The Commonwealth At 50 Shared Values; Shared Vision

  • Don McKinnon
Foreign Affairs and Trade

Let me start by saying what a pleasure it is to be back in Kenya. This is my third visit here. The last time was in 1993 on my way to Somalia where New Zealand had peacekeepers working with the UN. Prior to that was attending a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Nairobi in 1984.

I am looking forward this time to discussing a range of issues with President arap Moi, Foreign Minister Godana, and other members of the Government in the next day or so.

I am also delighted to be here in Kenya to celebrate Commonwealth Day. It is especially timely because next month marks the 50th anniversary of the London Declaration, on which the modern Commonwealth was founded.

On Commonwealth Day, and at the edge of a new Millennium, it is timely to tackle the questions which many ask: what is the Commonwealth' Where is it going' Why are we members' And, what is its future'

Even the term 'Commonwealth' is subject to question and some confusion. There are many Commonwealths: the Commonwealth of Independent States in what used to be the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States, the Commonwealth of Australia in my own Pacific home region, to name just a few. But what we are talking about here is just known as 'the Commonwealth'. It doesn't have any other designation except when it is some times wrongly referred to as the 'British Commonwealth'.

Defining the Commonwealth

'Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind.' W.H.Auden

So what exactly is this modern Commonwealth'

Well, it is a well-balanced mix of states, including the world's largest democracy and also some of its smallest. It has developed, developing, and least developed states. To put it into perspective, the Commonwealth encompasses virtually every region, religion, and race.

Since 1949, the number of member countries has risen almost seven-fold from 8 to 54; some 1.7 billion people, or one quarter of all the people on our planet, belong. It can be found here in Africa, in Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, Europe, and North America.

The Commonwealth is also about the social cement which binds its members together internally, and to each other. It supports a sense of nationhood and

national identity, a sense of belonging, which is simply not found by examining the boundary lines on a map.

In fact, the days of membership being defined by the red shading on the atlas are long gone relics of a former empire. The London Declaration in 1949 created the modern membership, bound by common beliefs and values, and equality. It remains unparalleled in world history: the smallest and most vulnerable thereafter carried the same weight of influence as the largest and most secure.

The Commonwealth is not, however, like other international organisations - it isn't just an association or a meeting of governments. It is also very much an association of people, and people who feel proud and strongly about the ties that bind them together.

It is, in fact, the extensive range of non-governmental associations that makes the organisation what it is - the Commonwealth Medical Association; the Commonwealth Press Union; the Commonwealth Engineers' Council; the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council; the list goes on. And, of course, the Commonwealth Games regularly unite us all in sport.

No one with a blank piece of paper could possibly have designed the Commonwealth the way it is: the architecture is large and complex, but such diversity also gives it strength and positive influence.

So it's an organisation with history, depth, and a variety of purposes. Time will continue to build up the picture of what it is all about. However dwelling on descriptive terms such as 'North' versus 'South', or 'Developed' versus 'Developing', or 'Old Commonwealth' versus 'New' runs the risk of polarising and alienating members, undermining a uniquely egalitarian group of nations and misrepresenting an amazing organisation of states.

What the Commonwealth is about is our shared heritage and language which gives its basis for existence, and common experiences which draw us together, as equal partners, no matter what part of the globe we call home.

The Commonwealth's Value and Worth

To understand the value of Commonwealth membership, one must begin by looking inwards, at ourselves. People value a sense of belonging to something which is familiar. They like to know where they have come from and where they feel comfortable; where home is and why.

In the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori people, they like to know their 'whakapapa'. The whakapapa is their lineage; it concerns where you fit in to your extended family, where your ancestors walked, used to live, fish, hunt. And belonging to the Commonwealth tells people about their own past, present, and future. Most of us here today were born as Commonwealth citizens, have grown up in its extended family, and our futures lie with it. It is part of our whakapapa.

For small countries in the Commonwealth, there is a well-founded belief that their concerns can be given greater emphasis, that they can deploy leverage, and that they can work more effectively when they work collectively. For larger countries, membership provides the opportunity to develop support with others

who have common cause and close contact.

All know - small and large - that they have easy access to each other and must have an intimate knowledge of the others.

