Context: The Commonwealth has in the face of the COVID-19 crisis postponed its biennial Heads of Government Meeting, originally slated for Kigali in June 2020.
Significance of Commonwealth:
- Global representation: The Commonwealth Secretariat, whose administrative hub in London covers 54 countries encompassing over 30% of the world’s population ( the 2.4 billion people), has been at the forefront of global institutional response to the Coronavirus crisis.
- Diversity within: The Commonwealth is that we do represent one-third of the world’s population. It has Nauru, which has between 11,000-12,000 people, and then the biggest country in the Commonwealth, India, with around 1.3 billion people.
- It represents all five regions, and every income level, country size, race and religion.
- Regional leadership: There are examples of great leadership from a number of its Member States, including India, the African Union, the Commonwealth Caribbean, the Pacific Region.
- Addressing climate change:
- In 1989 the Commonwealth came together in Langkawi, Malaysia, to face the reality of the climate crisis.
- It was the Commonwealth in 2015 in Malta at the CHOGM that came up with the construct to say that we have to have an enforceable agreement
- It had to be two degrees and enforceable, and that we needed the 1.5 degrees aspirational target to stay alive.
- That was the world agreed in Paris in 2015, a month later.
Triple challenges for the commonwealth nations
- Pandemic crisis: The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our time and the greatest challenge we have faced since World War Two.
- Climate crisis: There is a monsoon season in Asia. There are prospects of a bad hurricane season across the Caribbean e.g Vanuatu cyclones.
- Desertification and locust attacks in Africa.
- Flooding in Kenya, East Africa.
- Economic crisis: Lives have been lost, economies are shrinking, and livelihoods have been shattered. It is difficult to predict what the new normal will look like.
Concerns for Commonwealth:
- Variations across the group: It has the very wealthy countries, we have medium-income countries, and we have the least-developed and some of the smallest countries in the world.
- On the public health front, there is much variation across the Commonwealth nations. In India for example some have said there is a shortage of critical medical equipment including PPEs, ventilators, and testing kits.
- The variance between the universal health systems is wide. Some of the smaller member countries were paying 30 times more than some of the other countries for the same medication.
- Non-communicable decisions: There is a huge risk to our member states from non-communicable diseases including, obesity and heart attacks, which are killing more of our people than anything else.
- Internet speed: Digitization is necessary but some of the Member States are now on 2G, others on 3G and 4G, and some will be migrating to 5G.
India has a bigger role in terms of medical supplies and providing health care.
- The COVID-19 lockdown is estimated to cost India $4.5 billion each day, but that price, which has been paid by India, has meant that the survival rate in India has been one of the best across the world.
- India as a member of the SAARC proposed the creation of the creation of the COVID-19 emergency fund, with voluntary contributions for all Member States and immediately proposed an initial contribution of $10 million.
- India supplied medical supplies, testing equipment, and sanitisers among other items to SAARC members including Commonwealth members such as the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
- Bracing for a new normal: The Commonwealth collaboration has to come up with a different construct to prepare for the new normal.
- A universal healthcare system: There is a need for a Commonwealth-identified method for cost-effective and cost-efficient mechanism that will enable us to have universal coverage, which would enable us to respond to epidemic and pandemic health issues.
- Digitalisation and sharing that knowledge between the member nations is important. This could be done by establishing common digital platforms and websites.
- Fostering multilateralism: The role of multilateral organisations in coordinating policy responses worldwide has increased manifold in the Coronavirus crisis.
- Innovation: Recently Secretary-General’s Innovation Awards was created specifically to highlight the genius that is within young people.
- Life over economy approach: We know that the long-term economic costs are going to be significant. But if we have life, we have a chance to come together in solidarity and collaboration with other countries, and forge a new response to the economic reality.
- Changing the GDP criteria: In the past we have judged ourselves, by our gross national product. That approach is to be amended by taking into account other parameters like health and environment.
- Debt management: It can be debt postponement along with debt forgiveness for small countries.
- More Multilateralism: As the Commonwealth sees itself as a family of nations, its Member States are reaching out to each other and asking how they can help.
The COVID-19 pandemic is radically changing what we know to be our position, but it is producing innovative solutions for our young people – 60% of Commonwealth is under 30 years of age -- leading to new jobs, industries and futures.
Commonwealth of Nations
- Generally known simply as the Commonwealth is a political association of 54 member states, mostly former territories of the British Empire.
- The chief institutions of the organisation are the Commonwealth Secretariat, which focuses on intergovernmental aspects, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which focuses on non-governmental relations between member states.
- It was originally created as the British Commonwealth of Nations through the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, and formalised by the United Kingdom through the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
- In the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, Britain and its dominions agreed they were "equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations".
- The current Commonwealth of Nations was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, which modernised the community and established the member states as "free and equal".
- Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth and the monarch of 16 members of the Commonwealth, known as Commonwealth realms.
- Member states have no legal obligation to one another.
- They are united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights, and the rule of law.
- All members have an equal voice, regardless of size or economic stature.
- In non-Commonwealth countries in which their own country is not represented, Commonwealth citizens may seek consular assistance at the British embassy.
- The first member to be admitted without having any link to the British Empire was Mozambique followed by Rwanda in 2009.
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting:
- The main decision-making forum of the organisation is the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where Commonwealth heads of government, including (amongst others) prime ministers and presidents, assemble for several days to discuss matters of mutual interest.
- The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is a biennial summit meeting of the heads of government from all Commonwealth nations.
- The Commonwealth Secretariat, established in 1965, is the main intergovernmental agency of the Commonwealth, facilitating consultation and co-operation among member governments and countries. It is responsible to member governments collectively.
- The Commonwealth of Nations is represented in the United Nations General Assembly by the secretariat as an observer.
- The secretariat organises Commonwealth summits, meetings of ministers, consultative meetings and technical discussions; it assists policy development and provides policy advice, and facilitates multilateral communication among the member governments.
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) :
- The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent, non-partisan, international nongovernmental organization, headquartered in New Delhi.
- The organization works for the practical realization of human rights across the Commonwealth. In 1987, several Commonwealth associations founded CHRI as a response to South Africa‟s policy of racism.
- CHRI's objectives are to promote awareness of and adherence to the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other internationally recognized human rights instruments, as well as domestic instruments supporting human rights in member states.
Recent Developments - The Maldives has recently re-joined the Commonwealth as 54th member, reversing its earlier policy of isolation.
- The island nation was readmitted after showing evidence of functioning democratic processes and popular support for being part of the family of nations.