Commonwealth Day, marked in each of the 54 Commonwealth countries worldwide and celebrated on the second Monday in March, is a Canadian product — proposed by Canada at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Ottawa in 1973 and adopted in Canberra two years later. I am honoured to be representing Canada as its special envoy on Commonwealth renewal in this Diamond Jubilee Year of Her Majesty the Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth.

I was eight years old sitting on my dad’s shoulders when I first saw Her Majesty during her 1959 tour, at a stop in Montreal. I watched her shake hands and share a few words with all the local Catholic and Orthodox priests, various Protestant ministers and the rabbi of our local synagogue. I must say that watching the head of the Church of England shake hands with a rabbi struck me as quite a gesture in 1950s Montreal. And this small gesture was the basis for my eventual understanding that we were all equal under the Crown — free to practise our own faiths, and lucky to live in Canada. More than 50 years later, I am convinced now, more than ever, that, in the 60th year of Queen Elizabeth’s remarkable reign, there is continued value in celebrating dynamic symbols in societies where freedom of religion, cultural diversity and civility still matter.

I believe in a Commonwealth of principle and values, enduring as a force for decency and arguing for more education, less poverty and more development and democracy, all of which are mutually reinforcing; a Commonwealth where forced marriage, negative discrimination and intolerance of linguistic or ethnic minorities is discouraged; a Commonwealth where intolerance or criminalization of gay and lesbian people is discouraged; and a Commonwealth where the rule of law, democracy and human rights is a surging trend.

As a non-military, voluntary association of 54 states embracing 2.1 billion human beings in the world, if we are to be true to the spirit and purport of Commonwealth core values, we must be a constructive, cooperative, tolerant and engaged force for good in the world.

In 2009, the Commonwealth heads of government met in Port-of-Spain for their regular biannual meeting. On the agenda was a discussion of how to move the Commonwealth forward, how to make the organization more relevant and how to have it adapt to the 21st century. It was at this meeting that the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was mandated by the CHOGM “to undertake an examination of options for reform.” Heads of government did so because, as the affirmation issued in 2009 stated, they were “resolved to make the Commonwealth an even stronger and more effective international organization as they look ahead to the rest of the 21st century.” The challenge, recognized in that moment, was that the Commonwealth was in serious danger of losing all relevance.

As a nonmilitary, voluntary association of 54 states embracing 2.1 billion human beings in the world, if we are to be true to the spirit and purport of Commonwealth core values, we must be a constructive, cooperative, tolerant and engaged force for good in the world.

I was honoured to be chosen as the Canadian member of the Eminent Persons Group. Over 18 months and five meetings, this 10-member group studied more than 300 submissions, heard from dozens of witnesses, debated, discussed and sometimes argued the way forward for the Commonwealth. We came from different continents, faiths, backgrounds, generations, races, professions, politics and cultures. But in the end, every word of the report A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform was agreed to unanimously. The diversity around the table spoke to the diversity of the organization itself, and each and every recommendation was thought out and included because we believed it would make the Commonwealth of Nations a more relevant organization for the 21st century. I signed and vigorously supported all 106 recommendations we submitted to the Commonwealth Heads of Government 2011 meeting in Perth last October. And I, together with several EPG colleagues, was part of the press conference that deplored the fact that the report was not released until the last day of that conference. Commonwealth renewal is not a private process for diplomats and advisers. It belongs to all of the 2.1 billion people of the Commonwealth.

As it stands today, the Commonwealth is made up of the largest and the smallest, the richest and the poorest countries, those that are economically thriving and some of the most economically deprived countries of the world. The heritage of the Commonwealth of Nations and some of its most compelling aspects are the values of civility that underline the Commonwealth. That civility embraces, as Commonwealth leaders have proclaimed on many occasions, the rule of law, democracy, human rights and economic opportunities for every one of our Commonwealth citizens. The EPG report attempted to embrace and expand upon that civility in concrete ways and renew the organization’s capacity to be influential in the global community. Which is why, in the concluding remarks of our report, we stated: “Now is the time for the Perth CHOGM to authorize the urgent reform this report recommends… There may not be another chance to renew, reinvigorate and revitalise the Commonwealth to make it relevant to its times and people in the future.” I believe in the future and the potential of the Commonwealth. But neither are automatic; they require hard work.

