The Commonwealth has been in existence since 1949. It binds together the governments and peoples of 54 member countries; from India, the world’s largest democracy; to East Africa, with its remarkable history and opportunities; to small Pacific island nations like Kiribati. Member countries and their citizens inherit from the Commonwealth’s roots a special mix of common values, including the promotion of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. Where these values are not always perfectly respected, as is the case in many countries, we all commit to strengthening them because they matter. But many would ask, “Is there any real point to the Commonwealth as an organisation?
Having spent nearly a year as a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Person’s Group, hearing from a broad range of stakeholders, my response is— unequivocally – yes there is a point, and it does have something to do with each and every Commonwealth citizen. The organisation has a strong foundation, built on important values and principles. But, these mean little to most of us without meaningful action. Based on the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) discussions it seems there is a strong view across the Commonwealth that our organisation needs to be more active, coherent and focused. It’s about providing support and opportunities for young people to become leaders; about education, training, and exchange programs; about utilising Commonwealth networks and expertise to help societies develop and address pressing challenges, like climate change; and it’s about speaking out and taking a stand in the face of atrocities so that people can live in peace and dignity, free from fear.
The EPG was created at the 2009 Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago as an initiative to help define the Commonwealth’s role for the 21st century. I was invited to join a small group of highly accomplished colleagues from Malaysia, Uganda, Ghana, Jamaica, Pakistan, Australia, Mozambique, the United Kingdom, Guyana, and Kiribati, representing the geographic diversity of the Commonwealth. Participating as individuals — not as representatives of our governments — we have explored and are about to recommend ways in which the Commonwealth can sharpen its impact, strengthen its networks, and raise its profile to ensure it remains relevant and serves its citizens now and into the future. After receiving submissions and ideas from individuals and organisations, we have identified areas in which the Commonwealth has a comparative advantage — without duplicating the work done by other international institutions — and that have a tangible impact on the lives of its citizens.
The Commonwealth played a pivotal leadership role in advocating for the end of apartheid in South Africa, confronting white minority rule in the then Rhodesia and supporting the front line states that made democracy and fairness their goal. Now, we need to consider what the Commonwealth is best-placed to do so that it has a real value-added impact on people’s lives. It could be in promoting youth development and enterprise, social and political advocacy, election monitoring and support (the Commonwealth had an observer mission for the recent elections in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), initiatives to help ease the destructive impact of HIV/Aids on communities, climate change, health, and perhaps above all, ensuring that Commonwealth citizens are increasingly active participants in decision-making processes that affect their own lives. All of these ideas are open to debate and discussion – and the EPG invites comments from the public, from civil society, and from governments of member states until June 15 via the Commonwealth Secretariat website (www.thecommonwealth.org) on provisional recommendations. Two and a half billion human beings, from every faith, culture, race, language spanning the entire globe is a unique platform on which to advance education, broaden development, enhance rights, promote understanding and combat the narrow and small-minded. Your views as people of the Commonwealth on strengthening your organisation are important.
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