Download Interview Transcript: Part One (19 November 2014); Part Two (5 January 2015).

Biography: Sobhan, Farooq. 1940- . Born in Calcutta and graduate of the Universities of Dhaka and Oxford. Deputy Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations in New York, 1981-84. High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the Federation of Malaysia, 1984-87. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, 1987-90. High Commissioner to India, 1992-95. Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, 1995-97. Executive Chairman, Bangladesh Board of Investment and Special Envoy to the Prime Minister, 1997-99. Candidate for position of Commonwealth Secretary General, 1999 CHOGM. President and CEO of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, 2000- .


SO:     Dr Sue Onslow (Interviewer)

FS:      Farooq Sobhan (Respondent)

Transcript Part One:

[Click here to jump to Transcript Part Two]

SO:     This is Dr Sue Onslow interviewing Mr Farooq Sobhan, the former Bangladeshi diplomat, on Wednesday, 19th November 2014. Mr Sobhan held the position of Foreign Secretary from 1995 to 1997 and is presently the President of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, an independent think tank in Dhaka.

FS:      Welcome.

SO:     Sir, if I could begin, please, by asking you of your recollections at the start of an independent Bangladesh. I understand you were a Foreign Service officer then.

FS:      That’s right, yes.

SO:     As the purpose of this interview project is to look at the history of the Commonwealth and its role as a diplomatic actor, did you have a particular view of the Commonwealth or a particular view of the Commonwealth Secretary General, Arnold Smith, and his contribution towards Bangladesh’s independence?

FS:      Yes, I was quite aware of it, I would say, in the very early days. I, of course, had the pleasure of reading his book [Stitches in Time: The Commonwealth in World Politics (1983)], which, I should mention, was quite some time ago. But I am indeed very familiar with the important role he played both in support of Bangladesh and the admission of Bangladesh as a member of the Commonwealth.

SO:     Sir, did you have first-hand knowledge of this? Or was it more that Smith’s support became widely known within the Bangladesh diplomatic community?

FS:      It became widely known – I wasn’t directly involved in the early days when I served as Director in the Foreign Office. I was not dealing with the Commonwealth. Other colleagues were, but we were fairly small in number in those days so everyone knew pretty much everything that was happening in the Foreign Office. We were certainly aware about the important role of the Commonwealth and Arnold Smith, in particular.

SO:     Did Arnold Smith involve you or work with you in any way in the approaches to other Commonwealth heads of government for Bangladesh to join the Commonwealth?

FS:      This subject was, as I mentioned earlier, dealt with by other people in the Foreign Office. But I was aware and certainly knew about his support and the role that he had been playing in supporting Bangladesh’s membership.

SO:     Sir, where were you serving at that particular time?

FS:      Well, I was in Paris in 1971 and then came back to join the Foreign Office early in 1972, shortly after the newly-established Foreign Office in Dhaka began operation.

SO:     Sir, did the Foreign Office then work with Arnold Smith in terms of identifying Bangladesh’s needs in its reconstruction following the War? Because there were enormous challenges…

FS:      I was a relatively junior officer in those days in the Foreign Office. I was dealing with East Asia and the Americas and therefore was not directly dealing with the Commonwealth or our membership of the Commonwealth.

SO:     As far as you were concerned in your professional capacity, then, at what point did you personally start to interact with the Commonwealth in its various forms?

FS:      I would say that began with Sonny Ramphal, who I had the pleasure of meeting several times when he was Secretary General of the Commonwealth during his three terms. And, indeed, from 1978 – early in 1978 – until August 1981, I was Director General in the Foreign Ministry, responsible for international organisations which included, of course, the Commonwealth.

So, I was – you might say, at that particular juncture – the point man in the government insofar as the Commonwealth was concerned. I attended a number of Commonwealth meetings and had a number of meetings with the Secretary General. I attended the Commonwealth Summit in Lusaka in 1979. Even after I moved in 1981 to the UN, I continued to occasionally meet with the Secretary General – particularly on visits to London – and then again I was a member of the Bangladesh delegation at the Commonwealth Summit in Delhi in 1983. So, yes, I would say [that] during the Ramphal years I did interact very closely with Sonny Ramphal and, indeed, I would say that I continued to do so pretty much thereafter. So, I had several meetings with him and also had a close relationship with the Commonwealth when Emeka was the Secretary General. I was then, subsequently, the number two man in the Foreign Office, again dealing with the Commonwealth, and then later was the Foreign (Permanent) Secretary and again therefore had many opportunities to be involved with the Commonwealth. So, yes, I would say pretty much from 1978 until today – which would make it, what, 36 years – I’ve had a very close, you might say, relationship with the Commonwealth.

SO:     Sir, there are a considerable number of questions I’d like to put to you coming out of your summary of your career. Please, how much importance did you – and do you – attach to senior officials’ networks in the Commonwealth?

