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The Commonwealth Heads of Government: a question of leadership

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The disastrous decision for Sri Lanka to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which takes place 10-17 November, has come back to bite the Commonwealth on the backside. The Canadian and Indian heads of government have refused to attend, marking the first public boycott by heads at a CHOGM and implicitly snubbing Prince Charles as the Queen's representative.

Hard-hitting reportage, such as the BBC's Our_World_Sri_Lanka's_Unfinished_War and critical comment in The Financial Times and The London Review of Books has highlighted the host government's miserable human rights record. This follows the October 2013 report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative on Colombo's political detentions, persecution of the media, and failure to appoint an independent commission to investigate atrocities committed by both sides during the civil war. Indeed, an implicit North/South divide seems to have opened up in this unique association of 53 sovereign states, between the advocates of democracy and human rights, and those governments that emphasise development before constitutionalism and remain suspicious of and resistant to outside pressures to respect universal human rights.

The Commonwealth is no stranger to crisis. Controversy has surrounded numerous CHOGM meetings over the years, notably during impassioned debate in the apartheid era. The choice of Nassau in 1985 was controversial because of the Prime Minister Lynden Pindling's alleged connections with international drugs smuggling. Lusaka in 1979 was on the front line of the conflict between Rhodesian security forces and Zimbabwe liberation fighters. The 1989 Kuala Lumpur meeting was set against Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's previous 'disenchantment' with the Commonwealth. Yet the Commonwealth has proved able to re-invent itself at times of crisis, and CHOGM meetings have been both a catalyst for controversy and a forum for resolution.

In 2012 The Institute of Commonwealth Studies began an AHRC-funded oral history of the Commonwealth, involving over 60 extended interviews with leading politicians, diplomats, civil servants and journalists, to shine a light on the unseen management of such contentious issues and the lessons of these conflicts for the Commonwealth today. As part of this project, the former Commonwealth Secretary General Sir Sonny Ramphal will draw on his long stewardship, 1975-1990, to discuss these past lessons at Senate House on 14 November.(A podcast will be available after the event.)

This week the first batch of interviews are published on The Commonwealth Oral History Project website. The project continues until 2015 but the interviews so far underline the critical question of leadership, from the Commonwealth Secretary General and Secretariat as a proactive small international organisation, exploiting the policy space provided by the Commonwealth and its filigree of leader and professional networks, rather than waiting for instruction from Commonwealth heads of government. For example, much preparation went into the 1979 Lusaka CHOGM by Sir Sonny Ramphal, and key members of his team, to encourage the British Government to convene an all party conference on the long-running Rhodesia/Zimbabwe crisis. Management of the press was vital and the Commonwealth spokesperson was intimately involved in policy discussions. (This was not the case at later CHOGM meetings.)

But as the interviews demonstrate, leadership can never be the sole responsibility of the Secretary General, and must be in conjunction with individual Commonwealth leaders' proactive pursuit of a clear moral strategy and a willingness to take risks. The interviews underline that the Commonwealth functioned best when key leaders actively collaborated with the Secretary General, rather than focused on a bilateral relationship with other Commonwealth countries. Talking to over 30 Commonwealth leaders and insiders emphasizes the invaluable attributes of leadership are common to all good diplomacy: patience, restraint, tolerance, but also toughness and clear-sighted focus on the desired goal.

This leadership is adept at exercising 'Track 2 diplomacy' - talking to the morally dubious, without endorsing repressive policies, and emphasising a communality of interest in reaching agreement. This is where the Commonwealth appears now to have come unstuck. In the era of apartheid, the Commonwealth had a 'good news' story - opposition to racial oppression and injustice. The interviews bear out that the Commonwealth's public pressure and support for negotiation between all sides (in 1986, and particularly 1990-1994), contributed to South Africa's transition; but so too did Margaret Thatcher's resistance to sanctions and preparedness to talk tough to the South African government.

Since the end of apartheid, the Commonwealth's USP has become more problematic and especially since 2008, so too has twin track diplomacy. It has a declared practice of 'good offices' - quiet mediation, of which the former British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, with his antipathy to 'megaphone' diplomacy, would approve. However, Carrington also believed in toughness, and practised it adeptly. The Commonwealth has not been tough enough on Sri Lanka. Good offices are all very well, but a media savvy general public wants and needs to feel that private pressure produces results, and doesn't allow offenders to avoid the consequences of international law.

The Commonwealth is now much larger and more diverse, with 32 small states in the Caribbean and Pacific. The international political economy and community have altered dramatically since the end of the Cold War, and the drive for democratisation has become more complex and problematic. These developments come when the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings have become more of a media spectacle than before, and the space for private informal discussion between heads has been eroded.

The Commonwealth has recently been called 'a dead parrot' and the record of most heads on the issue of Sri Lanka has been shameful. Yet the Colombo meeting currently underway offers the opportunity for heads to 'speak truth to power' - the Sri Lankan government needs international and Commonwealth support as it continues the task of reconstruction and conflict resolution.

The Chairperson-in-Office position should be abolished. This would avoid the travesty of Sri Lanka acting as Commonwealth spokesperson for the next two years and scrutinising human and political rights violations as part of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). The Commonwealth must not turn a blind eye to continued extensive human rights abuses - as it did following the Lusaka CHOGM and Zimbabwean independence when state-directed violence lead to the death of 20,000-30,000 civilians during 1982-87. The nine-member Eminent Persons Group Report 'A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform', presented to the Perth CHOGM, was designed to re-energise the Commonwealth and to expand CMAG's authority and remit. The Commonwealth must remember and learn from past mistakes, as well as past claimed triumphs.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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