As Malta prepares to welcome Commonwealth Heads of Government to their biennial meeting from 27 to 29 November, the refugee crisis facing many member countries could dominate an already crowded agenda.
A European Union Summit in Malta on migration earlier in November followed by a G20 summit in Turkey is likely set the scene for an issue that observers say can’t be avoided. Malta itself has been described as ‘almost sinking’ under the weight of refugees. Climate change is another pressing issue, considering that that a significant number of Commonwealth members are small island states, some already experiencing inundation and destruction from extreme weather events.
Yet another priority will be addressing the problems facing a number of member countries in countering violent extremism and radicalisation.
One of the most important decisions for the Malta CHOGM, however, is to appoint a new SecretaryGeneral to replace Kamalesh Sharma, who will complete his second four-year term. Mr Sharma, formerly India’s High Commissioner to London, has been seen by many observers of Commonwealth affairs as too conservative and set in his ways to be an effective leader. The appointment of a successor is seen as an opportunity for Heads to bring new life to a once-vigorous and proactive institution that has become moribund.
The role of the Secretary-General is considered crucial in setting the course for how the Commonwealth will be run and how effective it will be in applying the principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights that bind member states to uphold. In recent years, these principles have often been flouted, with no effective response from either the Secretary-General or the Commonwealth Ministerial Advisory Group (CMAG). This is despite the 2011 Perth CHOGM agreeing that the Secretary-General should speak out publicly in expressing disapproval of ‘serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values’. CMAG’s role as watchdog for Commonwealth principles was similarly endorsed.
The new Secretary-General is likely to be from four main contenders. Patricia Scotland, Baroness Scotland of Asthar, born in Dominica, was educated in the UK and was Attorney-General in the Blair government. She was the youngest QC, at aged 35, since Pitt the Younger. Another possibility is Gabaipone Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba from Botswana, educated in London in science and law, who held various high level positions in government and corporate affairs in Botswana and the UK before appointment as a Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General. Her term finished in 2014.
The Tanzanian Foreign Minister and current chair of CMAG, Bernard Membe, is also in the running, along with Sir Ronald Sanders, Ambassador to Washington for Antigua and Barbuda, who played an important role on the Eminent Persons’ Group whose recommendations to the Perth CHOGM on the future of the Commonwealth dominated the meeting. The Group’s proposed Commonwealth Charter, setting out fundamental principles, values and aspirations of the people of the Commonwealth was endorsed at the meeting.
Commonwealth observers over recent years have noted that the length of the CHOGM agenda has been growing with each meeting (the draft agenda for the Malta meeting is rumoured to be 10 pages). There is also concern about the length of the joint communiqué issued by Heads at the end of their three-day meeting. The Sri Lanka CHOGM statement in 2013 covered 98 topics and ran to over 8000 words.