This is session 1 of the Witness Seminar, The heartbeat of a modern Commonwealth? The Commonwealth Secretariat 1965-2013 which took place at Marlborough House, London, on 24th June, 2013.
Session participants: (click here for participant biographies)
AB: Amitav Banerji / JK: Joel Kibazo / MM: Muhammad Muda / PMA: Peter Marshall / PR: Patsy Robertson / PW: Peter Williams / RB: Richard Bourne / SC: Stephen Chan / SG: Simon Gimson / SMO: Stuart Mole / VK: Vijay Krishnarayan
JK: Thank you. Thank you very much, Sue. Good morning to all of you. My name is Joel Kibazo and I was Director here of the Communications and Public Affairs Department, also known as the Information Department of the Secretariat. As Sue said, each of us will try and introduce ourselves. Let’s not forget that recordings are being made so it will be very helpful if you introduce yourself as you speak. Just to start straight away, the question for us is how effective, really, has the Office of the Secretary General been since the creation of the Secretariat in 1965? We know that it operates and it was charged with operating very much on an informal basis or getting things done through the informal basis. Sometimes, of course, formal channels had to be used, but has that worked?
At the heart of it, in many ways is what’s at the heart of the way that the Secretariat has tried to work for many years. All of us are colleagues and I think I know most people that are around the table. So, this is really an informal conversation, trying to draw some of those aspects out, so not really to be shy. The conversation is on the record. It’s not Chatham House Rules, so you know. Please be aware of that but at the very least, let’s try and see if we could get to the heart of the issue in terms of how things have worked, both from Stuart and from Simon who are the two people who are going to be speaking in this particular session, after which Professor Stephen Chan will come in as a respondent and respond to some of the key things that will be made. From then on we can engage in a discussion. As you have been advised by Sue, please use the nameplates in the way most of us who have been in this room will know how their nameplates are used. I don’t know whether we should start with Stuart, or Simon now Stuart is here. I thought I heard one of the most amazing train stories. I’ve heard of “leaves on the line” but “cows on the line” is something that I haven’t heard before! But there we are. So, without further ado, Stuart, now that you’re amongst us, please be the one to start and we are grateful that you are here, in spite of all those cows. So 5-10 minutes and then we’ll get to Simon. Thank you.
SMO: If I could just begin with a short anecdote. In 1983 I was working in the UK Parliament and when it was clear that the SDP/ Liberal Alliance wasn’t going to sweep to power, I was looking for other employment. I got my boss, David Steel, to write a host of letters to interesting people including Sonny Ramphal and my knowledge of the Commonwealth at that stage was really confined to my admiration for Sonny Ramphal. What I didn’t know, of course, and I don’t think in any way it had been advertised, was that in the Private Office there was a vacancy not only for Chris Laidlaw’s post, who had gone back to New Zealand but I think Mark Robinson had begun his Welsh period as a Member of Parliament. So, therefore there were two vacancies for Assistant Director in the Private Office.
In due course, a call came to come and see Sonny and I had a very genial chat with Sonny and then I was taken to one side by Moni Malhoutra, and was eviscerated in his office. It was the most humiliating and demeaning experience. Halfway through the interview I gave up altogether. I thought I had nothing further I could possibly say. I got home and threw all my documents I had about the Secretariat into the bin and I thought no more about it. Four weeks later, out of the blue – and indeed on blue notepaper – came a letter of appointment to be Assistant Director in the Secretary General’s Office. For a full six months after coming into the Secretariat there was that terrible nagging fear that there had been some ghastly administrative error and that in fact someone of the same name should have been appointed in my place. There I was, trapped, with someone as my head of office who apparently thought I was a complete worm.
I later realised that arrivals and departures at the Secretariat are, for many people, extremely difficult. Coming into the Secretariat is very difficult, understanding the organisation and also leaving it. Some neither manage to come in successfully or indeed depart well, as far as I can see. I thought that in that anecdote, it did illustrate this. What I think Simon will show is some of the change that have occurred because, even in the Office of the Secretary General, I don’t think people are appointed that way any longer. There has been a huge change in the appointments process.
The way I thought I would begin is to lay out what I think are the four essential functions of the Secretary-General and then, between myself and Simon, see how those functions have been affected by the passing of the years. Now, there is a slight ambiguity when we talk about ‘the Office of the Secretary General’: whether we mean office with a capital ‘O’ and therefore the Secretary General, or his – and it is ‘his’ at the moment – his supporting office. I think in a way, there is no real distinction, because in my experience what one did was entirely to the agenda, at the beck and call, of the Secretary-General. So, you were one and the same, I think.
I feel there are four basic functions of the Secretary-General and his office. First of all, he is the motor of Commonwealth consultation. Secondly, he is the guardian of Commonwealth values. Thirdly, he is the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Finally, he is a protagonist for the Commonwealth. I just want to touch on each of these in turn.
First of all, as a motor of Commonwealth consultation. I think we all know that the Commonwealth’s consultative function is probably its most essential. That interaction with governments – but also in particular with Heads of Government – is absolutely crucial. It’s all in the original Memorandum of Understanding that consultation is the lifeblood of the Commonwealth. The biennial CHOGM is the heartbeat of that consultation. The personal relationship between an SG and Heads of Government is crucially important. Of course, from the very beginning, in the papers that Sue has very helpfully circulated, we are reminded of some of those beginnings.
Officials have sought to interpose themselves in that relationship, to diminish and control that relationship and try and channel it through them. Every Secretary-General has fought against that, to maintain that individual personal connection with Heads. At times, of course, it’s got very difficult indeed. You only have to look at Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (of New Zealand) who famously told Sonny that his job was to keep the minutes. You only have to look at their public exchange in the columns of The Times around the time of the Springboks tour of New Zealand and, as it were, the breaking of the Gleneagles Agreement on Sport to see how, remarkably, a Secretary-General was at public loggerheads with a Head of Government. There are other examples one could choose.
Then there is the way the Retreat has developed at Heads of Government Meetings. Sonny Ramphal’s first Retreat was at Gleneagles in 1977. At that point, he was taking the formula of a small group of key heads of government to try and hammer out the agreement while the rest of the Heads really did go off and play golf, or whatever else they were supposed to do. By Nassau in 1985, that system was beginning to break down and David Lange, the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, said that those outside that charmed circle felt they had their noses pressed against the glass, trying to see what was going on. Of course, the Retreat – and I’ve seen them from ’87 to ’99 – has increasingly become formalised and increasingly resembling what was originally the Executive Sessions of the CHOGM. I remember the time when the issue was, first, whether any Secretariat officials would get into the room with Heads; then whether these officials would sit at a separate table; and then whether officials would be taking any kind of record of the Retreat. Then I remember, I think, Max (Gaylard) saying, “You know, we now need a minute to read into the record to put before Heads so that we have some sort of formal record coming out of the Retreat”. So It was all the time being formalised.
On that question of the relationship of the SG with Heads of Government: I do just want to deal with one myth, which is that it’s sometimes said that Sonny had it easy because he only had to deal with South Africa. South Africa and apartheid was very much a defining issue. Apart from Britain, so the argument goes, everybody was on-side and therefore it wasn’t too much of a problem for the SG. But actually, Sonny did have difficulties, in my experience, with quite a number of Heads of Government on various things, and it wasn’t just South Africa where he was sometimes in conflict. I remember the occasion he first raised HIV-Aids and was roundly condemned by some African governments, in particular, for raising something that was perceived as a gay disease from the United States.