When I became New Zealand's Foreign Minister almost ten years ago I soon learned that, when phoning a fellow Commonwealth Foreign Minister, you had an immediate empathy with a counterpart which was not always apparent with Ministers from countries that aren't part of the Commonwealth family.

In a world where people want their voice to be heard or want people to respond to their telephone calls, being part of a larger family or part of a group with a common heritage and understanding, is extremely useful.

Over recent years the Commonwealth has grown in status. It has found a voice on matters of governance and social justice. After a period where its continuing relevance was questioned by some, it has grown in size and authority. One cannot ignore the fact that the Commonwealth has a queue of prospective members. Nations have joined, and others have sought to rejoin, because they have taken a hard-headed assessment, and judge that the organisation has a good deal to offer.

So what do we want or expect of the Commonwealth now'

Whether we live in Nairobi, Napier, Nova Scotia or New Delhi, the answer is diverse because we all want something different. We each want to advance our own ideas, our own causes, our own interests. No individual has a mortgage on the agenda. It is a collective in which any country is free to work with others to tackle the issues of today and tomorrow.

But one must start from the premise - at the governmental level at least - that it is Heads of Government at their regular CHOGMs who decide such matters that should be pursued. One should also acknowledge that the Commonwealth should strengthen the ties that bind it together and build on its successes.

I personally have also taken the view that the Commonwealth, at its governmental level, is an organisation which should not seek to duplicate the work of other international organisations. It should remain a flexible rather than a rigid structure. It is a living, functioning institution that must constantly adapt to the wishes of its membership, even though establishing those wishes, establishing a consensus, can sometimes take time.

The Commonwealth is an organisation which has survived because it has changed, it has moved with the times, it has adapted in order to be relevant. It must continue to do so, not only for tomorrow but, of course, into the new Millennium which is just around the corner.

The Commonwealth's Agenda

The Commonwealth's raison d'etre, and its core values, are important. So, too, is its day-to-day activity:

Practical Assistance

'Don't just give us food that feeds us; give us fishing rods and nets, and we not only feed ourselves but we teach ourselves also.' Cook Islands Villagers

One such area is Commonwealth technical cooperation, through mechanisms such as the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation - or CFTC - the Trade and

Investment Facility, the Commonwealth of Learning, and the Legal Advisory Service.

The CFTC alone will channel over £20 million this year in technical and other assistance throughout the membership. That will largely be used for experts to provide advice on the use of natural resources, public sector reform, science and technology, and a whole range of other subjects. It is an aspect of Commonwealth activity which typifies one of the organisation's strengths - its focus on giving practical assistance at the grassroots level.

Unfortunately, the CFTC has suffered a reduction in income during this decade. Foreign exchange and other issues have had some impact. And it is also perhaps due to a general decline in the levels of aid flowing from the developed to the developing world.

To maximise its value, it must not, as previously stated, try to replicate what the larger or more specialised international agencies like UNDP or the World Bank can do better. The CFTC should concentrate on where it can add value.

It may also be timely to re-examine the CFTC's internal workings. It used to spend only about 9% of its income on administration. That has crept up now to be on a par with the UN, at about 15%. A lower level is achievable: New Zealand's aid budget administration figure of 6% demonstrates this. It allows funding to be taken from the administrative tail and used at the sharp end where it can be most useful.

I am not suggesting that New Zealand should be the role model. But I am suggesting that the CFTC is one of the jewels in the Commonwealth's crown, and that there is scope to increase funding as well as the way it is spent. I am also suggesting that the CFTC's future depends on it being seen positively by those who donate to it as well as by those who benefit from it.

My own immediate experience is the South Pacific. There I have learned that tremendous gains can be made in peoples lives with well targeted village projects. There are thousands of projects that do not cost a lot of money. It's not about building tower blocks but about giving tools and information to the people.

It was conveyed to me by the people of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. They said to me, when looking at possible aid projects in their villages, 'Don't give us food to eat that only feeds us; give us fishing rods and nets, and we not only feed ourselves but we teach ourselves also.'

