My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for securing this timely debate ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next month in Australia. I strongly believe in the Commonwealth and I have spoken in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere on this subject many times. I personally know high commissioners of several countries and have met leaders of their diasporas in the United Kingdom. I am interested in foreign affairs and have visited several Commonwealth countries.
The Commonwealth stands as a beacon to the global community. Membership shows a commitment to democracy, good governance and the rule of law. It is understandable why so many countries take great pride in their membership, and why the number wishing to join expands frequently. The Speaker of the Parliament of Norfolk Island referred to the Commonwealth as,
This sentiment was reiterated by the chair of the CPA International Executive Committee when he identified the need for greater attention to be focused on the challenges facing smaller branches and the island states. It must, however, be emphasised that the Commonwealth is an organisation of equals. Smaller and economically vulnerable states are all given equal weight in the organisation. We are all aware that this is not the case in many other international organisations.
In choosing to address the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary reaffirmed the importance of the association to the wider aims of the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister characterised the Commonwealth as modern, mainstream and practical. This seems to be a fairly relevant summary.
The Commonwealth’s 2 billion inhabitants account for approximately 30 per cent of the world’s population. It has been estimated that this translates to a contribution of one-quarter of the global economy. In excess of $3 trillion dollars worth of trade occurs annually within the Commonwealth. The combined gross domestic product of the organisation is thought to have almost doubled between 1990 and 2009. Member nations include India, South Africa, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore. These countries are among the fastest growing economies and are certain to shape the future of the global economy.
I welcome announcements by the Department for International Development that it will invest in Commonwealth countries separately to the United Kingdom’s annual contribution to Commonwealth institutions and development programmes. A number of member nations are reliant upon the organisation’s support in the area of development.
In choosing the right honourable Member for Kensington and Chelsea as our representative on the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group, we have an individual with a wealth of expertise in international politics. The group has been asked to make recommendations on improving efficiency within the Commonwealth. I, like many other Members of your Lordships’ House, look forward to reading its proposals.
It is argued by some that because the affairs of the Commonwealth are not legally binding, the organisation is weaker and its power is relatively less than, say, that of the European Union. I would, however, argue that this is a misunderstanding. It is the voluntary nature of the body and the common bond which provides its very strength. Indeed, the Commonwealth remains a forum for debating important issues affecting our world.
The Commonwealth comprises 54 nations, which represent each of the world’s prominent religions. I am actively involved in building harmonious relationships between various racial and religious groups, and I believe that the Commonwealth is a marvellous platform to bring people together under one umbrella. It is home to 800 million Hindus, 500 million Muslims and 400 million Christians. It is an important multilateral organisation that demonstrates the effective use of soft power in international relations. I would like to see Commonwealth countries more actively involved in conflict resolution and building stronger business links between the various countries.
The membership of Mozambique and Rwanda speaks volumes about the influence and prestige of the Commonwealth as a unique association in welcoming countries who do not have links to the British Empire. However, Zimbabwe and Fiji cause us concern. I would be grateful if the Minister could provide an update on Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to engage with these countries.
The Commonwealth includes Sri Lanka, a country that has failed to reach its full potential because of ethnic tensions that have blighted the lives of many. I visited Sri Lanka as a member of a parliamentary delegation-the visit was organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association-and I was impressed with the recent developments following the hostilities. My Lords, my time is up, so I will sit down.