with other members, we continue to transmit to the wider group the perspectives, priorities and concerns of the Commonwealth.

The noble Lord and other noble Lords raised the issue of Zimbabwe. While progress has been made in Zimbabwe over the past year, a great deal remains to be done in terms of judicial, constitutional and economic reform; freedom of the media; and respect for human rights. The Finance Minister, who is from the MDC, has made considerable progress in improving inflation in the economy. It is absolutely right that the prospect of Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth is considered; if noble Lords look at the wording carefully, they will see that that is what is said. However, that is provided-I emphasise this strongly-that the reforms that we seek have been implemented, and that the benchmarks set in the GPA and the Harare principles are met. That is firm and agreed by Commonwealth members.

I say to my noble friend Lord Hughes that, when I was in South Africa recently, I met a number of Zimbabweans. They confirmed that there was still a high level of violence, intimidation and land seizures in the country. However, we remain hopeful that the engagement of President Zuma as a facilitator and the existence of the Maputo process, slow though it is, will bring progress soon.

I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, that we are concerned about the proposed introduction of the Private Member's Bill which threatens such draconian measures against homosexuals in Uganda. We have made our position clear to the Government of Uganda. At the CHOGM, the Prime Minister raised the issue with the President of Uganda, and I raised it with its Foreign Minister. Please rest assured that we are well aware of the seriousness of the matter.

I turn to scales of funding to the Commonwealth. The UK has supported work to find a formula setting a floor for contributions at a level that poorer states can afford, so we are attempting to deal with that. It is clearly important that they can continue to benefit from the Commonwealth. Contributions must reflect core values of the Commonwealth, including that of ensuring equitable distribution and the principle of shared ownership. We will work hard to come up with an outcome that is fair to all.

The noble Lord mentioned Cyprus. I again refer him to the communiqué, which suggests a lasting settlement based on the principles of the UN and the Commonwealth.

It is not the first time that there has been a necessity to suspend Fiji, about which the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, asked a question. After the coup in 2006, the interim Government were given two years to restore democracy or face suspension. In April 2009, the situation grew worse. I have been working closely in relation to the abrogation of the constitution and the establishment of public emergency regulations. I was at the CMAG discussion in Port of Spain where grave concerns were expressed. CMAG gave the regime a final chance to open up inclusive and effective dialogue. If it fails to do so, the suspension will be continued. As noble Lords will see in the communiqué, a decision was taken to have Fiji not participate in the Commonwealth Games. We continue to support multilateral and regional efforts to broker dialogue with Fiji through the Pacific forum, but we just hope that we will see progress soon.

Sri Lanka and the issue of hosting the next CHOGM were mentioned. We are obviously keen, as the noble Lord would be, to ensure that Commonwealth summits demonstrate that we embody our shared values, including respect for human rights and democracy. We took that position; our ongoing concerns about humanitarian issues were expressed strongly, and the UK could not support Sri Lanka's bid to host the next CHOGM. The UK supported Australia's bid to host in 2011. All being well, Sri Lanka is scheduled to host in 2013, and Mauritius is willing to host in 2015. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, also raised the issue of suspension from the Commonwealth. It was not on the formal agenda of CMAG but I confirm that, given the seriousness of the situation, we raised our concerns clearly, strongly and loudly whenever appropriate.

I have read the CPSU publication carefully and consider it welcome. It makes a number of sensible and interesting commitments and shows great understanding of the work of the Commonwealth. I hope that many of us will take note of it, as the noble Lord has.

A number of noble Lords raised the subject of involvement with young people, on which I have touched. The noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, raised the youth credit initiative, which we welcome along with other Commonwealth programmes; it is a good initiative.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, asked about progress on the MDGs. They were agreed nine years ago and we have made progress. As she will know, in many areas fewer people are dying of AIDS. Many countries are implementing proven strategies to combat malaria and measles, two major killers of children. Deaths of children under five have declined from 12.6 million. There are a number of important signs of progress to which I can point. The world is edging closer to universal primary education, but on that MDG things are going slowly. Of course MDG 5 -maternal mortality-is the one that is still the most worrying of all; the health compact in the Commonwealth may have something to contribute to it.

I have not got anywhere near to the end of the questions. I have two minutes more, which I will use up, and then I will just have to apologise to Members and answer their questions promptly in writing.

The noble Baroness also raised the challenges that the Commonwealth faces, the first of which is clearly the economic hardship of many of its citizens. Tens of millions of people are in vulnerable employment and earn around a dollar a day, which is worrying. We must seize the opportunity offered by 2010 and the UN MDG review summit in September. We must prepare carefully for that summit to make sure that we have our positions in place.

I shall answer the question on tackling corruption. There has to be and is a firm commitment in the Commonwealth to the principles of good governance and the rule of law, which noble Lords raised. Those are central issues-they are at the heart of our efforts to build the democracy that we have been discussing. In that context, we need to acknowledge the role of other international institutions, such as the OECD and parts of the UN.

I undertook to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, on Members of the House who are Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens. It appears that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 may have inadvertently cast doubts on whether Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens were eligible for membership of the House. That was clearly not Parliament's intention when passing the Act. Some months ago, the Government were alerted to the matter. Since then, we have undertaken discussions within government to find a way to address it. We recognise the seriousness of the issue. To put it beyond doubt and remove any uncertainty, we will introduce appropriate legislation before the end of the current Session. Only one or two clauses would be required. I understand that Members of your Lordships' House have concerns about the issue, and we will make Ministers available for an open meeting as soon as it is practical. The Government will table a Written Ministerial Statement as soon as possible explaining the issue in more detail.