Good Governance

'We believe in the liberty of the individual under the law...and in the individual's inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives.' Extract from Harare Commonwealth Declaration, 1991

Now to the role of institutions, inherited from Britain, that prevail in most Commonwealth countries along with the dominance of the English language. These are all part of the strong fabric which holds us together: the representative democracy, parliamentary procedures, the independent judiciary, a non political

public service. Institutions within which, and with varying degrees, we feel comfortable. But institutions that are constantly adapting to a changing world.

The Commonwealth has been busily involved in managing the problems that have come with pluralism. The organisation has undertaken excellent work through exchanges - the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting which I attended here fifteen years ago, and the CPA meeting which we hosted just last year in New Zealand are good examples.

There have also been the technical and training missions, election observers, and so on. Indeed, election observation has become a hallmark of the Commonwealth's commitment to good governance.

Countries that have seen their elections monitored by fellow Commonwealth citizens know that support from within the greater family is a very valuable gift. With our shared history of parliamentary democracy, we are uniquely placed to offer this, and should continue to build and support democratic government across the membership.

I have been fortunate enough to participate directly in this work, having served for the last four years as Vice Chairman of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). CMAG was formed in 1995 by Heads of Government to give effect to the Harare Declaration. The Declaration itself outlines the membership's expectations of good governance and human rights; CMAG is there to monitor states who violate those standards.

Our focus in CMAG has been on Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. All eight Ministers in CMAG had different views on how to resolve the problems in these countries, coming as we do from Africa, the Caribbean, North America, South East Asia, Europe and the South Pacific. We have had to emerge with proposals which in themselves may not have provided the whole answer, but which had credibility because they were the product of much soul searching, consensus seeking and reflected the diverse nature of Commonwealth membership.

The very fact that this group of member countries was actively examining the management of fellow sovereign states is no insignificant matter, as any student of international affairs knows. However, we did so knowing that the full weight and moral authority of the Commonwealth was behind us. The transition to democratic government under way in Nigeria can be attributed in some measure to this constant Commonwealth effort.

Also let us not forget that 'good governance' is not simply a political issue, but also an economic issue. The two cannot be separated: good governance will prove difficult to achieve without economic development, just as economic development will prove difficult to achieve without good governance.

Conflict Resolution

'The Commonwealth can not negotiate for the world; but it can help the world to negotiate.' Former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal

Turning from the specific to the general, the end of the Cold War, we hoped, would herald a new era of global peace. In some respects it did, especially insofar as cross-border disputes were concerned. But look at developments in the Balkans and some parts of Africa and you can see that the end of superpower competition has also led to new conflicts, especially within national boundaries.

Faced with the lack of external actors capable of suppressing such developments successfully, the Commonwealth undoubtedly has a role to play in conflict prevention and resolution.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General's use of his 'good offices' shows how he and the organisation can contribute creatively and flexibly, and without duplicating the work of others.

The good offices of the Secretary-General have been used a number of times to do just that - developing or encouraging initiatives which can reduce tensions or resolve disputes before they escalate into conflict.

Many member nations deploy their military personnel as peacekeepers all round the world. It has even been suggested to me that we should look to deploy these as Commonwealth Peacekeeping contingents.

From our own experience, we find that our defence personnel benefit greatly in their effectiveness when they are deployed with others who share a common language, training and common military experiences. You may be aware of the conflict which has caused so much loss on Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea - another of our Commonwealth family. Between 10, 000 and 20,000 people have lost their lives in nine years; that is at least twice the number as those killed in the Northern Ireland disputes in the last thirty years, but without the international media spotlight.

Our New Zealand Defence Force personnel have worked alongside counterparts from Australia, Fiji, and Vanuatu to promote a climate of peace, reconciliation, and new beginnings. The task has been made all the easier because of our Commonwealth connections and common military structures.

The Commonwealth of course should be very careful about how it becomes involved - although the organisation is concerned with political, economic, social, and human security that in itself does not automatically qualify it to act, as would the UN, in a military context.

An Economic and Trade Agenda

The Commonwealth has its roots in its economic and trade linkages, and these still exist today. Collectively, the organisation accounts for one fifth of global trade, while typically almost half of member nations' trade is with other Commonwealth countries.

Despite Britain's move to join the then European Community, and the other significant changes to the global trading landscape, this level of intra-Commonwealth trade has remained relatively steady over the last twenty years. In other words, despite all the changes, we still benefit from doing business with each other.