Secondly, the SG as the guardian of Commonwealth values: I think, again, this is a very interesting change that has occurred. Of course, as the guardian of Commonwealth values, there is often the question of dealing with conflict within, and even between, member countries; and the gradual exposure of, at times, the hollow commitment of some Commonwealth countries to democratic values and human rights. I think that exposure came in particular from the battles over apartheid and the way that the media in the UK, for example, was critical of the Commonwealth. But, Arnold Smith, in his early days, had to deal with UDI and Rhodesia, the Biafran Civil War, Pakistan-Bangladesh and the emergence of Bangladesh amid a huge amount of bloodshed and so on. It was that journey from the 1949 Commonwealth where the sanctity of national sovereignty would have been uppermost, to a Commonwealth that became increasingly interventionist and which was relying on other mechanisms, apart from the Secretary-General, such as the formation of CMAG, the Troika etc. to assist in upholding values. One of the questions would be, have all these additional mechanisms actually increased the authority and reach of the Secretary-General? Or have they diminished it? I think that is an important question to ask.
Thirdly, as Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Secretariat: I remember talking to Joy Tilsley from Ottawa, who I think was the very first Secretariat staff member appointed by Arnold Smith. Arnold, who I think knew her from the Canadian Foreign Service, appointed her as his secretary, his P.A., and told her to report to the front gate of Marlborough House on the following Monday, which would be the beginning of the Secretariat’s life. However, he forgot that it was a Bank Holiday, the gates were firmly locked and they both had to start the next day! Of course, Arnold had to create a Secretariat from nothing. He had to fight over the offices. He had to fight over the staff. He had to fight over the functions. He was both reliant on the British in lots of ways in the early days but he was also very much in conflict with them. So, it is very much the Secretary-General’s Secretariat in terms of reputation, and output. I think it’s very much seen through that prism. I think the emphasis, for a long time – maybe it still is but certainly it was then – was on leadership rather than, in any sense, management. I think Sonny was an outstanding leader and I think his staff wanted to live up to the expectations he had for us all. And he had these wonderful charismatic touches like cooking for everybody at his annual Christmas party and everything else. But I don’t think much of this was particularly about management.
By the same token, I think Chief Emeka Anyaoku was forced to have more of a managerial approach, but I wouldn’t say that that was his particular strength. Of course, the other great change was that by 1990 the Secretariat was beginning to contract. Having been through a period of growth ever since 1965 – up to a peak of, I think, 420 staff – then this figure was beginning to come down under Anyaoku, with the whole business of reviews and reorganisations and all the rest of it. There was the increasing introduction of managerial systems where, before, no such thing existed.
Fourthly, as a protagonist for the Commonwealth: I think the Secretary-General is very much the person who defines and projects the Commonwealth by acting, rather than by explanation or description. I think the Commonwealth is always much better when it’s able to describe what it is by what it does, rather than by having to explain what it does. I think that what the Secretary-General does or doesn’t say or do is very much bound up with the Commonwealth’s credibility.
Now, I have mentioned those four essential functions. I do just want to add two very brief comments. First, the relationship to the Head of the Commonwealth, and the Chairperson- in -office; and secondly, I do want to say something about the Commonwealth Foundation.
First of all, one of the interesting things about this period is the paradoxical growth and importance of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. Chief Anyaoku, using his substantial diplomatic skill, brought the Queen into a central role at the 1997 Heads of Government Meeting at Edinburgh. There has been further growth in that position of influence within the Commonwealth in all sorts of ways. Until 1997, the Head was entirely peripheral to the CHOGM. By contrast, I think the Chairperson-in-Office experiment has not proved a particularly happy one and perhaps, if everything goes ahead as we imagine it will in Sri Lanka, we might see a final unravelling of that particular office.
Second, as far as the Foundation is concerned – and I say this in deference to those who are here from the Foundation- I think in my day the Foundation was much more focused on culture, and much more narrowly related only to Commonwealth Associations and, rather passively, grant-giving. It gave the impression of being rather part-time in its approach. Inoke Faletau and Humayun Khan, previous Directors, we both great characters, but didn’t give the impression of being particularly fulltime operators.
One of the emblematic sides of Humayun Khan as Director was his gold-coloured Rolls-Royce parked in the forecourt of Marlborough House, which was an unlikely symbol of civil society, I thought. Then of course there was friction between the Foundation and Chief Anyaoku and the Secretariat, who were trying to develop their relationship with civil society; and later the change in the direction of the Foundation in embracing a broader remit. So, these were interesting developments too. But perhaps I should stop there.Thank you.
JK: Thank you very much, Stuart. Ending on a somewhat interesting note, if I may say so. We’ll go straight into Simon, who will perhaps bring us up to date. Mindful of the fact that we have got Simon and his predecessor [Amitav Banerji] at my side here, so we might also hear that. Simon, if you maybe bring us up to how things work now, where we are, and how you see things from holding that particular office as you do now?
SG: Thank you, Joel. Certainly, I want to acknowledge Stuart’s contribution. I’m conscious also that Amitav Banerji is here. There are three of us who have gone through the ringer of supporting a Secretary-General. I’m conscious that the session we’re dealing with here talks about the internal and external faces of the Secretariat and I can’t think of a better room to do that in, with the portraits of four Secretaries-General of the past are in front of us. One of the things that has always struck me is that Arnold Smith down the end there, has a globe, Sonny Ramphal has a map of the world and Emeka has flags of the Commonwealth states. Now, Don, at the end there, you may think, “Where’s the global angle on that one? Where is the outward-looking external face?” In fact, there was a deliberate discussion with the portrait artist at the time. He’s anchored in the Pacific with a (tapa) type of cloth behind him and he’s looking out of the window because out there is where he put the flags. So, that was his innovation, if you like, to raise the profile of the external face by putting [Commonwealth] flags out on the lawn. That was as close as we could get to globalisation, the outward-looking face. All four SGs, even if it’s hidden in Don’s portrait, there has always been that external face, that external obligation, that external expectation. As I say, I thought it’s a very good room in which to start a conversation about the role of the Secretary-General.
I think one of the things which strike one when looking back at the papers from the mid-60s in looking at what the role of the Secretary-General is – the internal face/external face – is that in fact there is no real job description. So, Secretaries-General can make it up as they go along somewhat. If you look at the paperwork from the 1960s, you’ll see that in fact there was a conversation between two of the member states, then working on the terms of reference, who said that they were simply looking for a “good man”. You know, one would hope at some point we’ll get to a “good woman”! But nonetheless it was very much as simple and as straightforward as that. Indeed, there was another quote I found in those 1960s texts about it being, “unwise to tie the Secretary-General at the outset to overly rigid terms of reference”. So, there was very much a sense of, “let’s just let this thing, this Office of the Secretary-General and the Secretariat itself, grow organically”.
And it is perhaps ironic, and probably not a well-known fact, that it could well have been a New Zealander who could have been the first Secretary-General were it not for a particular incident in Singapore which seemed to have brought on a dose of ill-health; but there we are. The history books will show that in due course, I’m sure.
