Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:32 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Non-affiliated 4:32 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for ensuring that we have a generous amount of time for this important debate.

There has never been a time when the diversity and unity that the Commonwealth represents have been more urgently needed. While there are continued challenges within the family of the Commonwealth, including discontent between the developed and the developing nations, small states and large states, tiger economies and fragile ones, let us not forget the considerable achievements—for example, the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles in 1971, the Harare declaration of 1991 and the setting up of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. Of course, there is also the underpinning of work carried out the world over in co-operation with civil society organisations.

However, we face new, seemingly insurmountable, issues of radicalism, migration and trade. What can the Commonwealth do to counteract potentially divisive global trends? Is it equipped to act to its full strengths? Not as well as one might hope. That said, most multilateral institutions are having difficulty grappling with the big issues of the world today, in part because they were never designed to deal with such a rapidly changing political environment. The goal posts have shifted seismically. But is there more that could be done? What are the major obstacles?

Despite any number of agreements, there has been a failure by Commonwealth countries generally to implement fully the principles that underlie membership. For example, of the 52 member states, only 27 have signed the Arms Trade Treaty adopted in 2013, and of these only 20 have ratified it. This treaty, if universally adopted, would be a powerful instrument in reducing the destruction associated with the billion-dollar illegal arms trade. Surely, the Commonwealth could become a leader on this, creating awareness of the treaty and insisting on ratification. One can also look at access to information. Freedom of information laws and practice have become a consistent feature of functioning democracies. The Commonwealth was one of the earliest intergovernmental organisations, in 1980, to recognise the importance of people’s right to know and to be involved in decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. Despite strenuous efforts on the part of parliamentarians through many CPA programmes, in the shape of workshops on the concept, practice and experience of freedom of information, only 20 Commonwealth countries had introduced freedom of information laws by 2010—that is, roughly 30% in 30 years.

Commonwealth efforts to empower women in politics is another area worthy of scrutiny. Again, there have been innumerable meetings, workshops and reports, yet in all our regions the engagement of women, especially younger women, in political life is still modest. The Commonwealth Women Leaders’ Summit last year concluded with strong practical recommendations in three thematic areas: violence against women, women in leadership and women’s economic empowerment. We continue to look forward to hearing more in the coming months about the impact of these programmes.

The work of the Eminent Persons Group, set up in 2011, together with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to look at options for reform, arrived at an important conclusion: it is only when parliamentarians work with bureaucrats, civil servants and, crucially, NGOs that obstacles can be overcome. It is also now a well- researched fact that, unless the wider population is if not engaged then at least aware of parliaments’ priorities, the chances of successful change will be slim.

The UK has the privilege to host the 2018 CHOGM. What steps can be taken now to ensure that there are measureable and lasting outcomes? The Minister has already confirmed the importance of parliamentary engagement in the CHOGM event but cautions that the agenda is agreed by consensus. Nevertheless, it is parliaments that drive Governments in agreeing legislation, in allocating budgets, in oversight and in ensuring implementation. Commonwealth parliaments, through their various linked bodies, are in an excellent position to discuss, agree and disseminate a few clear action-based programmes.

The Commonwealth has, over the years, taken upon itself a heavy agenda but the recurring themes are the promotion of human rights and democracy, youth engagement and the management of economic globalisation. The Commonwealth Secretariat is small and modestly funded. It could perhaps use the occasion of the UK CHOGM to downsize and sharpen its goals, while at the same time investing in ever greater networking and joint programming.

There is now a golden opportunity. Put very simply, there is just about time before CHOGM to encourage Commonwealth parliaments to decide on their own priorities, whether these be on peace measures, trade and/or security, and thereafter to communicate intra and inter-regionally, and to convene in the early spring of next year to agree which priorities should go forward to an organising committee of regional chairs. Once sifted, the task would be to agree, and draw up, a clearly worded action plan to be presented at CHOGM.

Such a programme would require good will, energy and commitment from parliamentarians throughout the Commonwealth. The synergistic effect of several parliaments across traditional divides, acting together with relevant NGOs, could be considerable. Furthermore, if managed, it would place parliamentarians at the centre of implementing Commonwealth values, which, to me, seems appropriate.

Many Commonwealth countries have deep links with the UK and, via the UK, with the EU. Inevitably there will be consequences from the UK’s decision to leave the EU. These could entail moves to hinder all kinds of seemingly small but very important conventions that bind us together—for example, changes in facilitating remittances, travel, visas, tourism, investment flows and cultural exchange. CHOGM night perhaps take the lead in announcing its intention to protect these conventions through a programme of self-interest and solidarity.

It has been said by thoughtful people that the perils we face are greater today than at any time in history. That may be so and, as parliamentarians, we should be prepared to work across party and national boundaries to insist on measures agreed at CHOGM. The Commonwealth provides an ideal forum for the exchange of experience, for exploring the most effective ways of transforming obligations under international law into the domestic legal framework and for reaffirming our legal, cultural and political heritage. There is no shortage of Commonwealth bodies. I think that at the last count there were something like 90, ranging from law and journalism to business, youth, trade and aid. If united on the vital global issues, the Commonwealth and all its satellite organisations could emerge as a strong and capable leadership committed to ethical governance. Never has the time for the overt adoption and practice of such a role been more urgent.

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