International migration and asylum – an opportunity for the Commonwealth to show leadership

by Richard Bourne, ICWS Senior Research Fellowship 

The meeting of Commonwealth Heads in Malta is likely to be dominated by three issues – the election of a Secretary-General to run the Secretariat from 2016, positions for the Commonwealth to take at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris (COP21), and how to handle the strains caused by international migration. The third issue is the most intractable. Malta itself is a destination for migrants and asylum seekers, crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats from Libya. Commonwealth states have radically different national strategies – from the culture of welcome in an immigrant country like Canada, to the caution of the UK, the worries about Bangladeshis in India (where India has erected a concrete and barbed wire wall), and fences separating Botswana and Zimbabwe, and South Africa from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Australia, of course, has been running an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers in the tiny Commonwealth state of Nauru.

Border fence between South Africa and Mozambique. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Border fence between South Africa and Mozambique. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The most comprehensive study of migration trends in the Commonwealth was conducted by the Ramphal Institute in 2009-2011. Conducted by a commission chaired by P J Patterson, former prime minister of Jamaica, it was assisted by high level academics from Oxford, the University of the West Indies, and Adelaide.

Alan Gamlen, the New Zealander who drafted the first of the commission’s three reports, which took Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand and Bangladesh as case studies, urged the Commonwealth to reconnect with the issue. He argued for the building of capacity to manage migration, streamlined policies to encourage brain circulation and mitigate brain drain, encouragement for migrants to share their success with both origin and destination states, and stronger international cooperation.

Recent events have shown the weakness of international cooperation, especially at a European level, and spotlighted the impact of war, insecurity and human rights abuse in stimulating refugee flows. Humanitarian conventions and the right to asylum have been put aside by some of the richer states, worried that economic migrants who might not gain entry, under the kind of points-based system developed in Australia, pretend to be refugees seeking asylum. There have been hints in the London press that the UK prime minister, David Cameron, may approach Commonwealth African leaders to fund overseas processing centres which might cope with, for example, those fleeing Eritrea; he may also speak to President Buhari of Nigeria about the Nigerians who have been attempting to get to Europe after crossing the Sahara, escaping the mayhem of Boko Haram.

"Malta-halfar-tents-nov2009" by Myriam ThyesLicensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A refugee camp in Malta. “Malta-halfar-tents-nov2009” by Myriam Thyes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Following the Ramphal Institute report, acknowledged in the Perth summit communique, the Commonwealth Secretariat held a meeting in Jamaica to review the extent to which small states suffering brain drain could facilitate investment from and return by their migrating citizens. It also asked the Institute to investigate how visa rules, affecting movement between Commonwealth states, could be simplified. This was a question that had also been raised by the Eminent Persons Group, which was worried that the Commonwealth seemed so remote from and of little help to its two billion plus citizens.
Partly because of security worries and the diverse national perspectives, this Ramphal exercise – which involved a tour of 15 capitals by Farooq Sobhan, Michael Frendo and James Jonah – did not result in immediate acceptance of the recommendations to the summit at Colombo in 2015. The inquiry had proposed easing travel for legitimate tourists, and a business card similar to the APEC business card, heavily used by Australian and Chinese business people. The Ramphal Institute indicated that, with a number of regional bodies like CARICOM committed to free movement, it would in theory be possible for different regional blocs to exchange visa reduction. But Colombo did have one positive result. A working party on visas, formed of High Commission reps in London and chaired by Gary Dunn from the Secretariat, has been meeting in 2014-5. It is expected to recommend to the Valletta summit that all states should commit to a “Commonwealth advantage” in revising their visa policies, so that for example Commonwealth citizens in transit through London, Johannesburg or Sydney, would not be charged.

The Queen will attend CHOGM this year. By Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence [OGL 3], via Wikimedia Commons

The Queen will attend CHOGM this year. By Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence [OGL 3], via Wikimedia Commons

What else might the Commonwealth leaders do in Malta? Many journalists, in the developed and developing world, love to attack the body as “a club”, “a talk-fest”, and “a colonial hangover” but it is likely that the decline in attendance by heads will reverse in Valletta, partly because of the S-G election and partly because the Queen, in her capacity as Head of the Commonwealth, has said she will come. The leaders must take this chance to make a real contribution, which can be noted by media and publics.

