‘Commonwealth is a great global good’

Kamalesh Sharma at the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey in London.— Photo: Reuters  

As he prepares to hand over the leadership of the Commonwealth after eight years in the driver’s seat, Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma is of the view that the Commonwealth is more relevant than ever before, with “its face turned firmly to the future”, despite what doomsters say. With a charter crafted under his guidance and accepted by the 53 members of the Commonwealth in 2012, the organisation has become an incubator for big-ticket ideas such as the Multilateral Debt Swap for Climate Action adopted at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta.

“The Commonwealth is not a boutique organisation; it is a great global good. And because of its composition, if the Commonwealth can agree on something important, it is already a prototype of a global idea,” said Mr. Sharma in an interview with The Hindu in his office in Marlborough House, the grand 300-year-old building that houses the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.

The Commonwealth charter

The importance of the Commonwealth charter — Mr. Sharma called its adoption a “watershed” that emerged after widespread consultation including with civil society — arises not just for the message and goals it envisions but also because it represents a political carte blanche from 53 member states to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which is tasked with assessing and dealing with serious or persistent violations of the core values represented in the charter.

“One thing I have been careful about as Secretary-General is to work after political clearance is available from the heads of government. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of time doing things with very uncertain prospects,” he said. “So, I spent two years in the CMAG getting that clearance and then we spent two years in determining what these goals can be. Member states agreed that these are no longer entirely internal matters to discuss within the Commonwealth as opportunity offers, but in a very formal way in which we can be held to performance.”

The 16-point charter makes it incumbent on member states to hold free, fair and credible elections; ensure the separation of the powers of the executive, legislature and judiciary; ensure the independence of the judiciary; provide space for an opposition and civil society to function freely; and give the media a level playing field to function in.

Mr. Sharma agreed that the role of the CMAG has been considerably strengthened during his tenure because of the charter guidelines. “It is an evolving body,” he said.

Many countries have come on the agenda of the CMAG. Most recently, it gave the Maldives government a one-month ultimatum to begin talks with the opposition in the country. “You have to make sure that progress is real. Good offices continue, the Secretary-General will be sending a special envoy to see that progress is maintained. But the fact that these visits have been accepted by the Maldives is a positive sign, and at the spring meeting of the CMAG, the government will submit a report on where they are and what progress has been made,” he said.

Mr. Sharma pointed out that other multilateral agencies have adopted some of the ideas developed within the Commonwealth. “Take the concept of resilience and vulnerability of economies, an idea developed after I came,” he said. “We have to go beyond the notion of least developed countries graduating into middle-income countries because that is too static. In an interdependent world, where exogenous shocks can upset you, whether it is fuel prices, or food prices, or financial crises… or even natural disasters for small states particularly, you can be thrown back, and then the distinction between a low-income and middle-income state becomes very thin. For middle-income states in the Pacific and Caribbean, one typhoon or hurricane puts them back 10 to 15 years.” The Commonwealth set up programmes to cover financial risks faced by small states in trading, like the multilateral debt swap and the Climate Finance Access hub.

Meanwhile, digitisation has made the slogan “round the clock and round the world” possible for the Commonwealth through a programme called Commonwealth Connects. Several programmes have grown exponentially. One of them is Common Health, a dedicated Web platform to advance public health and the leading health hub after the World Health Organisation. Mr. Sharma argued that the Commonwealth today leads in citizen and governance initiatives — whether in the fields of climate change, youth development, health, and electoral oversight.

Handling criticism

Criticism of the Commonwealth’s role and Mr. Sharma’s leadership peaked in the lead-up to CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka. Human rights groups and pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam organisations in Britain accused him of soft-pedalling the human rights abuses of the Rajapaksa regime, which in turn led to some heads of government boycotting the meeting.

Mr. Sharma dismissed this criticism. “The most important point about the Commonwealth is that it engages with member states to advance the values template,” he said. “I made five visits to Sri Lanka, but you can’t keep on talking about it in public for the reason that work has to be done below the radar to carry political conviction. The results become visible at the end.” He started the practice of issuing departure statements so that citizens were clear about why he had come and what he had achieved.

Mr. Sharma pointed to the present Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the role the Commonwealth played, and the practical steps taken in the form of round tables on reconciliation, and in training observers for the elections: “In the case of appointments to senior judicial offices, I spelt my disappointment very clearly, and we gave a compendium to the Rajapaksa government of best practices in the Commonwealth.”

Challenges remain. There is still widespread resistence within several Commonwealth countries to the legalisation of gay rights, and to correcting gender and religious inequalities. “The terrain is very uneven,” Mr. Sharma said. “We can only urge that countries travel in the direction of our values.”


I made five visits to Sri Lanka, but you can’t keep on talking about it in public for the reason that work has to be done below the radar to carry political conviction. The results become visible at the end

I made five visits to Sri Lanka, but you can’t keep on talking about it in public for the reason that work has to be done below the radar to carry political conviction. The results become visible at the end