by Matthew Neuhaus*

The Commonwealth in Crisis

In Malta, in November this year at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Commonwealth leaders will elect a new Secretary-General. He – or perhaps at last she – will be the sixth Secretary-General, or SG, in the 50 year history of the Secretariat. The Commonwealth itself has changed considerably over the last century, as the nations of the British Empire emerged into independence. The election of a new Secretary-General provides the opportunity for further change and reform, to ensure its continuing relevance to its members and the wider world.

The current Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The current Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma. Image via Wikimedia Commons

What the Commonwealth needs above all in the new Secretary-General is a change agent, thought leader, motivator and manager. It also needs someone who can develop a shared vision for a Commonwealth facing crisis – in relevance, funding and commitment – which in the words of one Commonwealth commentator is “graver than any it has faced before”. The Chair of the CHOGM, the youthful Prime Minister Muscat of Malta, is alert to the challenge of fixing what he sees as a “sick” and dysfunctional organisation. Muscat as Chair could be a powerful combination with a dynamic new SG.

This “crisis situation” is also not unique to the Commonwealth. Writing in the Sunday Times on 14 June 2015 former US Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin spoke of a broader “crisis of international institutions” which are failing to grapple successfully with the big issues of the world today. However for the Commonwealth it is particularly acute as unlike the UN or similar global bodies its very existence may be at stake.

Unfortunately too the divisions between Commonwealth members – developed and developing, small states and large states, tiger economies and fragile states – have been growing. There is real need for a new SG to help its leaders find a sense of common purpose and indeed “common wealth”. Prime Minister Nehru is often quoted on the “touch of healing” the Commonwealth could bring to the world. A new SG will need to bring a touch of healing to the Commonwealth itself, and needs the temperament, strength and emotional intelligence to do that.

While the Commonwealth’s future may depend much on the nature of the new Secretary-General, this is not the only factor for change and renewal. In fact it is its member nations, and its associated organisations and civil society, which will really determine the future of the Commonwealth. Only if they are prepared to take the decisions to make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century – including the sort of SG its leaders will choose – will this historic international organisation continue to exist, and provide useful service to its membership and the world.

Electing a Secretary-General

Traditionally elections of a Secretary-General occur in private at the Leaders retreat, with no officials present, save for one adviser each for the Chair and the Secretary-General. Leaders present their country’s candidate for the role. A straw poll is then conducted, with leaders writing the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper. The Chair – this time it will be the Prime Minister of Malta – advise the relative numbers. If one candidate is strongly ahead of the others their Heads will be asked to withdraw their nominations so the successful candidate can be elected by consensus. If needed, more rounds can be held.

A Secretary-General holds, as per the Agreed Memorandum from 1965, the status of a Senior High Commissioner. Former Secretaries General have previously been senior High Commissioners, Ministers and a Deputy Secretary-General. At this time all current candidates – from Botswana, Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica – fit this profile and more of the same background may emerge. There is already a good gender mix and small states focus.

There is no requirement for the candidate to come from any regional group – which, in contrast to the UN, do not formally exist in the Commonwealth. However this year, following hot on the heels of an Indian and New Zealander, it is no surprise that the candidates to date have come from the Caribbean and Africa. Surprisingly though no Foreign Ministers – or former Foreign Ministers or Heads of Government – have so far been nominated even though the role is ideal for such a background.

It has been suggested that alternative ways of selecting a Secretary-General should be considered. The Royal Commonwealth Society and Sandra Pepera have suggested a Search Committee be set up to agree criteria for the role, encourage applications and submit names to leaders for nomination . It has merit and Malta as Chair may seek to encourage it, but time is running out for such an approach.

One suggestion put by Pepera that the candidates “present their vision” for the organisation as an “essential step in the process” can still be done easily – by the candidates themselves and by Commonwealth organisations such as the Royal Commonwealth Society organising debates and opportunities for them to set their visions out publicly.

At time of writing (June 2015 – five months from election) only one candidate (Scotland) had set up a website dedicated to her campaign and setting out her vision, and one other (Sanders – a former member of the 2011 Eminent Persons Group) on a personal website has given his thoughtful views on the Commonwealth over the years. Both have also produced brochures – the others will no doubt follow suit. It is to be hoped there will be more public engagement by the candidates before CHOGM online, in the media and publicly, so leaders and their advisers can be well informed in what they might be getting in a new Secretary-General ahead of selection.