Certainly, the role of the Secretary-General was to be very much a leader and to be largely autonomous and self-starting; and it was interesting that back then the idea of High Commissioners of member governments becoming too closely embroiled in telling the Secretary-General what to do, was very much avoided. There was a reluctance to get High Commissions in London involved in a so-called supervisory group. In fact, there was a description of the Secretariat and the SG – they should be ‘vertebrate with teeth’. Whilst Stuart has talked about a couple of those earlier Secretaries-General, I think certainly one saw, has seen, in Don McKinnon’s time, a stepping up of interest of member governments expressed through their High Commissions in getting their hands on the way in which the organisation is run. For Secretaries-General, the space for them to be autonomous is narrowing and processes around which they are operating are becoming more and more bureaucratic. Whilst the leaders themselves, in a retreat, will say to a Secretary-General, “Well, look, Don, you’ve got a bit of a problem there and those pesky High Commissioners in London. You deal with it”, the fact of the matter is that you cannot avoid now working on a very clear and effective working relationship with High Commissioners. That’s become even more evident in the time of the current Secretary-General. There has to be more consultation in order to get to the sunny upland of an agreed way forward and that’s just the way things are.
It’s ironic that we’re working at a time now, where staff composition is an even lower point that the numbers that Stuart was citing before. The budget is continuing to go south and yet the level of intervention by member governments and the demands of the member governments continue to rise. Another thought that occurred to me in thinking about the Secretary-General as a role, both external and internal, is the challenge of being both, at one time the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and the CEO of the Secretariat with its intergovernmental responsibilities. You see this most evidently and most tangibly in human rights abuse situations. When an incident occurs and there’s a cacophony of calls for the Secretary-General to do something or say something, on the one hand – and that tend to come from the wider Commonwealth family, for whom the Secretary-General is seen as the umbrella voice – and at the same time as the CEO of an organisation which is trying to advance values with member governments in a Commonwealth way, i.e. via soft power, ‘good offices’ and the like. The expectations on him are not to embarrass, not to publicly chastise, and that’s a very difficult balancing act. It was telling that at the Perth CHOGM, the mood music from the leaders was, “Actually, we can afford to, and we should, be lifting our political values. We should also mandate the Secretary-General to be more forthcoming in his public comments”, and for this particular Secretary-General, there has been, since Perth, a trebling in his statements on political values.
So, the leaders do give that sort of direction but they’re also conscious that this is a balancing act and a line that the Secretary-General has to walk. It’s interesting, too, that the Secretary-General was originally envisaged as being at the rank of a Permanent Secretary or a senior Ambassador; over the years, over the decades, we’ve seen that creep up and when the Secretaries-General have historically and in more recent decades, visited member countries, they tend to be viewed at a Foreign Minister-level and at that sort of rank. It has taken on a higher level of appreciation and understanding by the member governments. They see it as a more senior political role than the bureaucratic note-taker that perhaps Robert Muldoon thought back in the 80s – his mind was still lingering on that original concept.
We’ve been talking a little bit about the achievements of some of the former Secretaries-General, and just looking at the last two; Don McKinnon and Kamalesh Sharma. The perennial balance in the Commonwealth between political values and economic values, that balancing act between development and democracy has continued to be the nub of the challenge for them. In terms of the external face, we certainly saw with Don McKinnon, the political values, the external face, and work on political values being ramped up. We saw in his ‘good offices’ work and the use of envoys. There was the cloud of Zimbabwe, and the human rights agenda was certainly lifted on his watch.
On Kamalesh Sharma’s watch, I think we could say that the economic values have been lifted. The G20 work, the novelty of within two months of taking office he called a mini-summit of leaders which hadn’t been done before, to look at reform of international institutions. But that’s fairly simplistic to say, “Gosh, Don was politically orientated and Kamalesh was economically orientated”, because in fact both of them also advanced the other side of the coin as well. I’m very conscious, for instance, that it was Kamalesh Sharma who tiptoed his way through the minefield of securing agreement by the member governments to reform CMAG – almost, I might say, at the cost of his job. I don’t believe any other Secretary-General has ever had call for his resignation. So, it is high-stakes stuff and the Secretary-General can be caught in the crossfire in those sorts of things – the Affirmation in 2009 of political values at the CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago, is another example where this Secretary-General has sought to lift the political values.
So, I think both of them have continued to advance the challenging balancing act between development and democracy. Both of them also have had to deal with an organisation externally, which is in a very different place to where the Commonwealth used to be. There are far many more international organisations than there were in the early days, all competing for space and the membership has changed dramatically in its diversity. The Indias, South Africas, Malaysias of this world, for instance, are in a place where they weren’t when the Secretariat was established and that has created a great deal more diversity, but also a great deal more of a challenge for a Secretary-General in trying to take the whole group along. As the numbers go up, the challenges of achieving a consensus go up as well. On consensus, it’s interesting perhaps that the appointment of the Secretary-General is probably as close as you’re going to get to a vote in the Commonwealth. We talk about it as a straw poll when the leaders take their views on these matters, but that would perhaps, arguably, be as close as one gets. We all know around this table that the numbers tend to dribble out and we go through this little sort of song and dance routine that there is a straw poll and all the leaders are told, “Well, this appears to be the candidate who has the greatest support”, and then everybody joins in a consensus around the person with the greatest number of straws. Nonetheless, it’s another feature of the Commonwealth and a good thing, too. I’m conscious this is meant to be a conversation, so I’m going to stop right here.
JK: Thank you very much, Simon. You are right. It is meant to be a conversation amongst colleagues. To lead us, really, into that conversation, I’d like Professor Stephen Chan, who is also previously ‘of the parish’, and then also looks inwards and observes us at various times. Stephen?
SC: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here. It’s a very great pleasure to see old friends and colleagues again. For those who are not old friends and colleagues, I think I should make clear my reputation when I was in this place was very much as an enfant terrible, as a rogue element in the Commonwealth Secretariat. I did not mean to be so, but I was very young and very much cast in that light. This seems to have coloured how I view the Commonwealth afterwards. I want to make it very, very clear that the way I view the Commonwealth is as a critical friend. In other words, I would like it to do better and I don’t think it’s doing as well as it could. So, it’s nothing to do with seeing from the past and I do think that the very interesting combination of international and academic career that I’ve had since I left the Secretariat has helped to give me certain perspectives on what I think this place could do. It is in that light that I’ve made criticisms of the whole succession of Secretaries-General after Shridath Ramphal’s time. These have been made honestly. They are on the public record. There is nothing hidden in the things I have got to say. Having said that, I do remember very, very well, coming into the Secretariat when Shridath Ramphal was the leader. I have memories of the year just before Stuart’s arrival when Chris Laidlaw and Mark Robinson were the Assistant Directors of the Secretary-General’s Office.
Unlike Stuart, I was actually warmly welcomed by Moni Malhoutra and I’ve never really quite worked out why, because I could certainly see his acerbic response to almost everybody else in the known universe, including those people who were closest to him; but he took almost an elderly brotherly attitude to me – brotherly and elderly because it was far, far too much of an older brother figure as someone who was simultaneously brotherly but also grandparently as if he understood I could do nothing right. He would very, very wisely and adroitly try to steer me into doing things less wrong; but he gave me many responsibilities and used to invite me to this room when in 1979 the Commonwealth High Commissioners meetings on Southern Africa would have caused an almost parallel session to what was happening in Lancaster House, chaired by Lord Carrington. Those were extremely insightful meetings because, of course, Secretary-General Ramphal would be here and mobilising, in fact, the High Commissioners and I think that gave me the template to wonder why that kind of relationship was not able to be propagated for a longer period of time, taking into account everything that Simon says, of course, about the narrowing of space and the narrowing of capacity. That’s happened to almost every single public institution. Having been a Dean at a number of British universities, now there has been a parallel narrowing of space in the academic world just as there has been in the diplomatic and international organisational world.