While there were many debates in Perth relating to the EPG report, the progress that was made on many of our recommendations can, in my opinion, be attributed to the one person whose views carry the most weight, the Head of the Commonwealth. When the Queen formally opened the Perth CHOGM, her words were judicious, clear and precise. Up to that point, foreign ministers had discussed only two of our 106 recommendations. This is what she said: “I should like to thank the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group for their work, and I look forward to hearing the outcome of discussion of their recommendations. And I wish Heads of Government well in agreeing further reforms that respond boldly to the aspirations of today and that keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow. In these deliberations we should not forget that this is an association not only of governments but also of peoples. That is what makes it so relevant in this age of global information and communication.”

As she always does, the Queen raised the tone, reminded everyone about what matters and, above all, symbolized and personified the level of service to others and to a greater good and cause that must motivate all governments and international associations such as the Commonwealth.

In the end, the heads of government accepted 30 recommendations outright. These include enhancing the Commonwealth secretary general’s (SG) mandate and role so that the SG can and will speak out publicly regarding the Commonwealth’s core priorities as set out in the 2009 affirmation. The SG’s mandate is to develop a clear strategy relating to.

  • Networking between member governments and the capacity building of small states, and providing advice and support to small states in avoiding unsustainable debt;
  • Having Commonwealth G20 members advocate for the Commonwealth perspective, work further on climate change and assist with the development of a constitution for the Commonwealth Youth Programme;
  • Confronting the challenges and strengthening Commonwealth advocacy relating to the needs of women and ensuring that the issue of HIV/AIDS is prominent on the agendas of all relevant Commonwealth meetings;
  • Considering the sharing of corporate functions between the secretariat and the foundation;
  • Putting in place a plan for the secretariat to coordinate work with other Commonwealth institutions to draw on expertise from within rather than using expensive external consultants;
  • Reviewing the governance of the Commonwealth Business Council to make its membership and work inclusive;
  • Recommending that the SG consult the Commonwealth Media Group regarding a program to help better disseminate the Commonwealth’s message among its constituents;
  • Preserving the integrity of the Commonwealth Games and using them as an instrument for peace and development.

Recommendations that were tentatively accepted but submitted for review of possible cost implications include the reform of the secretariat’s structures and systems; the establishment of high-level-advocacy missions to engage in dialogue with the International Montary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization; the competent staffing of the secretariat’s office in Geneva for small states; the establishment of a mechanism for tracking the responses of international financial institutions for consideration at finance ministers and CHOGM meetings; the renewing of Commonwealth governments commitment to the Iwokrama Rainforest Program by providing core funding; the maintenance of a roster of professionals who could be called on when disasters occur in Commonwealth countries; the establishment of national youth councils for their input in national policy development; the SG’s cooperation and work with United Nations bodies such as UNAIDS, the WHO and UNDP to develop joint programs in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS; the authorization of the SG to mount a high-level missions to UN bodies to advocate a review of any criteria that may disqualify vulnerable countries from accessing the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS based on their per capita income; and the preparation by the SG of a draft plan relating to the secretariat’s work and its future, making the secretariat more productive and significant.

In the most contentious of the recommendations, the commissioner for rule of law, democracy and human rights will be jointly assessed by both the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and the secretariat before next steps can be advanced. But it, in some form, is very much alive.

We understand that the Commonwealth affords immense opportunity for international dialogue, cooperation and cross-fertilization of ideas. There is no other organization where 5 other members are also members of the G20, 11 are members of la Francophonie (Canada is the largest of this 11), 7 are members of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, 13 are members of the Carribean Community, 18 are members of the African Union, 11 are members of the Pacific Islands Forum and 2 are members of NATO. This broad reach can be put to use for the benefit of the membership.