Until 1973, the so-called 'Commonwealth Preferential Area' was a significant trade and investment grouping. I would not wish to see the reformation of a closed trading bloc, but I would like to see the Commonwealth revitalising its economic linkages.

Efforts have been made in the past, for instance, to get our Trade Ministers together, but they become bogged down in the challenges of forging consensus. We should not be dissuaded by this past lack of success. The WTO is striving to develop fair and just global trading rules. Whether we set our goals modestly and aim simply to build a consensus in support of that, or aim more ambitiously to increase the actual level of trade between members, the Commonwealth is an ideal forum.

The emergence of SADC and other regional trade groupings, as well as the ongoing relevance of the ACP grouping, underscore the importance of the trade agenda. Indeed, the ACP negotiations with the European Union are at a critical stage right now, and we are following developments with interest. The fact that Commonwealth membership dominates in many such groupings underscores the potential of the organisation. Commonwealth Finance Ministers work together on finance and investment issues, and can influence the global agenda as a result. I am sure that there is the potential to do more on the trade front.

Small States

In a world of increasing economic globalisation, but also exposure to volatility, unpredictability, and risk, the organisation has experience and indeed an obligation to its members to strengthen the links and to do more. Already, the Commonwealth has quite appropriately taken a lead on behalf of its small states, which make up two thirds of the membership.

I have been fortunate to participate in this particular Commonwealth process too, chairing the Small States Ministerial meeting before the 1995 CHOGM in Auckland. In addition to those regular meetings of small states just before each CHOGM, we took a new step last year. A Ministerial group representing the membership's small states visited Washington, Brussels, Geneva, and London. We were led most effectively by Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados, and our group had Ministers from Lesotho, Mauritius, and Fiji, as well as myself from New Zealand. Our goal was to raise the unique vulnerabilities of small states with the IMF, the EU, and others of the large multilateral agencies.

Some excellent work has since been done jointly with the World Bank on developing a framework which recognises that a small state, whose highest point above sea-level is a couple of metres, and whose trading options are limited to one or two commodities alone, simply must have those vulnerabilities recognised.

And it is not just a matter of small states. The need for countries to balance sustainable economic development with the cost of social delivery systems is a challenge from the developed to the least developed countries, irrespective of size.

Without duplicating others' work, is this not a case where the Commonwealth can exchange experiences and share our collective views with others'

Young People

"How beautiful is youth! How bright it gleams; with its illusions, aspirations, dreams!"


Another aspect of today's world is the growing percentages of young people relative to total populations in most Commonwealth countries. I believe the time is right for an increased effort in tackling the challenges faced by young Commonwealth citizens to allow as many of our youth as possible to be a part of Longfellow's canvas.

There is a wide range of social issues - from urbanisation and social integration, to access to education and the challenges of employment, to HIV awareness, teen pregnancies, drug abuse and other health issues - where the challenges are common to all Commonwealth countries, irrespective of socio-economic status or regional location.

This is an area of Commonwealth activity where I would hope to see fresh thinking and new activity. Over half the organisation's population is under 30 years old: we cannot ignore this. Indeed, it is an investment in the organisation's future.

Last year, the Governments of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda proposed a Commonwealth youth visa - a scheme in which five 17 to 25 year olds would be selected each year to travel and work in each other's countries. The proposal is still being considered and is just one area where the light of youth can gleam brighter.


This leads me to look at the issue of migration which is another area of fertile ground. As I have already suggested tonight, the Commonwealth is unique for the range and number of non-governmental, people-to-people contacts. It is something of an irony that the links between Commonwealth citizens have continued to strengthen rather than weaken in the face of growing immigration barriers over the last few decades.

I think one can be sure that there will be concerns raised by a number of member nations about this, some of which may be difficult to overcome. And some of the concerns are legitimate - any government, for instance, is naturally inclined to consider the availability of jobs for its own citizens before making them available to others.

But it is a further irony in a world where so much is said these days about open global markets and free trade, that a good deal is not said about open and free movement of people. Happily, and despite such constraints, Commonwealth citizens still continue to account in New Zealand for over half of our new permanent immigrants, and over half of our tourists too. 1997/98 Business Year: 17,400 of 30,678 residence approvals