Commonwealth: Democracy and Development

Lord Sheikh tabled and led a debate in the House of Lords on the subject of the Commonwealth’s shared goals for democracy and development. His opening speech was as follows:

My Lords, I begin by saying that 54 countries and 2 billion people spanning all the continents, amounting to 30 per cent of the world’s population and one-quarter of the global economy, make up the Commonwealth today. It is truly a unique international organisation, which has growing relevance in strengthening democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law, human rights and sustainable development in an increasingly uncertain world.

As it celebrates the 60th year of its inception, the Commonwealth has never been more important to its citizens in adapting to the challenges facing the developed and developing worlds. I welcome the progress made at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in reaching agreements on youth development, climate change and healthcare.

I acknowledge the role that young people play in promoting the Commonwealth’s values of tolerance and development. The long-term success and sustainability of the Commonwealth is dependent on the financial and societal investments that the organisation makes towards youth development. I recognise that young people are most likely to be affected by unemployment, which is why I fully support plans to develop the Commonwealth youth credit initiative further; it will provide opportunities for young people to enhance their skills and receive mentoring.

Climate change is of course one of the great challenges that we face today. Last month’s meeting in Port of Spain enabled a progressive vision to be developed from the big polluters of today, Great Britain and Australia, to the rapidly expanding economies of India, South Africa and Malaysia and to countries that are yet to industrialise, such as those sub-Saharan nations that were represented. That is crucial to ensuring that developing nations avoid limiting themselves to growth driven by fossil fuels.

It is encouraging to see that the Commonwealth has pledged to give extra assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable members, which have contributed least to the causes of climate change. Low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh and the Maldives, and nations in sub-Saharan Africa will benefit greatly from increased defence measures. If we fail to act, there is a genuine risk of deaths and the wholesale migration of people whose land ceases to bear fruit as a result of flood and drought. In addition, there will be considerable financial losses in the countries affected. It is pleasing to see support for the Copenhagen launch fund proposal, which would help developing nations to tackle the effect of climate change-by encouraging reforestation, for example-and be paid for by the big polluters.

I believe that wealthier nations have a duty to share resources and provide funds to developing countries in order to assist them in adapting to the costs of climate change. Emerging economies such as India also have an important role to play, especially as the majority of global energy demand by 2030 is expected to come from those countries. The French premier, Nicolas Sarkozy, attended and addressed the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago, demonstrating that he acknowledges the significance of the Commonwealth and the reality that it is growing in stature and can be an important agenda setter.

I support the agreement reached by the Commonwealth states to remove barriers to healthcare for women and children in poorer nations. That is especially relevant, as the British Medical Journal has suggested that a lack of funds is responsible for approximately 233,000 child deaths in 20 African countries each year. It will also contribute to helping the secretariat to achieve the millennium development goals that relate to child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases. The Commonwealth is home to 60 per cent of the world’s HIV victims and HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for adults aged between 25 and 44 in the Caribbean. I would be grateful if the Minister could shed light on reports that the Commonwealth Foundation has reallocated funds to tackle HIV/AIDS in favour of cultural activities. Does the Minister feel that this would be counterproductive?

There were other significant developments last month in the Caribbean. The organisation continued to grow: Rwanda was welcomed into the fold. It is a testament to the Rwandan people that they have advanced so quickly and firmly down the democratic path after the atrocities of the 1990s. Entry into the Commonwealth will encourage Rwanda to continue to develop from the strides that it has taken since the 1994 genocide. President Kagame has rightly attracted praise for his astute leadership of Rwanda. Fifteen years ago, Commonwealth membership would have been a distant dream to that nation ravaged by war, but it is now a reality.

The Commonwealth has previously admitted Mozambique, which is of course a former Portuguese colony, and that is to be applauded. Ultimately, this is what the Commonwealth is all about: it is a club based on shared values and democracies. After all, the Commonwealth’s official stated goal is,

“to build stronger democratic institutions and processes across the Commonwealth”.

For the Commonwealth, this is a crucial step. We must continue to expand the Commonwealth’s membership if countries aspire to its core values. Only in this way can we maintain its relevance in a crowded international space. The conflict resolution programme ought to be expanded so that it is able to offer support to non-Commonwealth states if desired, with experts assigned the central goal of peaceful outcomes. The Commonwealth family has a moral duty to many of its neighbours in the wider interests of regional security and democratic values. The Commonwealth’s success in addressing the causes of state failure in Lesotho, Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Kenya should be harnessed and built on through mechanisms of conflict resolution.

The Commonwealth played a significant role in the ending of apartheid in South Africa, which highlights what this organisation can achieve. We can resolve to find a lasting settlement to the conflict between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I was recently in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, where I met the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, who would like to see a resolution to this long-standing dispute.

The Commonwealth is committed to advancing human rights in member nations. It must be bold in response to countries that show a blatant disregard for their citizens’ human rights. The Commonwealth must remain a beacon of tolerance. The Ugandan private member’s Bill that calls for life imprisonment or the death sentence for those convicted of homosexuality runs counter to the core beliefs of the organisation. What recent discussions have the Government had with members of the Ugandan Administration about this unsavoury proposal? The Commonwealth should entertain the prospect of creating an independent body to investigate successfully allegations of human rights abuses. This will end the reluctance of nation states to criticise each other for fear of harming bilateral relations.

