The Commonwealth — Why their Meeting Last Week Mattered

Joseph Muscat, PM of Malta (far right), addressing a press conference about the Commonwealth’s renewed commitment to polio eradication. Alongside him (from left to right) are, Ravi Ravindran, President, Rovi International, Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth Secretary General, Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria Foreign Minister, Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General, Nawaz Sharif, PM of Pakistan, Malcolm Turnbull, PM of Australia.

As over 30 world leaders descended on Malta last weekend for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, a string of questions accompanied them over the ongoing relevancy and practical impact of the Commonwealth. In an age where there is a plethora of global gatherings, many commentators were asking just what is the point of CHOGM?

CHOGM 2015 however demonstrated very clearly the ongoing usefulness of the Commonwealth in the 21st Century and why the association should not be given up on. Just yet.

Living up to its theme “The Commonwealth: Adding Global Value”, CHOGM 2015 produced a number of beneficial outcomes thanks in large part to the creative and innovative diplomacy of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Often having to stare down resistance from other member states and indeed the Commonwealth Secretariat itself, Muscat showed an impressive determination to drive meaning, purpose and relevancy back into a gathering that just a few weeks’ prior had been described as “being the last gasp for the Commonwealth.”

Recognising the close proximity of the COP21 climate talks, CHOGM galvanised consensus and momentum ahead of the crucial negotiations. Hearing addresses from both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and French President Francois Hollande, Commonwealth leaders reached a formal agreement on measures to combat climate change.

While final judgment on the overall usefulness of CHOGM to producing a successful outcome in Paris must be reserved until after COP21 concludes, the fact it managed to achieve convergence and near unanimity on a very focused statement on climate change sent a strong message to the rest of the world at a critical time.

CHOGM 2015 also addressed for the first time the issue of LGBT rights. Despite the fact homosexual behavior is listed as a crime in 41 out of 53 Commonwealth countries, past CHOGMs have failed to even raise this as a cause of concern despite paying lip service to human rights. Not this time around. In his opening address, Muscat openly called for LGBT equality across the Commonwealth lamenting the fact “we are still discussing criminalisation when the debate should be about non-discrimination and equality.”

The mere fact that LGBT rights were addressed is a stark departure from past CHOGM gatherings and may act as a catalyst for further progress and reform. Indeed, there is some hope that the Commonwealth Secretariat will itself take forward the dialogue started by Prime Minister Muscat. Outgoing Secretary-General Khamalesh Sharma raised the issue at the Commonwealth People’s Forum, heralded as a “Commonwealth first” by aids activists, and new Commonwealth Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, has pledged to spend the first two years of her tenure persuading member states to decriminalise homosexuality. If successful, CHOGM 2015 should be given credit as the moment when Commonwealth leaders were first publicly told enough is enough. To again quote Muscat’s opening remarks, “equality is equality.”

Finally, CHOGM 2015 will be remembered as the moment when the world came together to make its final last stand against the debilitating disease of polio, which remains endemic in just two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan. In September, Muscat stood before 60,000 people in New York’s Central Park for the 2016 Global Citizen Festival and pledged to seek a renewal of global support to make polio just the second human disease in history to be eradicated.

Muscat did not disappoint. Despite resistance from some quarters, he succeeded in securing a commitment from Commonwealth leaders to accelerate action and renew financial support to eradicate polio once and for all. In ensuring polio got the attention it deserved, Malta shone a spotlight on, in the words of Baroness Scotland, “an exemplary example of what the Commonwealth can do when it collaborates and works together with focus to bring something about.”

The Commonwealth, like any multilateral network consisting of a diverse grouping of countries from across the world, has its challenges. Many of the constructive outcomes from CHOGM 2015 took place in spite of often heavy resistance from a protocol-laden secretariat, highlighting the need for renewal and a new approach. But for all the naysayers out there, CHOGM 2015 will be remembered for its proactive contributions to climate change, LBGT rights and polio eradication. The challenge ahead of the Commonwealth now will be whether it embraces the approach put forward by Malta. Arguably though it has no other option but to do so.

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Michael Sheldrick is the Head of Global Policy and Advocacy at the Global Poverty Project, where he has coordinated several international advocacy campaigns including in support of universal sanitation, access to education and the eradication of polio, which has helped mobilise more than $800 million in support of global polio eradication efforts. Serving as the organisation’s main representative to the United Nations. He has worked with world leaders and philanthropists from around the world including Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and was instrumental in mobilizing political public support for the UN’s new Global Goals for Sustainable Development — a blueprint that seeks to end extreme poverty by 2030.