Being realistic

In approaching the Commonwealth and its future we need to be realistic about what it is and so does a new Secretary-General. It is overstating the case the call the Commonwealth a “great global good”. The Commonwealth itself may in indeed have 53 member nations of 2.2 billion people and include 80 plus organisations. But its official face, the Commonwealth Secretariat is in fact, to borrow from Churchill’s description of his Labour opponent Clement Attlee, a modest organisation with much to be modest about.

Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Secretariat has a budget of now only around 47 million pounds per annum, including for its development and democracy work, and a staff of about 270 – less than the numbers who run the UN staff canteen in New York, the 15 member Caricom Secretariat in the Caribbean or some Embassies in London. In contrast the total annual UN budget, including for peacekeeping, is some 11 billion dollars or 8 billion pounds and 44,000 staff. Yet the Commonwealth has 3 Deputy Secretaries General and the UN only one.

The Commonwealth’s development budget of 24 million pounds is considerably less than that of the aid budgets of western Embassies in many developing nations. Despite this it is often underspent! With such limited resources and capacity it can clearly only play a modest role internationally. Its greatest strength is in fact the commitment, knowledge and networks of some of its professional staff, many of whom feel undervalued. Addressing issues of Secretariat structure, effectiveness, staff morale, terms and conditions and funding will be important early tasks for a new SG.

However just as Attlee surprised Churchill by beating him soundly in the post war election, the Commonwealth can sometimes surprise and deliver significant outcomes, especially in areas of conflict resolution, peace building and technical support to developing nation members. Perhaps its most outstanding contribution in recent decades has been its role in helping resolve issues left by the end of the British Empire, especially in mobilising support for the successful struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

It still has a strong convening power, demonstrated not only by its biennial CHOGMs but also regular meetings of Foreign Ministers, Health Ministers, Education Ministers, Law Ministers, Finance Ministers, Parliamentarians, Local Government Officials, senior officials and many more – including its wider civil society. As arguably its most effective and influential Secretary-General, Sonny Ramphal was fond of saying, in the right balance of modesty and activism, “the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world but it can help the world to negotiate.” Such convening power helps.

Finding a shared vision

New issues in the post-apartheid era need to bind the Commonwealth to action now. Finding this new shared vision amongst its very diverse members must be a key objective for a new Secretary-General. If this is not found there is no reason to mourn the passing of the Commonwealth, because it will have nothing useful left to do and will have died a natural death. But it is too soon to predict its demise, and there is much it could still do in the world today – and no-one wants the new Secretary-General to be the undertaker at the funeral of the Commonwealth.

The Charter

Central to the Commonwealth – indeed to any organisation – must be its purpose and values. These have evolved over the years. The decision of its leaders in 1961 to take a firm stand against racism, and in support of basic human rights, and led to apartheid South Africa’s withdrawal at the time, took it in on a path which has evolved over the next five decades to the Commonwealth Charter – the organisation’s own Magna Carta. The Charter is an outcome of the Report of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) in 2011 as well as all those proceeding Declarations, of which the Harare Declaration of 1991 is perhaps the most important.

The Charter was further developed by member nations over 2012. As a result it is a clunky and inelegantly drafted document but the substance is invaluable. The Charter clearly commits the Commonwealth to the values of democracy; human rights; international peace and security; tolerance, respect and understanding; freedom of expression; separation of powers; rule of law; good governance; sustainable development; protection of the environment; access to health, education, food and shelter; gender equality; empowering young people; recognition of the needs of small and vulnerable states and finally the role of civil society. This should be a rich source of action for the future. Indeed so is the EPG Report itself, most of which recommendations were adopted at the Perth CHOGM, but many still remain to be implemented.

A postscript signed by the Secretary-General on its adoption on 14 December 2012, sets out an important vision statement as follows:

“We aspire to a Commonwealth that is a strong and respected voice in the world, speaking out on major issues; that strengthens and enlarges its networks; that has a global relevance and profile; and that is devoted to improving the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth.”


Guided by its Charter, central to the role of the Commonwealth is its work in building democracy and development in a cohesive way for its members. In this regard the 2003 Report on Democracy and Development by a Commission chaired by then former Finance Minister and later Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh remains relevant.

Important here is the Commonwealth’s work in good offices, helping member nations resolve conflicts internally and building democratic resilience so creating governance conditions for sustainable development. Some eight years ago there were 7 such activities led by Special Envoys – in Guyana, Swaziland, Tanzania, Cameroon, the Gambia, Maldives, and Fiji.

