By Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

As an integral part of the oral history project on the Commonwealth, last week we organised a key note lecture by former Secretary General Sir Sonny Ramphal (1975-1990). This was deliberately scheduled for the eve of the controversial Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka, and was entitled ‘Managing Commonwealth Controversies: Lessons from the Past?’ The question mark was also highly deliberate – what lessons, short lived or long term, can be drawn from looking at management of past CHOGMS, when the Commonwealth itself was a smaller organisation, in a different time of international relations, , and at a different point in the international political economy?

As Sir Sonny pointed out, there are a considerable number. He gave a master class in ‘Diplomacy and Statecraft’ of managing CHOGMS, whilst also underlining that the Secretary General’s pivotal role had to be in conjunction with critical support from key heads. Whilst firmly recognising the Commonwealth itself is a different entity these days, as is the dynamic of international relations, he stressed the enduring truth of CHOGMs as a showcase for the Commonwealth, and the meetings’ importance to the Commonwealth. His emphasis was on the proactive responsibilities of the Secretary General, the constant challenges of identifying points of contention, and the need for constant attention to smooth the path of international diplomacy.

This diplomatic cajolery required the attention and input of officials, not just leaders (care needed therefore in the recruitment of top people, and the overall quality of the diplomatic machine of the Secretariat); the importance of English as a language of communication, both explicit and implicit; the guidance and steering of heads in the SG’s report before meetings; the legitimate complaints that could not be ignored in the run up to CHOGMS; the orchestration of the agenda, the choreography of diplomacy and managed cooperation of a core group of heads of government; creating the necessary environment for diplomacy;  the need for not simply one strategy, but several strategems to deal with eventualities (ie classic contingency planning) ; the time and space for courtesies and private diplomacy, to develop that vital, intangible element of trust between top leaders (to cultivate restraint and moderate tone, rather than grandstanding);  that good personal relationships are the basis of diplomacy; the care needed in drafting the CHOGM Declarations. Astute media management was part of Sir Sonny’s recipe, making sure information officers were in the inner ring of policy discussions and aware of private thinking.

Sir Sonny was careful to limit his analysis to past events, not to be drawn into criticism of his successors, and to underline the limits of public knowledge of   private discussions.  He did however stress the benefit of delaying decision on a CHOGM venue – precisely because of the fluidity of international events and developments – for as long as possible, and the persuasive role of a Secretary General on the question of choice of venue. He also supported the recent Eminent Persons Group report to the Perth CHOGM and its recommendation to abolish the Chair in Office role. Wise words from a highly successful former Secretary General. 

View the Podcast here