What can we expect from Patricia Scotland?

On 1st April 2016 Baroness Patricia Scotland will become Commonwealth Secretary-General (SG). David Cameron has called her “the right person” to promote “human rights, democracy and the rule of law”. But what can we expect from our new SG?

The newly elected Secretary-General Designate

With an impressive track record in the law and government, Baroness Scotland is well prepared to lead the organisation whichover the past decade has faced repeated claims of irrelevance. Making real progress on human rights will help to counter this impression. Two areas where there is clear room for progress, and on which the SG Designate has already spoken are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and (LGBT) rights, and advancing the position of women. We can expect these to be on the agenda for debate, and hopefully also on the agenda for CHOGM 2018.

The new SG’s approach to human rights will be one of persuasion and conversation. As she has acknowledged “[i]t will be a tortuous journey,” but has also promised to “use every fiber [sic] in my body to fight for equality.”

The need for the improvement of LGBT rights is clear: 80% of member states have laws criminalising LGBT people in some way, and more than half of the 78 countries which continue to criminalise same-sex behaviour are within the Commonwealth. However, while there is much scope, and for progress Baroness Scotland has noted publicly the Commonwealth does “not have the right or opportunity to force states [to make advances on LGBT issues].” This, and the need to make decisions by consensus has led Baroness Scotland to begin framing human rights in terms of the “economic value of equality,” stating that “[h]uman rights and development go hand in hand.” This approach could prove to be the most effective at her disposal; linking human rights reforms to development gives the SG Designate an opportunity to bring up sensitive issues in a non-confrontational way, and the current legal arrangements estimated to cost some member states more than 1% of GDP.

Much has been made of Baroness Scotland being the first woman elected to the position, but that only three of her 53 electors were women reveals a truer picture. As she said in Malta, “[o]ne in three women in our world suffer from domestic violence. It’s the greatest cause of morbidity between women and girls, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, child abduction… these issues affect all of us.” As with LGBT issues the new SG will need to forge consensus. However, there already exists a strong narrative around gender and development that Baroness Scotland can tap into. The OECD is not alone in arguing that “women’s economic empowerment is a prerequisite for sustainable development, pro-poor growth and the achievement of all of the MDGs.”

So, a “tortuous” journey awaits the new SG, and she will attempt to ensure that all nations of the commonwealth travel with her on it, pulling people towards improvement with diplomacy and advocacy that demonstrates that when countries improve their human rights they develop faster and further.

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