Now there is only the Maldives, which is tentative, and some limited efforts in Lesotho and Swaziland. While some of the other situations have been largely resolved, the Gambia sadly has left the Commonwealth and many Commonwealth tensions are not currently being addressed. Zimbabwe, whose independence in 1980 the Commonwealth helped broker, too needs to be re-engaged. As former Secretary-General Ramphal has reminded us recently in his biography “One day Zimbabwe will return to the Commonwealth – when it is recognised on all sides that Zimbabwe did not leave the Commonwealth, Mugabe did”.

The interplay of good offices activities with the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – a standing Committee of nine Foreign Ministers charged to be guardians of Commonwealth values – needs to be further developed. CMAG – which has the power to suspend members for violations of Commonwealth values and is usually only seen in that context – should be reframed as a support mechanism as recommended by the EPG with Foreign Minister members taking on Special Envoy roles. A more active good offices and democracy program should report to CMAG.

CMAG could also support the implementation of the recommendations of the highly valued election observer groups with national governments. In this regard the initiative under the present Secretary General of establishing a Commonwealth Electoral Network has been important. It grew out of the excellent and continuing work done at Cambridge University by Dr Anil Seal who for 15 years has gathered the Chief Election Commissioners of Commonwealth countries together in an annual Conference on Electoral Democracy. I know from experience the links they have forged have strengthened their capacity to carry out their duties professionally and impartially, often under immense political pressures.

Part of the issue in this area of work is one of terminology and process rather than deep divisions over substance. There was a very unfortunate debate at the Perth CHOGM in 2011 on the EPG Report proposal for a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human rights. The name itself was problematic, not least because there is already an existing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

However the concept – of supporting Commonwealth countries in the development of their capacity to build national institutions to support democracy, human rights and the rule of law – is not. Most Commonwealth nations buy into it and wish to improve especially in the development of relevant national institutions including the police, parliament, election commissions and the judiciary.

Unfortunately inaction in some areas and poor profile in others has led the Commonwealth’s commitment to these issues to been called into question, including by prominent EPG members such as Hon Michael Kirby. This challenge cannot be left unanswered by a new Secretary-General and must be addressed with vigour and sensitivity with his personal office in the lead, perhaps with a dedicated Special Adviser of Ambassadorial status heading the relevant unit.


Although the Commonwealth may be best known for its work on democracy and good offices, it actually puts the bulk of its resources into development. For 2014-15 of the combined budget of the Secretariat and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), £24 million (80 per cent) is allocated development and £3.2 million (10 per cent) to democracy. Some of this work is very important – especially in the technical and advisory assistance provided to member states, often uniquely of a South/South nature, in areas like law, finance and international trade, or programs like the debt management software. The current Secretary-General has also been active in promoting IT based knowledge sharing, especially with the support of Commonwealth Connects.

However the Commonwealth’s development priorities have not always been rigorously managed, and its performance as a development agency has at times been strongly criticised. Canada in fact has pulled out of supporting the CFTC. The CFTC is now well over 40 years old and needs a major overhaul. The Commonwealth’s development priorities and focus should be re-examined by the membership and associated organisations to ensure it is fit for purpose and for the needs of member nations in the 21st Century. Added urgency for this task is needed to ensure it aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the United Nations later this year. Partnerships with other organisations and indeed the private sector on programs, with staff resources being funded from these programs, should become the norm. This is another area ripe for reform which a new Secretary-General needs to make a priority.

Fresh Issues – Countering radicalisation

The Commonwealth also needs again to find a big cause to project itself internationally and make a substantial impact, as in the days of the anti-apartheid movement. Such a cause is at hand – the issue of radicalisation, or violent extremism. Nearly a decade ago, in response to the rise of terrorism and the failure of the Iraq intervention, the former Secretary-General Don McKinnon convened the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding, chaired by Nobel Prize winner Professor Amartya Sen, and with a diverse range prominent leaders from across member nations.

It produced a Report entitled “Civil Paths to Peace” which looked in depth at issues of identity, grievance, humiliation and conflict which feed radicalisation, and provided ways forward. The report was adopted by Heads in November 2007 in Kampala, but little has been done with it. In 2011 the Report was re-issued in book form with a fresh preface by Professor Sen on “Violence and Civil Society” and plans for extensive activities. The Ramphal Institute in London was ready to help. But this was not followed up.**

Radicalisation is one of the most pressing issues of our time. The Commonwealth, which embraces all religions and communities but lacks great power tensions, is a relatively safe space to explore this issue and the solutions, and so assist the wider world. It should be bold – as the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth urged it to be at the 2011 Perth CHOGM – and begin engaging again on this issue which is central to the implementation of its values. Kenya recently asked the Secretariat for help on it at this year’s pre-CHOGM Board of Governors meeting. The Commonwealth must now respond – and urgently.

