Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Conservative 5:10 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, it is always rather a challenge to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, especially on a day with so many excellent speeches from so many noble Lords. I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Anelay not only for introducing this debate with such a comprehensive opening speech but for her commitment to her brief, including her role as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. She is an inspiration to many of us here and outside this Chamber and it is clear from all the speeches today that she is held in immense respect by us all.

Earlier this week we celebrated Commonwealth Day, a time for us all to stop and reflect on and celebrate our rich diversity and shared values. The values that hold our unique partnership together are promoting democracy, championing human rights and extending social and economic development across all 52 Commonwealth member countries. Our family spans six continents and is home to one-third of the world’s population, some 2.2 billion people, and, with 60% of its population under 30, now more than ever the Commonwealth has the potential to be an unstoppable movement in delivering global social progress. I endorse the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that young people should be engaged and welcomed at CHOGM next year. It would be a great opportunity to encourage and develop the next generation of leaders, and they should be properly supported on that journey to leadership.

Next year, the UK will resume the chair of the Commonwealth. The UK is already a leader in economic and sustainable development and is the only G7 country to give 0.7% of its GNI to international aid and development. It is transforming lives around the world every day. Our chairmanship will come at a critical moment for the world’s poorest and offers a unique opportunity to help to implement and deliver authentic, concrete action in support of the global goals for sustainable development.

There is much still to be done. Despite incredible progress, preventable diseases still wreak havoc across the Commonwealth and, indeed, the world. The collective power of the Commonwealth means that we can make tangible plans to curb these debilitating and, in some cases, deadly diseases. Previous Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings have shown that this is possible.

Let us take polio as an example. In the years leading up to the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, outbreaks of poliovirus were occurring in places where it had not been seen for years. The disease seemed to be making a terrifying comeback, even though we had been 99% of the way to eradicating it for good. In response, millions of pounds of new funding were pledged from donor countries such as the UK and, importantly, the leaders of Pakistan and Nigeria, which accounted for the majority of polio cases at the time, pledged to prioritise the effort. Six years later, the situation with polio is vastly different. Only 37 cases were reported across three countries last year, compared to 650 cases across 16 countries back in 2011. Challenges remain that may yet derail such progress, but with the Commonwealth’s ongoing support we stand on the cusp of making polio the second human disease in history, after smallpox, to be eradicated.

The Commonwealth’s legacy on polio leaves lessons for other urgent causes. In working together to eradicate polio in the most remote, vulnerable and socially excluded communities, Commonwealth countries are constructing a blueprint not only for tackling preventable diseases such as malaria but for achieving the sustainable development goals as a whole. To this day, 90% of Commonwealth citizens still live in malaria-endemic countries. Malaria kills half a million people every year and although there has been significant progress in tackling this disease—Sri Lanka was declared malaria-free last year—more needs to be done to tackle what is considered to be the greatest killer disease of all time. The collective power of the Commonwealth can make this happen.

By the same token, the only way in which we will end extreme poverty in all forms is, as noble Baronesses have said in recent speeches, by prioritising the rights and needs of girls and women across the world. For too long, the efforts to ensure gender equality have fallen short, even among Commonwealth nations. To this day, each Commonwealth member country has at least one law on its books that discriminates against girls and women simply because of their gender. Further to this, at least six Commonwealth countries do not have legislation on domestic violence, while 15 still have exemptions that permit marital rape, ensuring that men only face criminal charges for raping their wives in very limited circumstances. This is not good enough. Women also face barriers when it comes to laws and practices affecting their right to work, financial inclusion, inheriting property and harmful practices such as child marriage. The Commonwealth can be a force for good in this world, provided that we first get its own house in order.

In these uncertain times, the Commonwealth has a real, legitimate chance to be a major power for social good in the world. Like the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, I am a former adviser to Global Citizen, which, with many other NGOs, is working to support Commonwealth nations to collectively address discriminatory laws and practices, including gender-based violence—barriers that keep girls and women from realising their full economic and social potential. In the spirit of the sustainable development goals, Global Citizen believes that, by demonstrating the political and financial will needed to achieve a polio-free world by 2020, we can ensure that no one gets left behind.

Whatever your gender, and wherever you were born, you deserve a fair chance to live a healthy life of opportunity. The lives of women and girls and of children vulnerable to the devastation of polio and malaria cannot be forgotten. UK aid already has a tremendous impact on the world’s poorest, something that we should all be incredibly proud of. When we take the chair of the Commonwealth next year, not only should we strengthen our ties with our old allies, but we should ensure that its awesome power is harnessed to give help to those around the world who need it the most.