In addition, there have been human rights abuses in Gambia and a war in Sri Lanka, which, unfortunately, have gone unmentioned by the Commonwealth. What is the Government’s view on how active the Commonwealth has been in highlighting these issues of concern in Commonwealth countries?

It is in Britain’s economic interests to take a greater role in promoting the virtues of the Commonwealth. As I said, the Commonwealth’s 2 billion inhabitants account for close to 30 per cent of the world’s population and contribute to approximately one-quarter of its economy. The linguistic and administrative legacy of British rule suggests that it would cost less to trade within the Commonwealth than outside the organisation.

The Commonwealth is made up of both developing and developed countries. These countries include some states that manufacture goods and machinery and others that produce raw materials. It would be a good fit if we can foster closer trade links between these countries within the Commonwealth. The growth of some of Britain’s ex-colonies, particularly India, provides abundant opportunities for economic development and closer business ties globally within the Commonwealth. Business and trade not only bring wealth to the nations but help considerably in building people-to-people connections.

I will address the question of funding. The UK Department for International Development currently provides 30 per cent of funds to the Commonwealth through bilateral development programmes, the Commonwealth Secretariat and developing autonomous Commonwealth bodies. What discussions, if any, have been held to work out a funding formula that takes into account the rising economic prowess of India, for example, so that all member states are contributing according to their means?

The Commonwealth is a unique organisation, which possesses characteristics that are different from those of other international organisations. For example, the G20 does not bring together states at different stages of the economic cycle; the Commonwealth does. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth said in his recent maiden speech:

“We are a family of equals, not just a family of nations”.

This emphasises that all nations are equal, something that even the United Nations does not possess with its layered structure and limited access to some of its councils.

I am, however, concerned about the lack of awareness of the importance of the Commonwealth. A recent report by the Royal Commonwealth Society stated that the organisation continued to have a “worryingly low profile” among both the public and policy-makers and that less than a third of people could name anything that the Commonwealth does. According to the report, there is widespread confusion about what the Commonwealth stands for today. The report further states that, while the Commonwealth does good work in many areas, there are calls for it to focus on where it can add value. The report incorporates a number of critical remarks by various people and is a wake-up call to the Commonwealth, which urgently needs to raise its profile. The report further argues that the Commonwealth must refocus on its principles, priorities and people. We clearly have greater work to do in placing the Commonwealth at the heart of our foreign policy agenda.

I should like to see increased engagement of the United Kingdom in the future. Will the Minister give a firm commitment that this Government will engage productively and build on what was achieved in Trinidad and Tobago? The clear challenges that the Commonwealth faces cannot be shirked. Zimbabwe is currently a pariah state. Fiji has been suspended since last September. Re-engagement with these countries has to be crucial in driving the Commonwealth forward. Will the Minister enlighten the House on the discussions that the Government and the Commonwealth have had with Zimbabwe and Fiji about allowing them back into the organisation?

On humanitarian issues, I have previously spoken in your Lordships’ House about the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and I welcome the decision of the Sri Lankan Government to open camps for internally displaced people. I hope that the Commonwealth can assist the Sri Lankan Government in honouring their pledge to resettle the majority of displaced citizens by the end of this year and to close the internment camps by 31 January 2010. Are Her Majesty’s Government playing a role in this regard?

I strongly believe in the Commonwealth as one of the key strings to our international bow. The old adage of democracies not going to war with other democracies comes to mind when discussing this, which is why I am such a supporter. Common values, shared culture and recognisable institutions across the globe offer the structural hope for a better world. From a democratic basis we can ensure socio-economic development; this is where the Commonwealth’s true value lies. I implore this Government and future Governments to remember this club’s importance as a mutually beneficial tool to rich and poor, strong and weak, in building a more consensual planet.



A number of Peers took part in the debate and the response was given by Baroness Kinnock, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Lord Sheikh’s closing remarks were as follows:


My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude to the Minister for the comprehensive route she has taken in responding to this debate. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part and made this such an interesting and informative debate.
While in my submission I portrayed an overall picture of the Commonwealth and tried to encompass salient topics, I am pleased that noble Lords have spoken on specific points. To save time, I am not able to mention the names of the noble Lords who made various points, but I will however say what those points were. They included: democratic values; extra funding for the commonwealth; the views of Pandit Nehru; the Harare Declaration; the Commonwealth youth credit initiative; how to combat poverty and corruption; trade between India and Pakistan; the Commonwealth Games in India; the free trade arrangement; the work of the Commonwealth Business Council; the work of the CPA; the respect for the Queen in the Commonwealth; the work of civil society; the judiciary in the Commonwealth and training of judges; the role of cricket in bringing people together; the role of the Commonwealth People’s Forum; and the contribution of Commonwealth citizens to the well-being and advancement of the United Kingdom.
I was brought up in a British colony; when I was a young boy we had Empire Day, and the empire resulted in the Commonwealth. It is imperative that Commonwealth Day is always celebrated; we must not be complacent and must look critically at issues which need improvement. It is a unique club, indeed, and all members, including Great Britain, need to address all the issues raised today. I hope that what has been said here has an impact on improving the Commonwealth as a whole. Against that background, with great appreciation for all those who have taken part, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.