Migration and Development

Another pressing issue is that of migration. Our television screens are filled daily with dehumanising images of people from developing nations in boats seeking to enter developed economies from the Mediterranean to Australia, driven by criminal gangs of people smugglers and overwhelming the west’s capacity to cope.

It is clear that many of those who are on these boats and have paid large sums of money to do so are not genuine refugees fleeing armed conflict. The hysteria developing around this issue is also tending to obscure and indeed bedevil the importance of managed migration for sustainable economic development around the world. It is also truly perverse when we are in a situation where ill-educated young men can push themselves into western societies when they should be developing their own nations, but skilled workers recruited for areas like the National Health Service in the UK are in danger of being sent back to home nations because of this hysteria.

Once again the Commonwealth has already done considerable work on the subject. In 2011 the Ramphal Institute gathered a distinguished group of participants from across the Commonwealth in a Commission under the chairmanship of the former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J.Patterson to produce a report on “Migration and Development” in the Commonwealth. The EPG specifically endorsed the importance of this work.

The time has come to look again at some of the constructive ideas proposed to deal with both the push and pull factors in migration, so this is managed by governments in a constructive way to benefit the international economy. Otherwise, like the drug trade or terrorism, migration could be controlled by criminal gangs cynically preying on individuals and deeply damaging international economic and social cooperation

These are not the only issues – climate change, being a voice for small states (the Commonwealth has 31 small state members), gender equality, human rights – all come to mind, but they are perhaps the most urgent. They are ones on which the Commonwealth has already engaged and done considerable study. These are also issues that Heads will all have views on.

Sometimes the discussion might be uncomfortable and forthright – it has been so in the past on issues like apartheid. Nevertheless the importance of the outcomes mean we must not shy away from the debate, whether between Heads or Peoples. They are clearly areas where, with the right Secretary-General actively engaged and building consensus amongst our diverse member nations on action, the Commonwealth can find common positions which help the world to negotiate – and so demonstrate its value.

Utilising the Commonwealth Network

In doing so, it can utilise and mobilise its extensive network of associated organisations such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Commonwealth Local Government Forum and its myriad of civil society bodies which are supported through the Commonwealth Foundation. This is a project they all have a stake in. Above all they should be a priority for its youth program, as youth are the group whose lives and futures are being most damaged by radicalisation and the migration issues. Linkages should be made with the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme.

In this regard the new Secretary-General needs to build much closer relations with the Commonwealth Foundation, Commonwealth of Learning and other entities, in a real partnership. Utilising the reach of the Commonwealth Games with youth and a revitalised Commonwealth Business Forum with the business interest of the Commonwealth (Malta will be crucial) should be key elements of any strategy for renewing the Commonwealth. There needs to be more regular meetings of the various bodies convened by the Secretary-General himself, with areas of cooperative action identified and perhaps specific projects devolved to some of them.

Partnerships and Profile

The present Secretary-General has done much to build partnerships with other international and regional organisations, and that needs to continue. La Francophonie, the African Union, Caricom and the Pacific Islands Forum and many other regional organisations are natural partners. We need to see more concrete expression in joint projects and programs, with more profile for the Commonwealth.

On profile, we need a new Secretary-General who is media friendly rather than media shy, and projecting an image of energy and modernity in the world of Twitter, Facebook and Hardtalk. As was once said to me by a past Commonwealth Spokesperson, “you could have the best CHOGM in the world, but if no-one knows about it, it as if it has never happened”. Much of the Commonwealth’s good work is now sadly in that unknown category. Quiet diplomacy has its place, but without some publicity the Commonwealth will die from ignorance of its work.


It is also time for the Commonwealth to reconsider its approach to membership. This matter was last considered in 2007***. The door then opened clearly for members who were prepared to ascribe to Commonwealth norms and values, but who had not previously been part of the British Empire. An important modernising step, Rwanda took advantage of it to join in 2011.

There are two other areas the Commonwealth could do more on, and which would be in line with other international organisations – to allow greater engagement by its partner organisations and to allow observer and associate members. That of itself would enhance its profile and international engagement, and help spread its values.

CHOGM – the Commonwealth Summit

Central to the continuing relevance of the Commonwealth will remain its Heads of Government Meeting. If Heads stop coming, it will surely end. At the last CHOGM in Colombo only 26 out of 53 Heads attended. With so many Summits to attend – at least one a month in most cases, and often more, with the many regional and international gatherings on their programs – this is a competitive space with Heads.