Leaders also agreed in Perth that there should be a Commonwealth charter in 2012, the first recommendation of the EPG. The proposed charter, which would encapsulate all the brave declarations made by CHOGM meetings in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, the 1991 Harare Declaration and the 2003 Commonwealth Latimer House Principles on the Three Branches of Government, has now been sent to the member states for consultation and discussion. Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, chaired by Senator Raynell Andreychuk, has begun hearings, allowing for public consultation relating to the charter, consistent with the EPG’s recommendation. Such public consultation would also serve to renew and invigorate interest in, and commitment to, the Commonwealth. It would reflect the values and aspirations in the will of the peoples of the Commonwealth by consulting the public widely before any text is adopted — something that has not happened with any previous declaration.

The UN is a deliberative body where one goes when the dead are already piled like cordwood in the morgue or the streets, or when one country’s tanks have rolled over the border into the sovereign territory of another. And because of the veto power wielded by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, China, Russia, the UK and France), the Security Council is often impotent and unable to take action, as any of the permanent five can veto any action, which happened in early 2012 with respect to Syria when China and Russia did just that. The Commonwealth has the largest reach, remit and geography in the world, and its main purpose is to prevent, wherever possible, situations such as coups d’etat, apartheid, or authoritarian excesses from prevailing. In its history, Fiji, Pakistan, South Africa, Zimbabwe are among the countries that have been censured, suspended or expelled when they set aside tolerance and democracy.. As an international and intergovernmental organization of sovereign states in voluntary association, this remit is unique and compelling. The reason Canada and many other countries were so enthusiastic about the Eminent Persons Group Report is because its recommendations were solely about strengthening the real ability on the ground in 54 member countries and in the secretariat at Marlborough Palace to do the job of defending rule of the law, democracy, human rights and development well in the future — to make the changes necessary to do so, strengthen the operations essential to this goal and afford the secretary general the tools he needs to do the job. Which is why a very important step ahead in Perth was the unanimous and rapid approval of the recommendations to strengthen the mandate of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and trigger points for engagement and action. Canada is very pleased that the Commonwealth’s response relating to the situation in Maldives has been in keeping with the strengthened CMAG. The CMAG is our security council; it acts by consensus; there are no vetoes. It now has new trigger points and thresholds for engagement. At the invitation of the Government of Maldives, a Commonwealth secretariat team of officials travelled to Maldives and met with Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz and with President Mohamed Waheed. The Commonwealth SG has issued regular media releases on the Maldives situation, and an extraordinary teleconference of CMAG was held on February 13, resulting in agreement to urgently dispatch a ministerial-level fact-finding mission. CMAG met on February 22 after the completion of this mission, and I was present with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to hear the results of the report. On March 1, it was agreed that because of the fragility of the situation in Maldives, they would be placed on CMAG’s formal agenda. As well, the Secretary General appointed Sir Donald McKinnon, a former secretary general of the Commonwealth, as special envoy to Maldives. This quick action is very much appreciated by Canada and is in keeping with the recommendations relating to CMAG, its trigger points and its willingness to act quickly.

There is no other organization where 5 other members are also members of the G20, 11 are members of La francophonie (Canada is the largest of this 11), 7 are members of APEC, 13 are members of CARICOM, 18 are members of the African Union, 11 are members of the Pacific Islands Forum and 2 are members of NATO. This broad reach can be put to use for the benefit of the membership.

Perth was the first CHOGM in a while to have focused almost exclusively on Commonwealth values — and consequently to have revealed some gaps. Canada’s focus worldwide and Commonwealth-specific is very much on human rights, including the rights of women and religious minorities, as well as the decriminalization of homosexuality in certain Commonwealth countries. Human rights are neither divisible nor geographically eligible for dilution. The right to be a Muslim in Canada is inviolate, as should be the right to be Christian in Pakistan, Jewish in South Africa or agnostic in Barbados. The right of people who are infected with HIV/AIDS in Commonwealth Africa, the Caribbean or Asia to rapid and life-saving treatment cannot be tenuous because of dated laws that criminalize homosexuality, which presents huge risks to self-identification. I know of no religious text that says people whose illness and death could be prevented by timely treatment should be allowed to die. That is not a Commonwealth value, a Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist or Christian value. Every country sets its own laws and makes it own choices. The Commonwealth cannot legislate, nor should it. But it can advocate, promote and advance a view and policy goal against forced marriage, racism oppression and homophobia. Of all HIV/AIDS cases worldwide 60 percent are in Commonwealth countries — home to only one-third of the world’s people.