At the same time, I’m still a firm believer that leadership can take you very, very far and notwithstanding, again, Simon’s, I think very, very perceptive nuancing on what Kamalesh Sharma has done, I think there are a couple of comments I would like to make. I agree absolutely that the Office of the Secretary-General was very undefined at the outset; however it was defined after the outset although not in any specific memorandum. In other words, this is not part of the written rules of engagement but the early academic work on the work of someone like Shridath Ramphal, work by the Canadian academic Margaret Doxey for instance, as well as work by Sir William Dale, a very eminent jurist in this country.
In defining the parameters both of leadership – that was Doxey’s take on it – and in terms of crafting out a certain kind of international legal space (well before we actually had a formal charter which came only in very recent times. Those were conditions that I think both academics tried to establish) – gave the Secretary-General space and I think that Ramphal took that space. Now, obviously his kind of leadership was unusual. It’s not replicated or found in many places elsewhere and it’s quite possible to regard him as a very, very charismatic and very successful and, to an extent, a very lucky one-off. But in terms of the categories of duty that Stuart was outlining, I think what came very much through at that point in time in Ramphal’s tenure of the post, was the duty of being protagonist. As a protagonist, he put this place on the map, not just in terms of Southern Africa, his work on what we then called the New International Economic Order, what should be rightly more known today as a search for a more equitable international economic and trading system. That established a huge legacy and his work with the Brandt Commission, for instance, I think, set up the kind of profile that I would like to have seen pursued by his successors.
In other words, even then he was assuming, as it were, parity, not just with the Foreign Minister, but as an equal among former heads of government who sat on the Brandt Commission. Now, I take very, very much, again what Simon was saying, that since the Perth CHOGM, since the formation of CMAG released the giving of greater powers and greater, as it were, immediate response capacities to the ministerial group, The Secretary-General now really is, to all intents and purposes, someone with the kinds of capacity of a Foreign Minister. But I think that was always implicit in the role. It’s been very, very much how Secretaries-General have played that role. It’s now made more formal. It’s now made, as it were, black-and-white and that’s how it should be. It’s been very much a case of how prepared have successive Secretaries-General been in trying to take up that kind of mantle of being a “protagonising” person, with the rights and freedoms of a ministerial figure who at the same time is not attached to the dictates of any single government and its specific foreign policy.
In that particular rendition of what the Secretary-General could be, there’s an immense amount of freedom, should you wish to take it. It’s the measure of that freedom which is what is looked at by such an academic community that studies the Commonwealth today. It’s not what comes out of the adjacent and the attendant divisions of the Commonwealth Secretary but in scaled back and in budget cuts that everyone here is very familiar with. In my own organisation, now – I’m a senior figure in the School of Oriental and African Studies – we run a bigger developmental show than this place does. We compete for larger grants as first as it were, after or subsidiary after this place does. This place is noted for what the Secretary-General does and the kinds of spaces for action that he, and hopefully in the future – she – could carve out. That’s where it is and successive Secretary-Generals are noted for what they’ve accomplished in this space. I think there was one more, perhaps even more of an enfant terrible in this place alongside me and I worked closely with him at one point. That was a gentleman called Geoff Martin, who once famously set up a memorandum saying that this place should be stripped right down to nothing but the Office of the Secretary-General but then that office should be expanded because that’s what made the Commonwealth, as an action force, in today’s international politics.
Now, I don’t want to rehearse my arguments with Don McKinnon. Don and I were enemies well before he came here because I’m also a New Zealander and I became immersed in the Commonwealth Youth Programme by virtue of having been the National Student President in that country. I’ve certainly had difficulties, I think, with how Kamalesh has tried to carve out that particular space. I think that he took up the position at a time when the world would perhaps have been receptive to another charismatic, let’s-go-for-it type of figure like Sonny Ramphal. I know they are very different personalities. I know that he is a careful man by habit and by inclination. I know that he was also a very well-respected and very senior High Commissioner before he became Secretary-General. I helped brief him before he became Secretary-General. He knows how the High Commissioners operate in this city. In that sense, he had a head-start in terms of being able to mobilise space within a constraining, as it were, ambience that these High Commissioners represented. I think that at this stage, certainly notwithstanding, greater public involvement, greater public comment again just as Simon says, my view very much is that this is still a moment of lost opportunity. Thank you.
JK: Thank you very much, Stephen. One would say – characteristic in your comments, as per usual. Now, as I said before, this is supposed to be a conversation. We’ve heard from two holders of the post of the head of the Secretary-General’s Office and of course from some of your comments. As I said, we do also have somebody here, who is Amitav Banerji who has held that post and is currently the Director of the Political Division. Comments, views, please. This is the time when we really should at least start engaging in the light of the comments some of you have heard and I think just about everybody around this table will have a view on the operation of how the Secretary-General’s office functions. Muhammad Muda, sorry, I hadn’t seen you. Go on.
MM: Thank you, Chair. My name is Muhammad Muda. I was never a member of the Commonwealth Secretariat but I had a close association with Marlborough House through my time at the Malaysian High Commission and later with the two functional bodies of the Commonwealth, namely the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Management, CPTM and later Commonwealth Business Council. So, I have two questions here. Anyone on the panel can answer this question. Who among the four previous Secretaries-General had the most interaction or difficulties with the heads of government?
My second question is, during my time with the Foreign Ministry and also with the High Commission, we didn’t get a lot of correspondence from the Secretary-General on certain issues. In particular, the letters said, “After consultation with the heads of government, the Secretariat has decided blah, blah, blah…” Can anyone here, who was working with the Secretariat here, highlight whether the consultation was done with all heads of government or just a select few? Thank you.
JK: Wow – that is an interesting question! Now, on the first one, who had more difficulties? I suppose we are conscious of the fact that there are different times and different issues that have arisen. If we’re taking the period between 1965-present, there have been different situations. As I said, we’ve got three people here and in their times, I think, there would have been different leaders and different issues. So I wonder if we can start with Stuart, and then maybe Amitav can also comment; and then Simon. Yes?
SMO: Well, from the point of view of Arnold Smith, Sonny Ramphal and Emeka Anyaoku, I can think of each of them having their own particular difficulties with Heads of Government and sometimes of an extreme kind. With Arnold, he had immense difficulties over Rhodesia. He had great difficulties with Pakistan and the breakup of East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. There are lots of examples, I think. So, I couldn’t recall that anyone had an easier time than anyone else. I’m interested in the second question in particular, though, if I may just deal with that one, because it does slightly bear on what Simon said about maintaining the myth of no elections in the Commonwealth. I don’t think it is entirely clear how consensus emerges. Maybe a Secretary-General could answer this but I think even those who are quite close to the SG wouldn’t necessarily be able to answer how rigorous that feeling of the pulse might have been in terms of developing a consensus or the Secretary-General’s articulation of the consensus, but it was something that I thought was quite interestingly-illustrated. There is a balance between whether you do actually need, in effect, an election to really find out what governments are thinking, as opposed to what the Secretary-General interprets governments as thinking. That, for me, happened with the selection of a previous Chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation. That is a position where there had been elections and I do remember a multi-candidate election on one occasion where Chief Anyaoku’s original interpretation of who he felt the desired candidate was of governments, was entirely different to that which eventually emerged from what, in effect, was an election. So, I think it’s a very interesting question but in more cases than we’re prepared to admit, it is sometimes resolved by a straightforward election.