Two specifics: first, a declaration to assist the international community, and the countries from which countries are coming; this would bundle together a commitment to development and better life chances, democracy and rights and better security for citizens. Peacemaking in Syria would help. This would need to be followed up by Joseph Muscat, Malta’s energetic prime minister who will shortly chair the European Council, in talks with Brussels and specially affected Commonwealth countries like South Africa, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Australia.

The second would be to arrange a meeting of police chiefs from states particularly affected by people smuggling – such as Malta, Cyprus, South Africa, UK and Australia – to coordinate a crackdown on the smugglers.

Migration and asylum do not need to be no-win topics for the Commonwealth. The association, benefiting from its diversity, can show leadership here.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Caribbean rescue in the Commonwealth

by Sir Ronald Sanders, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore for three decades, died on March 23rd. He was a remarkable man who is best remembered for courageous leadership that converted a tiny island with virtually no natural resources into one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

This commentary recalls a particular role that he played on the Caribbean’s behalf in the Commonwealth, saving the leaders of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica from disdain over their invitation to the United States of America to intervene in Grenada in 1983.

Singapore From Ramir Borja via Wikimedia Commons

Singapore became an economic powerhouse under Lee Kuan Yew. From Ramir Borja via Wikimedia Commons

But, first it has to be recalled that Lee Kuan Yew commanded international respect, even envy for making tiny Singapore an economic powerhouse in global terms. He tended to tolerate nothing that would likely disrupt the march toward progress of his tiny country. Small states in the Caribbean and elsewhere are often directed to the “Singapore Model” as a design they should seek to emulate. That, however, is easier said than done.

Nonetheless, it is worth recalling the ingredients Lee utilized to develop his country. A principal and overriding factor was a dominant role for the state – something which international financial institutors and Western developed nations discourage in Caribbean countries – indeed, across the Third World.

Even while maintaining a dominant role for the state, Lee actively encouraged foreign investment, recognising, in the beginning, that Singapore lacked the capital and knowhow to create industries. That is not the situation today, but it was his attitude to social democracy that improved, health, public housing and, vitally, education.

The wages and salaries of public servants today match equally payments in the private sector, resulting in public servants whose capacity is every bit as good as the best in the private sector.

Having registered the accomplishments of Lee Kuan Yew in the development and prosperity of his own country and the respect it earned him in the global community, this commentary records a crucial role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting following the US-led intervention in Grenada.

I was privileged to be an Antigua and Barbuda delegate to that conference under the leadership of then Foreign Minister Lester Bird. The temper of the meeting, particularly from the leaders of African States, was annoyance with the countries of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica that had participated with the US in intervening in Grenada after the military coup that had overthrown the government, murdering its prime minister, Maurice Bishop, and other leaders.

Condemnatory statements were made by Presidents Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyrere and Kenneth Kaunda of Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia respectively. Their governments – and the majority of governments of Commonwealth developing countries – had voted just weeks before at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the US-led intervention. The Africans vented their distress at Caribbean participation with the US. Julius Nyrere called on the Commonwealth to express its anger. And so it might have done were it not for Lee Kuan Yew.

He explained that Singapore had voted at the UN against the US because its intervention in Grenada had broken a rule and breaking that rule could have “horrendous consequences”. But, he said he had listened to four Caribbean leaders who had spoken before him asking for understanding of their position. Those leaders were Lester Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, Kennedy Simmonds of St Kitts-Nevis, Eugenia Charles of Dominica and JMG ‘Tom’ Adams of Barbados.

Bird had said “when a regime murdered a prime minister and was terrorizing its own people, the governments of neighbouring countries with which there was an enduring relationship had a responsibility to act”.

Lee Kuan-Yew told the conference that despite his condemnation of the US at the UN, which he would do again, “Commonwealth leaders were presented with a paradox”. He described the paradox for his government in the following way: “Singapore voted against the American invasion because of the resulting dangers; it was nonetheless grateful that it took place because there were 110,000 happy Grenadians.” Each leader knew in his heart, he said, “that the Eastern Caribbean States’ response was right”.

He went on to observe that “it would have been much more convenient” if the Caribbean countries had the resources to intervene on their own. The matter, he said, would not have been raised at the Commonwealth Summit “nor would their action have caused great objections in the United Nations” which “would have seen it as an example of the Third World resolving its own problems”.