Canada was delighted when heads of government approved the EPG recommendation number 18 that proclaimed critical declarations made at previous CHOGM meetings on democracy, human rights, development and trade as “fundamental Commonwealth values” upon which the SG should be free to speak out without prior consultation. That recommendation was the subject of much discussion at the EPG meeting in Kuala Lumpur in February 2011. The press release after the Malaysian deliberations was entitled “Silence Is Not an Option” for good reason. Let me tell you why this matters. China, the world’s second largest economy, is not a democracy — and its view on human rights and dissent is different from Canada’s. China is a trading partner that we embrace, but its values exclude democracy. The Commonwealth’s do not. This is no time to step down.

As a former EPG member, I would, of course, have preferred that more than the 30 EPG recommendations approved in Perth plus the other 9 CMAG reform recommendations concerning the Ministerial Action Group had been passed. In my present envoy role, I am grateful for the work that was done and for what did pass, and I understand fully the need to work collaboratively to get many more recommendations to the implementation stage. I am also resolutely optimistic. And, just so we are clear, there is a big difference between being optimistic and being naĂŻve. Some modest steps have been made and good people in the Commonwealth secretariat are advancing the file. And I have the Secretary General’s commitment to real progress in real time — which I appreciate very much and Canada very much expects.

The EPG report called for urgent reform, not gradual, endlessly bureaucratic, pretend reform where events and exigencies overwhelm the very relevance and purpose of the Commonwealth itself. My discussions with the secretariat since being appointed special envoy give me genuine hope that its engagement will be more robust. An engaged, agile and determined secretariat, working tirelessly to bring these recommendations and costings into the public domain, is what subscription-paying nations have the right to expect, and no less.

The EPG report called for urgent reform, not gradual, endlessly bureaucratic, pretend reform where events and exigencies overwhelm the very relevance and purpose of the Commonwealth itself.

Membership in the Commonwealth is important to Canada and Canadians. Canada is the secondlargest financial contributor to Commonwealth organizations and programs, second only to the United Kingdom. This amounted to approximately $26.5 million in 2010-11. CHOGM 2011 was a watershed moment for the future of the Commonwealth. Canada is no fairweather friend of the Commonwealth. Over our history — our aid to Sri Lanka through the Colombo Plan in what was Ceylon; the support of the states in the front line of the campaign against apartheid by Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, despite Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s very different views; the championing of the Commonwealth Scholarships by John Diefenbaker; the three decades of peacekeeping in Cyprus; and our support through CIDA of technical assistance in Africa, Pakistan, India and the Caribbean — Canada has been a loyal and generous supporter.

India’s democracy in Asia, Singapore’s economic success, Australia’s robust democratic and economic achievements and Malaysia’s moderation in diversity are serious Asian Commonwealth voices for our values. None among them or any other Commonwealth group of countries is perfect. But their direction and underlying values are clear.

Our Commonwealth has gone from empire to independent democracies; from one Anglo-Saxon set of roots to a diversity that knows no limit; from underdevelopment to cascading lives of growth and economic strength; from six countries (the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, South Africa and New Zealand) in 1947 to 54 independent nations today. We are fighting against poverty, bigotry, apartheid, lawlessness, dictatorship and standing for civility, diversity, democracy, development, human rights and the rule of law.

Photo: Dominic Dudley / Shutterstock

Hugh Segal
Hugh Segal was Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen's University and a senior advisor at Aird & Berlis, LLP in Toronto. From 1999 to 2006, he served as president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. He died in August 2023.

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