JK: Amitav, I wondered if you could comment on any of those two points?
AB: Thanks, Chair. I don’t think I want to encroach in any way on the presenters of this session but since you’ve drawn me into this I think I would immediately firstly subscribe to Stuart’s thesis that every Secretary-General has had difficulties from time to time with heads of government, indeed with ministers. I can only comment more on Don McKinnon’s time. Zimbabwe has already been mentioned. On Pakistan, he got beaten on the head quite strongly for allowing a situation where Pakistan was seen as treated with kid gloves as a country of geo-strategic importance in comparison to Zimbabwe. At the time, a lot of African countries felt that Zimbabwe was given much harder time – President Mugabe was given a much harder time – than General Pervez Musharraf.
On the flipside, he did battle with people like Clare Short on the whole issue of so-called ‘harmful taxation’, where a lot of small states felt hard done-by the fact that financial arrangements in places in the Caribbean were being targeted by the OECD in a way that was seen as quite invidious. So, I think every Secretary-General has had their share of difficulties from time to time and that is the nature of the game. If I may just take this opportunity to interject one or two more thoughts to feed the debate on this, I think two or three points that need to be borne in mind is one that the leaders themselves now are a very different generation than the leaders Sonny dealt with or Arnold Smith dealt with. Those were the first flush of leaders after independence who were very, very knowledgeable about and committed to the Commonwealth. I think you have had a new generation of leaders, not all of whom necessarily know that much about or are that interested in the Commonwealth and you’ve got to constantly keep those levels of interest and commitment up and every Secretary-General, I think, in successive generations, needs to deal with that aspect as well. It does add to the degree of difficulty.
Secondly, and I think Simon did mention this, since the late ‘90s or the early years of this millennium, partly because of the much larger number of organisations each government has to deal with, officials have become much more strongly assertive because issues such as results-based management have taken over very, very strongly and every organisation has to show, in log-frame matrix, and sometimes the technicalities simply perhaps supervene over the larger strategy and the politics, that they are delivering value for taxpayers’ money. The last thing I will say is that whatever you do, one thing about the Commonwealth will never change, and that is that developing countries will always be the vast majority, I think for a long time to come, and small states will always be a majority and no Secretary-General can ignore those very strong factors. Thank you.
JK: Thank you very much, Amitav. Simon, I wonder if you could address the two questions?
SG: Thanks, Joel. I don’t think I need to add anything on the first question. It’s horses for courses – different Secretaries-General with different leaders. I think on the second question about consultation, when you get a letter in a capital, saying, “From the Secretary-General, I have consulted and I have the general sense of direction from leaders that blah, blah, blah …” That does happen. The unwritten job description of a Secretary-General involves spending roughly a third of his/her time at 30,000ft flying from one member country to another. There’s a lot of travel because the Secretaries-General want to be out there, talking to the leader and understanding what their priorities are and discussing with them the Commonwealth agenda, and getting their direction on the way in which it should be taken forward. So, it perhaps goes back to one of the points I made before. There is a personal relationship between the leaders and the Secretary-General and it’s nurtured through travel, through attendance at regional meetings, through the so-called bilateral visits.
So when the Secretary-General writes and says that, it would be pretty risky business to say that without having consulted. Now, you’re not going to get a Secretary-General phoning up 54 leaders for every single issue, so you’re relying on the judgement of the Secretary-General as to where the balance lies and that, too, is part of the expectation of a Secretary-General and that, too, underlines a point I was making before – trust – that there is a great deal of trust vested in the Secretary-General that he or she will do the right thing by the leaders collectively and from their individual national perspectives.
JK: Thank you. Dr Peter Williams?
PW: Peter Williams. I was former Director of Education between the mid-80s and mid-90s. Actually, I think Amitav anticipated the question that I had, which I would be interested in hearing others comment on, in his remarks about the changing character of Commonwealth leaders. I’m wondering how important that was. The generation of post-independence leaders were more charismatic, less bureaucratic, as Amitav said. They were less bound by procedures and officialdom. I must say, we found in education, when we were dealing with some of the difficult problems over Commonwealth student mobility and so on, it was often the case that the people who were prepared to coral and take a lead on this were not always those from the ‘older’ states. It was Zimbabwe, which had just become independent in 1980; Namibia and people from the Front-Line States that were often in the lead in trying to articulate the views of the Commonwealth developing countries generally. So, maybe Sonny Ramphal had an easier run in some ways than some of his successors, in his efforts to get a fair world order and to get countries to mobilise and stand up for that.
JK: Thank you, Peter. Richard?
RB: Thank you, Joel. Richard Bourne. I’ve been involved in Commonwealth activities since the end of 1982 and I was briefly a Special Advisor to EAD in 1991-92. My queries are two, really. One is about the role of the Chairperson-in-Office and whether there has been much interaction between the chair-person since Thabo Mbeki, I think was the first, and the Office of the Secretary-General; and whether this has in any way offset the desire of London High Commissions to micromanage the work of the Secretariat. The second is following a point of Simon’s that there has been a great growth in international organisations over the last 30 years and whether the Secretariat has managed to respond to that by making allowances and carving out its own space. I am aware that the Secretary General of the Commonwealth and the Secretary-General of Francophonie have been making joint presentations to, I think the G8 and the G20 and I think EAD here has been doing work with the G20 on development issues. I am very aware of the competitive nature of international diplomacy and therefore the huge challenge now facing the Commonwealth in responding to that. So those are my two queries.
JK: Thank you very much. Who’ll take that? Stuart? Simon? I thought of you simply because of the whole Chair-in-Office issue. All right, Simon? Anything?
SG: I think it’d be a very good idea to draw in Amitav. He can burden-share on this one. Well, very handy my microphone was turned off because I just answered a question. I hope that you all heard the answer. The role of Chair-in-Office: indeed as Stuart put his colours on the table before, I think probably there are mixed views. The jury is probably still out. The Eminent Persons Group took a look at this and they debated it to and fro. Its purpose broadly speaking, was to address, if you like, at that time, by the late-1990s, a sense that, I think it does relate to this crowded marketplace, a sense that the Commonwealth was losing its way or was losing its profile; and that maybe it could be enhanced if we had the chair of CHOGM to take over with this profile-raising role, to speak on behalf of the Commonwealth in places where the Secretary-General could not go, for instance in the UN Summit or the like.
Now, it perhaps was recognising a symptom and then thinking they’d provide the right sort of solution to it. I think most of us would conclude that it hasn’t actually delivered on that. The second role of the Chair was, if not so overtly, to be there in a supportive way in advancing Good Offices and the like and the ability to leverage if the Secretary-General is struggling to get some purchase somewhere, to be able to say to the Chair-in- Office, “You’re a leader. You can talk to a fellow leader and say, ‘Please let the Secretary-General’s Good Offices in your country’ and get to work, because there is clearly a problem”. Again, the challenge is it probably hasn’t done as well there as it could but again, perhaps the theory was fine but the practice is that is just doesn’t really work that way. That’s not how international relations work and it is not how these things are ever likely to work. So, I think in terms of an answer to Richard’s question, a way of offsetting the micromanagement, the short answer is ‘No’. Each Chair-in-Office, I think, has probably looked for the Secretary-General to tell him/her what they would like the Chair to do.