And he concluded that Commonwealth leaders had not gathered “to put their partners from the Eastern Caribbean in the dock”. “It was necessary to condemn the action in the United Nations because of the dangerous precedents it could create”, but he wanted the Meeting to turn away from recrimination and to come out positively with a proposal to achieve security for island states, and so make a contribution “to international stability and security”.

Not all of the heads of government at the Commonwealth summit would have welcomed Lee Kuan-Yew’s practical and pragmatic intervention, but they recognised the wisdom in it.

Lee Kuan-Yew received a respectful and careful hearing to what was a thoughtful and defining intervention – one which secretary-general, Shridath Ramphal, developed into a forward-looking statement from the summit that focussed “on the early return by Commonwealth Caribbean countries to the spirit of fraternity” and to the undertaking of “a study of the special needs of small states consonant with the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Several positive consequences flowed from Lee Kuan Yew’s statement at the summit, first it helped to bridge the divide that had occurred between Commonwealth Caribbean countries that had participated with the US in the Grenada intervention and those who had opposed; it led to the first definitive study on the challenges confronting small states; and it confirmed the value of Commonwealth heads of government meetings attended by heads themselves.

Lee Kuan-Yew should be remembered in the Caribbean for the positive and constructive role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Summit.

Can Malta rescue the Commonwealth?

SirRonaldSanders02Transcript of an after-dinner presentation given by Sir Ronald Sanders on 9 January 2014 at the Round Table Post-CHOGM Conference, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

All but those in denial admit that the Commonwealth is now a wounded organisation. It is facing questions related not only to its meaning, but also to its existence.

Over the next two years, the Commonwealth can mark time sleepwalking into irrelevance or it can make use of the present existential threat to prepare the ground for a substantial and meaningful re-launch at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta. Continue reading

The Arms Trade Treaty: Will the Commonwealth support its member states in its effective implementation?

by Helena Whall, Advocacy Officer, Oxfam

On 3rd June, government and civil society representatives gathered at the UN in New York for the Signing Ceremony of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), adopted by 156 states in April. 67 nations signed the treaty on that day, one third of the UN’s membership. Five more have signed since (as of 10th June). This number is due to climb steadily between now and the UN General Assembly in September, when more countries are committed to sign.

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Sri Lanka CHOGM 2013: With Whom Does the Decision Lie?

By Professor Philip Murphy, Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Well in advance of today’s meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the Commonwealth Secretariat was attempting to dampen expectations that the Group would act decisively in response to growing concerns about the internal situation in Sri Lanka, which is due to host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). On 26 March, Richard Uku, a spokesman for the Commonwealth Secretary General, confirmed that the CHOGM would be held in Sri Lanka, and that the country would not be on the CMAG agenda. He claimed, ‘It was the Commonwealth Heads of Government that made the decision to hold the 2013 meetings in Sri Lanka. Such decisions are made at the Commonwealth Heads of Government level and not by CMAG’.[i] The clear implication of his remarks was that, having been made at heads of government level, the decision to hold the CHOGM in Colombo could only be revoked by heads of government. This line seems to have been accepted even by those critics of the Sri Lankan government who claim that its record on democracy and human rights makes it an unsuitable host for the next CHOGM. Speaking at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies on 18 April, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Sri Lanka-based Centre for Policy Alternatives argued powerfully that recent developments in the country should result in the 2013 CHOGM being moved to another location. Yet even he appeared to accept that this decision could only be made by heads of government.

What, however, is the basis for this doctrine?

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Kenyatta’s ICC trial creates dilemma for the Commonwealth and Kenya’s aid donors and friends

By Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies & Politics and International Relations Department, University of Kent

Kenya’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has moved quickly to stress that he will govern on behalf of all Kenyans and that he and his government will try to adopt a new approach in which national resources will be used for development and service delivery rather than supporting a bloated government bureaucracy.  His first major move has been to cut the number of cabinet posts from a staggering 44 down to 18.  But as he settles in at State House he has something else on his mind, and something that worries other African governments, the Commonwealth and Kenya’s allies and aid donors in Britain, the United States and the European Union – his impending trial on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

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Thatcher, the Commonwealth and apartheid South Africa

By Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

Margaret Thatcher was not just a highly controversial figure on the British Left, and in the history of Britain’s relations with Europe. As Prime Minister, she proved equally controversial within the Commonwealth for her staunch opposition to the imposition of economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

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