CHOGM 2011 Family photo: Queen and leaders ©Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat

CHOGM 2011 Family photo: Queen and leaders ©Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat

However it does retain a unique place as a Summit where leaders from every part of the world can come together speaking the same English language, in a relaxed format which sees the smallest nations meeting with those from the G20 and the world’s largest economies. If the atmosphere remains constructive, the agendas relevant and the outcomes helpful they will come.

A new Secretary-General will need to be alert to their needs. Thus the issues to be addressed in the Retreat format need to matter to them. We have to accept that a day and a half is the maximum leaders can now spend together, unlike the week long meetings of the past, but that should be enough time if well planned.

It might usefully be renamed the Commonwealth Summit, rather than the inelegant and old fashioned acronym CHOGM. It should ditch its time consuming, lengthy and fraught Communique (now at some 100 paragraphs or so). It only causes much angst among officials and Ministers in its negotiation, and annoyance to leaders when passed to them for reconciling differences – wasting their limited time in Retreat. The issues in the Communique can be addressed in the Secretary’s General Report to Heads.

Instead it should restrict itself to one outcomes document – a Declaration which emerges directly from heads in their Retreat, and deals only with the issues of importance to them which they actually have discussed and spoken on. Finally it is important to keep strictly to the rule that no officials can participate in the Retreat, so it is truly a leaders’ event.

Head of the Commonwealth

One other unique aspect of the Commonwealth is its symbolic headship, held by Queen Elizabeth II for historic reasons – and the Commonwealth respects its history. She was not the first Head – in fact it was her father King George VI who was accepted by the 1949 London Declaration as “the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth”.

28 October 2011 - Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II speaking at the opening of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at the Perth Convention and Entertainment Centre host in Australia. ©Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat

28 October 2011 – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II speaking at the opening of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at the Perth Convention and Entertainment Centre host in Australia. ©Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat

However she has developed the role and been a devoted and unifying Head, and engaged in helpful quiet diplomacy to support Commonwealth values, on issues like Rhodesia and South Africa. She has also generously provided an excellent Headquarters for the organisation in London, at Marlborough House, which remains the best international centre for its operations.

Her heir, Prince Charles, would become Head of State to some 15 Commonwealth nations when in due course he succeeds his mother. He has demonstrated his keen interest in and concern for the Commonwealth and its issues and values, and travelled to most of its member nations. His recent meeting of reconciliation with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in Ireland was an outstanding example of Commonwealth values in action.

It would help if there was now a general understanding that he is best placed to succeed his mother in the Commonwealth Headship as well. Such an understanding would avoid any unseemly debate amongst Heads of Government as to which of their number might seek this role or the possibly awkward scenario outlined by former Secretary-General Don McKinnon of seeking to achieve a consensus on the transition at her passing.

Without the continuity of the headship, the Commonwealth would be a diminished organisation and lose a further important element of its “specialness”. It is a valuable asset for a new Secretary-General who unlike McKinnon is likely to have to manage this transition (a counterargument is offered in Philip Murphy’s Monarchy and the End of Empire).

The new Secretary-General

So a new Secretary-General will have a challenging job, but one filled with potential. He – or she – needs to recognise that far from being an independent actor he has to build the confidence and respect of 53 different bosses and help them to pull together to common purpose.What we need Heads to seek from a next Secretary-General as they make their choice is someone who:

  • values the Commonwealth’s history but also embraces change to fit it for purpose for a new era;
  • is energetic and prepared to lift the Commonwealth’s profile internationally and get the best out of its many associated organisations and civil society;
  • is bold and ready to take on the big agendas such as radicalisation;
  • is diplomatic and able to assist governments and oppositions in member states to resolve their conflicts and develop in accord with Commonwealth values;
  • understands the development agenda and the needs of small and developing nations states so the Commonwealth can play its part in achieving the post 2015 sustainable development goals;
  • can raise the funding from the membership and beyond so the Secretariat can carry out its agreed work programs;
  • can help member nations and peoples find a shared vision.

Above all we need someone who is deeply ingrained in the Commonwealth values and committed to working with member nations for their implementation. With such leadership the Commonwealth can look forward to a great future and play the role it should internationally.

*Former Political Director at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and former Australian Ambassador to Zimbabwe and High Commissioner to Nigeria.  While the author is a serving member of the Australian Foreign Service, this article is written in an entirely personal capacity as Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University Lent Term 2015. See the Commonwealth Oral History Project’s interview with Ambassador Matthew Neuhaus here.

**Interview with Richard Bourne, Ramphal Centre, May 2015

***Report of the Commonwealth Committee on Membership, Commonwealth Secretariat, London 2007