That was one of the first questions when the Secretary-General turned up in Trinidad and Tobago with Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, who had taken over, had inherited the role of Chair-in-Office. She didn’t Chair the CHOGM in 2009 but she then succeeded in an election and became the Prime Minister; so that the first thing she wanted to know from the Secretary-General was, “Well, what do I do as Chair-in-Office?” The SG said, “Well, I’ll be in touch with you if I need your help in leveraging, but in the meanwhile, anything you can do or speak on our behalf and we will provide you with guidance and provide you with opportunities and encourage you”. But actually it’s very, very difficult to get any head of government to do that, to speak out. That in part goes to the extent that leaders themselves are creatures of and subject to the vagaries of their praetorian guards and their own administrative systems.
So, the Secretary-General can say to Prime Minister Gillard, “Please say something about the Commonwealth in your General Assembly speech this year in September”, and she will say, “Absolutely, Kamalesh, I’ll do that for you”. Then the political priorities that are recorded by her own officials result in her either saying something or not saying something according to the Australian perspective, as opposed to whether it’s warm and fuzzy to say something on behalf of the Commonwealth. So, in terms of profile-raising and in terms of assistance of Good Offices and in terms of providing the Secretary-General with some ability to talk to those High Commissioners and say “I don’t need to talk to you because I I’ve spoken to the Chair”. I don’t think it’s done particularly well and that’s a personal observation.
JK: Amitav, do you have any observations you’d like to add to that?
AB: Well, firstly, completely to agree with Simon. I think those who expected that the Chair-in-Office would play some kind of executive role were perhaps expecting too much and on that side, very early in the innings of a Chair-in-Office, the institution even caused some controversy. I know we’re not under Chatham House Rules but I think it’s an open secret that the whole handling of the Zimbabwe issue by the Troika under the chairmanship of the then Chair-in-Office, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, was not seen as terribly helpful and there were a number of people who felt that the Prime Minister of Australia didn’t do enough to distinguish his position of Prime Minister of Australia from that of Chair-in-Office, in trying to reflect the views of 50+ other countries, which made it a lot easier for those who were carping to look at this ‘evil axis’ of John Howard, Don McKinnon and Tony Blair – these three ‘bad white people’ trying to determine the destiny of Zimbabwe, notwithstanding the fact that Don was skewered on HardTalk and the first thing he said to the interviewer is, “How come when the first white farmer gets killed in Zimbabwe you scream? What about the 20 black people who have already been killed by these goons?”
I think representationally, profile raising-wise. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, I must say has been particularly diligent and good. President Obasanjo was quite an active Chair. The Secretary-General of the time was able to consult him, especially on African issues. He did provide leadership but I think on the whole the report card would be one of maybe ‘Fair’ or ‘Average’. Thank you.
JK: Okay, thank you. I presume you mean sort of, ‘could do better’ in sort of education parlance. Sue?
SO: Thank you very much. Sue Onslow. This is a question particularly for Stuart and then also for Simon. Successive Secretary-Generals have developed Good Offices and obviously this is now linked to the CMAG process and it provides complex and sophisticated machinery for dealing with violations of Harare Principles. Please could you comment on the role of the Secretary-General in developing over time this particular discrete mediation approach and also the supporting role of his office in enabling these efforts?
SMO: Well, I’ll do my best. I think from the very outset, Arnold Smith was involved in Good Offices work, as Simon was saying; it was there for the making. The job description had to be made and a very crucial part of that was trying to mediate in circumstances of conflict within or between member countries (particularly between countries, at the outset). So, it’s very much been a feature. It is certainly the case that what we used to call the Private Office, the Office of the Secretary-General, alone has not been sufficient to support a Secretary-General and his Good Offices work; and what was previously the International Affairs Division – now the Political Affairs Division – has played a very important part in that support. I think there have been some interesting developments in terms of new mechanisms, the use of more formalised approaches to the use of special envoys and all the rest of it, which I think has been a feature of Simon’s tenure.
Certainly, I think the Secretary-General, supported by his Private Office and by the Political Affairs Division in particular, has been the main support for his actions. In the case of Chief Anyaoku, he came into office at a time when 25% of the then Commonwealth were one-party states or military dictatorships – 10 out of the 40 countries or so then in membership. In all that he did to develop Good Office work, in particular within member countries and in the creation of new mechanisms like CMAG, this led him to a very personal kind of challenge in terms of Nigeria and what might have been, at one stage, the departure of Nigeria from the Commonwealth. This, I think, would have made his own position as Secretary-General untenable. So, I think Secretary-Generals have sometimes been forced into very difficult circumstances.
The only other thing I’d add is that at one stage – and there has been very little public comment on it – Chief Anyaoku made a really determined attempt for the Commonwealth to be involved in the Sri Lankan peace process. This did actually get quite far down the road before the Norwegian Initiative and it did involve talks with the Tamil Tigers in London and in Paris and with, of course, the Sri Lankan government. For a short while it looked as though it might be going somewhere. One of the reasons it failed, I think, was because of the inability of the Commonwealth to mount any kind of substantial supporting mechanism for that Good Office intervention. In our time, too often, the Good Office supporting intervention was individuals like Max Gaylard or Moses Anafu; and the ability to deploy the kind of sustained resources on the ground that would have really helped was often absent.
PMU: Philip Murphy. I’d just like to raise the issue of relations with the Palace because I don’t think this is going to come up in subsequent sessions. As you’ll know, when the headship of the Commonwealth was created, it was viewed as being a very minimalist role and that view was supported by the Palace. The Palace say in, I think, 1959, the Queen can’t act substantively in a Commonwealth sense because she doesn’t have advisors who can advise her in a Commonwealth sense. Now, the question is, when the Secretariat is created, does she then gain Commonwealth advisors? Certainly in Arnold Smith’s and Sonny’s time, you see them manoeuvring themselves into a position where they are recognised in some respects as Commonwealth advisors if only with a small ‘a’ rather than a capital ‘A’. I wonder whether you can comment upon this, about relations between the Secretary-General’s office and the Palace and the way in which and the sorts of advice that are given on Commonwealth affairs.
JK: Okay. Simon, do you want to take that and then Stuart?
SG: Very happy to jump in. I might, just if I could, go back first of all because I think Sue had asked if I had anything to add on the Good Offices business and I think it’s quite an important point because it’s quite an important part of the Secretary-General’s role and it’s a combination of internal and external faces. If you like, because it goes to the heart. I talked before about trust and the relationships with the heads of governments. The other key part of the Secretary-General’s work with the heads of government is receptivity. You can’t get involved in a Good Offices role unless there is a will from the other side to receive you. It means that Secretaries-General, historically and certainly in the last two in dealing with Good Offices work sometimes have to stay their hand in terms of their public pronouncements and their public work, speaking on behalf of the wider community of Commonwealth parties precisely because they wanted to make advances and gains at the national level through their Good Offices. It’s a particularly challenging role for a Secretary-General that you may be making progress because you can get in to see someone, shake their hand, have ten minutes with the and encourage them to make some fundamental changes. I can think of one country where legislation which was going to introduce the death penalty for homosexual acts, as a very good example, of a great success using the Secretary-General’s Good Offices, but none of that is published and in the meantime you have a number of organisations saying “Why is the Secretary-General not saying anything about this particular case?”
It is a very difficult area and a lot of it is based on receptivity but a lot of it is based on personalities as well and that’s why Good Offices is not just about the Secretary-General, it’s become more and more about the envoys, about other people that can be brought into play who can become your point of entry to a particular leader where you’re looking for that personal connection and the receptivity that flows from it. The other thing about Good Offices is that this Secretary-General we have at the moment has grown the portfolio and now has Good Offices for the environment and it’s perhaps coincidental but in the room right next to us, here today in the Delegate’s Lounge, you have an Expert Group which the Secretary-General has convened, chaired by former president Jagdeo, looking at what the Commonwealth can do practically to address climate change challenges for small and vulnerable states on the basis that the world has not managed to deliver on its 30bn Fast Start Fund. So, the Good Offices works in a variety of ways but it does tend to be below the radar screen and personality-based.
Turning to the Palace, I think that it has, as Philip says, it’s been revolutionary but I think that certainly my experience over the last decade or so and indeed as you know I was the Commonwealth Secondee in the Queen’s office in the 1990s so I saw it from that side of the coin as well as this side of the coin. There is a very, very clear understanding that on Commonwealth matters, the Queen is guided by her Commonwealth Advisor, the Secretary-General. Now, that does not mean there isn’t competitive advice and of course, she’s sitting in an office just down the road from Whitehall and you would be expecting advice to be proffered for what it’s worth, by her Foreign and Commonwealth officials. Equally, I would find it very hard to imagine she would move on Commonwealth matters without having taken the advice of the Secretary-General and we have regular audiences arranged with the Queen, and meetings with other members of the Royal Family who have an interest in different parts of the Commonwealth portfolio.
The involvement of the Prince of Wales going back to the 2007 CHOGM in Kampala was no accident. His involvement has included increased programmes of engagement with Commonwealth countries. It’s all part-and-parcel of on-going discussions and liaisons with His Royal Highness’s Office. There is certainly a regular conversation occurring between the Secretariat and the Private Secretary from time to time. We’re all talking with each other, with colleagues across the road in the Palace at various times. The extent to which that advice is taken, I think the record so far is it is 10/10.
JK: Thank you. Stuart, do you want to add something?
SMO: Yes, just to support Simon on that and I wanted him to speak first because he has far more knowledge of the inside track than I. I think Don, in his memoirs, In The Ring, said he had up to 40 meetings with the Queen in his period of being Secretary-General. Certainly, I think every Secretary-General would cherish their role as her principal Commonwealth advisor but I think it’s also true that the Palace would draw from others. It’s multi-layered in that respect. So, Peter Marshall knows very well – because he’s drafted enough of them – how significant are the Queen’s Commonwealth Day messages and so on and how, in fact, her statement on some really important issues of the day have advanced. Certainly, consultation on the content of her speeches, especially taking a much more prominent role in CHOGM after 1997, her speeches in specifically Commonwealth circumstances would merit discussion about the content of those speeches, even broadcasts where the Palace has gone, for the Christmas broadcast, to look at specific Commonwealth advice and not just from the Secretary-General.
I think this makes for a very interesting paradox. When the Eminent Persons Group prompted the discussion about these three offices – Secretary-General, Chairperson-in-Office, and Head of the Commonwealth – and really addressed the feeling that they ought to be combined into two rather than remain in three. In lots of ways, the historic argument might say that the headship should go; but in terms of performance, it’s the Chairperson-in-Office that ought to go and it’s the Headship, which paradoxically has gone from strength to strength, which should remain.
JK: Thank you. Vijay and then Sir Peter.
VK: Thank you, Chair. I’m quite happy to defer to Sir Peter. Sir Peter, do you want to, especially given what’s under discussion, if that’s what you want to discuss?
PMA: Thank you, Chairman. Also, thank you for your suggestion that I precede you. I’m very grateful. I’m never backward in coming forward. What Stuart said is absolutely on the ball. I think the performance of the Queen shows just how it is impossible, really, to discuss this issue in the abstract. In practical terms, what we see is the most marvellous combining by the Queen of her constitutional responsibilities as Queen of the United Kingdom and of other realms with the extent to which she can do or say something in her capacity as head of the Commonwealth. I don’t think I’m aware of any conflict between the two sides that I’ve ever mentioned. Stuart is also absolutely right to refer to the question of what sort of non-governmental input there can be in such a rather esoteric body with which we are so closely associated, the Joint Commonwealth Societies’ Council.
That leads me on to the related question and that is Sonny’s difficulties with heads of government. Nobody has so-far mentioned Mrs Thatcher whom someone would naturally have in mind when this issue arises. There, I think there was certainly a readiness to disagree but also a great deal of mutual respect. I don’t think Mrs Thatcher was ever in doubt of the value of the work done on the economic side of the Secretariat, much as she might have not been in favour of being lectured about Southern Africa. I think, naturally, of course, the mini-summit in this room, in 1986 when I suppose the differences of approach were exposed with the greatest clarity in that meeting in the Marlborough House mini-summit. On occasion each head of government was allotted an office. Naturally, Mrs Thatcher used mine. We stocked it with her favourite brand of whiskey and also installed a hotline. I said to her at the end of the meeting, “Would you like to leave the hotline here?” “Certainly not, she said.” “I might use it.”
JK: Thank you, Sir Peter.
VK: Thanks very much, Chair. I want to share Stuart’s four-point framework for viewing the role of the Secretary-General and in the light of Richard’s comments, add a fifth, in that of the role of the Secretary-General in forging alliances and partnerships, particularly in light of his comment in relation to the growth of international organisations, particularly over the last 30 years. As this concept of civil society has become an ever-greater force in global affairs, I wondered how the outlook of the Secretary-General and the Secretary-General’s Office has changed over the years to respond to that growth, firstly. Secondly, sorry, I should say my name is Vijay Krishnarayan. I’m the full-time Director of the Commonwealth Foundation. Acknowledging the changes that have taken place over the years and in particular over the last 20, the relationship between the Secretary-General and the Secretary-General’s Office and the Foundation has never been absolutely clarified. It’s defined at the moment by two moments. Firstly, the moment at which the Secretary-General or his representative sits on the Chair of the Commonwealth Foundation’s Board; secondly, when the Secretary-General presides over the Board meeting of the Foundation that discusses the appointment of its Chair. Now, both of those moments hint at a degree of subsidiarity when in fact they are two parallel international organisations. I’d like to gauge a sense, round the table, from the panellists in particular as to the prospects for a more equal partnership between the Foundation and the Secretariat. Thank you.
JK: Let’s see, who’s going to address that? Either Stuart or Simon? Well, Simon, since you’re currently in the chair, I’ll go to you first and then we might seek some views of the others.
SG: The great thing about conversations is that you can pass the buck to someone else and carry to someone else to speak up. I don’t think there is a straightforward answer because you’d need to as the Secretary-General. Yes, that is the role that has been defined, a subsidiary role, if you like, that has been defined by leaders, by the member governments. Whether that’s where the future lies, I think you’d find most Secretaries-General past, present and indeed future would say if the membership wants to change the arrangements then that’s fine. The question of partnerships, however, is certainly an area that I think, as the space has become more crowded and Richard Bourne was asking this question before. I’m afraid we didn’t really give it a due response. As the space has become more crowded, Secretaries-General have had to find ways to lead the organisation, the Secretaries at least but potentially the wider community of the Commonwealth family towards partnerships in the sense that it is going to continue to be in this crowded marketplace, one of the most effective ways of advancing Commonwealth values and principles and secondly, potentially, to unlock resources as well. So, those partnership relationships have taken on much more importance for the Secretary-General than they have, perhaps, in the past. The work that’s being done now with the G20 in terms of getting the views of the developing countries on to the G20 agenda is an example. The work with the European Union practically to deliver trade capacity building is another example of a strategic partnership that is being advanced.
The extent to which member governments in their wisdom when they set up the Foundation and the Secretariat as two separate organisations, one with universal membership, one with a slightly more voluntary approach to membership probably is indicative of that sort of subsidiarity even from the outset. I think that whilst a Commonwealth Secretary-General, any Commonwealth Secretary-General would approach it pragmatically, “How can I work with the Foundation? How can I work with the family of organisations to deliver?” I don’t think you’d find the Secretary-General in the vanguard of those seeking to change the arrangements.
JK: Thank you. Stuart, did you have anything to add to that?
SMO: Just a few words. Yes, I think it was certainly apparent in the 1990s, the way that with Chief Anyaoku how civil society became much more acceptable in intergovernmental circles. I think before that time there was a great deal of suspicion, which Chief Anyaoku was certainly anxious to overcome, but in a very cautious and gradual way. That led to the appointment of a joint position between the Secretariat and the Foundation for civil society liaison which was a cause of a great deal of friction between the Foundation and the Secretariat at the time, but I must say that Terry Dormer, as that first appointment, dealt admirably with those tensions in his irenic way. I think we have seen a sort of steady growth since then and I think Don McKinnon must be given a lot of credit for the growing acceptance and recognition of civil society in the Commonwealth.
I think one of the difficulties is that the Commonwealth is primarily an intergovernmental organisation. So it will always be difficult for the non-governmental contribution to be recognised but I think there are two things on the side of civil society which help, given this much broader agenda which the Foundation is now pursuing.
One is that as the Secretariat’s budget, its functions and its staffing are increasingly under assault, with perhaps a diminished output, so the non-governmental, the civil society organisations, especially Commonwealth organisations, can show increasing strength and responsibility in shouldering part of the burden. As they come into greater partnership, so inevitably there will be a more equal working relationship. And I think it would be helpful; to reclassify the top tier of Commonwealth organisations who are able to create viable partnerships as Commonwealth agencies, rather than as they are currently labelled. This is the tier of Commonwealth organisations which are specifically Commonwealth in their mandate but who have the means to help the Commonwealth deliver programmes in partnership with the Secretariat. I think if there was more development of that, which I think there will be, then that will bring equality and also increase the scope for dialogue between civil society and government. I think there is much more recognition from governments that such a development is useful and I think civil society is getting much more realistic about how to conduct that dialogue and what they can hope to achieve by that. That in itself will help the process of a more equal relationship.
JK: Thank you, Stuart. I’m conscious of time, but, Patsy?
PR: I just would like to add a few footnotes and I must apologise for being late but I have a good reason. I am on standby if Mandela dies.
JK: As are all of us!
PR: So, I have to rush out to make sure that I get the messages, but I do apologise. My few footnotes are on the Queen. People forget that the Queen grew up with the Commonwealth and that she knew all the early leaders very well. She used to receive them even when they came up sometimes to negotiate and there are two instances, early in the evolution of what I like to call the New Commonwealth. She made it quite clear that she was going to handle, or her staff was going to handle, relations with the Commonwealth. It was ’71 when Ted Heath advised her not to go to the Singapore meeting. That time there was a huge row over arms to South Africa and many African countries were threatening to leave the Commonwealth, led by Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere. She didn’t go and she regretted it and she was very unhappy about that. The second, was, of course, after Margaret Thatcher, whose benignity I do not recognise in terms of relations with the Commonwealth, advised her – No – Margaret Thatcher went to a World Bank or IMF meeting in Japan and on the way down she visited New Zealand and she and Muldoon gave a press conference which was reported on the BBC 7 o’clock news to say they were advising her not to go to Lusaka. Lusaka had been bombed by the Rhodesians and it was very unsafe, theoretically.
I left my home at about 19:30 and I drove to the office here and I put on my radio and Buckingham Palace had issued a statement saying that Her Majesty will be going to Lusaka. I think that was a clear indication that although the British government advised her not to do things, that she would decide what to do and at that time one was very close to people like Bill Heseltine who had started as Assistant Press Officer when I was in the same role here in the Secretariat and he eventually rose to be her Private Secretary.
The point I want to make as well is that, when the Secretariat was set up, it was set up because countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Tanzania and Ghana agitated for it and they saw it essentially as an organisation first to break the links with the cosy business around the fireplace at Downing Street which the old Commonwealth had loved. Secondly, that this was a way to get development on a proper footing. At the early meetings they all said they were just coming into the international arena, they started to deal with the UN, they were very unhappy with the UN. Again, I recall a meeting in Kenya of Agriculture Ministers and it was one of the African Ministers that said, “We have to have our own development arm,” which became the CFTC, “Because here it is, one of the first things we want to do is to improve our cattle and the UN sent us somebody who couldn’t speak Swahili or English.” He hung around, I suppose on a good salary, and then he said 200 cows were pregnant if that’s what happens to cows and he pushed off and they were not.
They were livid. They said, “At least in the Commonwealth we get somebody who can talk English,” and there was a feeling in those days that we were all in it together. I think there has now been the idea of what you’d call the ABCs. Canada was not the Canada that we know today. Canada was hugely supportive of the whole independency, gave the Commonwealth to Arnold Smith, fought Arnold Smith’s corner with the British who wanted to deny him even the title of Excellency, to downgrade his role to be a Junior High Commissioner had a very strong link with the development side.
That’s how both Arnold Smith and Sonny Ramphal were able to do things which I think present-day Secretaries-General aren’t able to do because they don’t have the backing. Now, I tell people that Sonny Ramphal had 10 countries that he could talk to and he could discuss, but it was people like Indira Gandhi in India who told him when he went to visit, “Make something of this organisation. We want you to act.” He had the Canadians. He had Jamaicans. He had Nigerians. He had Tanzania. He had Zambia; even Sri Lanka. So, he had 10 powerful developed and developing states – Australia came on board very early and was very supportive during the whole period of Southern Africa. I think that this has gone and I think that somehow if the Commonwealth is going to become an important, powerful – maybe not powerful – but certainly highly respected publically, I have no doubt that, as Simon says, the work being done behind the scenes is very important but the public perception today of the Commonwealth is, well, it’s less than a shadow of its former self.
It’s got to go out now and do things that people all over the world can understand. Finally, I have to put my own in about this Chairperson-in-Office. First, it’s a horrible title. Nobody should have a title like that – that’s the first thing. Secondly, it doesn’t work. Who is going to listen? Are we going to Mauritius? I’m sorry if there is anybody from Mauritius here but we’re going to Mauritius for the next Heads of Government Meeting. If the President or Prime Minister of Mauritius makes a statement on behalf of the Commonwealth, it’s not going to be reported anywhere. The media now is king and we have to do things which the media can understand and respect. Those are my footnotes to history.
JK: Thank you very much, Patsy. I have a feeling that should the President of Sri Lanka make such a statement, there might be some take-up, one would have thought. That’s for another day. At this stage I’d like to bring this first part of the conversation to a close. Thank you to our Simon and to Stuart and to all the contributions we’ve had around the table. The day of course continues. This is only the first part. So, we’re going to have a five minute break as nameplates and things like that are shuffled and some would even say a comfort break. I’m Joel Kibazo. Thank you very much.
[End of session]
 Alister McIntosh was nominated, but withdrew before the ballot on the grounds of ill-health.