FS:      Oh, I would consider it very important, because a lot of the groundwork clearly is done by senior officials. So, we really have multiple levels at which there is contact between member states and the Commonwealth, with its work and its programmes. There is contact at the level of senior officials. The senior officials could be Permanent Secretaries, as well as people who directly deal with the Commonwealth. It will be the relevant Director in the FCO in London, and, in our case, it’s the Director General (International Organisations). And then, of course, you have the interaction at the ministerial and the summit-level, depending on the activities. So, yes, I would say it’s multi-dimensional and multi-faceted.

SO:     You also mentioned that your first particular personal/professional contact with the Commonwealth came when Sonny Ramphal was already Secretary General. How would you describe and analyse his particular way of working, and why it was that he was a particularly effective Secretary General?

FS:      In those days, the Commonwealth – for a number of reasons, at least in my view – enjoyed a high profile. It certainly struck me as an important organisation which a country like Bangladesh should take seriously. If memory holds good, with some exceptions. I remember one such exception would have been CHOGM in Auckland, which I attended but which our Prime Minister didn’t. But, as a rule, our prime ministers have been quite particular about attending the Heads of Government Meeting, which is one important indication of the country’s position and views about the Commonwealth.

Going back to Sonny, I would say [there are] three reasons which put the Commonwealth on the global map during Sonny’s tenure as SG. One was Sonny and his personality – his articulation, and the fact that he was a recognised personality on the global scene. Secondly, there was the role that the Commonwealth played, particularly in the decolonisation process. So, you had the birth of Zimbabwe, which effectively came out of the 1979 CHOGM. You had the longstanding campaign against apartheid and, eventually, I would say, the Commonwealth – along with others, of course – played an important role in the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa. And these were all, I would say, occasions when the Commonwealth – and I think rightly so – enjoyed a very high profile and occupied centre stage insofar as global issues and global politics were concerned.

I think there is a third point that needs to be mentioned apart from Sonny Ramphal’s personality and the role of the Commonwealth in the whole decolonisation process and the campaign against apartheid. It was Sonny’s initiative in setting up a number of Commissions and the very proactive role played by him and the Commonwealth in addressing some of the burning economic issues of the day, including the need for a more equitable economic order and various subjects related to it.

At the time, I moved from the Foreign Office to our UN Mission in New York. I was the Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative in our mission in New York, so we are now talking about the period August 1981 to August 1984. During this period, I was elected Chairman of the Group of 77 in New York, which is a group which speaks on behalf, at that time – I forget the exact number – some 127 developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. So, the work which the Commonwealth was doing proved to be extremely useful for us at the UN, because we were engaged in a dialogue with the developed countries, the OECD countries, in trying to enter into global negotiations to restructure a number of international organisations – including the World Bank, the IMF – to set up the World Trade Organisations, to look at issues relating to decision-making at the UN, all of which, in a sense, was part of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) we were trying to promote, and which Sonny, in a sense, was a key champion of and, through his commissions, contributed significantly to the debate and to the dialogue on the NIEO.

So, another important point of contact which I had with Sonny was through the Group of 77, when I was the chairman. Within the G-77, we were also strongly promoting South-South cooperation, otherwise referred to as Economic Cooperation among Developing Countries (ECDC).  And one of the ideas which I had discussed with Sonny at the time…I recall writing to Sonny to say we in the Group of 77 wanted to set up an independent commission to promote South-South cooperation and would Sonny be willing to chair such a group. We discussed that. And then, as chance would have it, I moved from New York to Malaysia as High Commissioner where I pushed this idea with Dr Mahathir, as I worked closely with him. As a part of this initiative, Dr Mahathir invited Sonny on a number of occasions to visit Malaysia, and we were able to then take this initiative to fruition with the establishment of the South Commission in 1987. And it was eventually not Sonny but Julius Nyerere who chaired the Commission, but Sonny was a member of the Commission and a very active member of the Commission, which was known as the South Commission. To this day, we have the South Centre in Geneva working on ECDC and other issues of concern to the Third World: this is a legacy of the South Commission. The South Commission produced a report, and Dr Manmohan Singh – who later became Prime Minister of India – was the Secretary General of the Commission. So, as you can see, there were a number of key Commonwealth players, so to speak, who were involved in this initiative: Dr Mahathir, Julius Nyerere, Sonny Ramphal and Dr Manmohan Singh. So, as I said, right through from 1978 onwards there was a fairly deep, if you like, engagement with Sonny and also with the Commonwealth.

SO:     Sir, could I please ask you, when you were chair of the Group of 77 during your posting in New York, did you identify any undertow of opposition, disquiet or resentment among some of the members of that group towards the Commonwealth? I’ve spoken to other economists who said that the Commonwealth’s position wasn’t necessarily seen as totally helpful to the Group of 77, because it appeared to be more moderate in trying to broker or to suggest ways forward between West-South. The more radical members of the G-77, meanwhile, felt that it could be advantageous to push for a harder and more robust line, rather than to present something that was seemingly moderate, for fear that that could mean further accommodation and loss of a particular position.

FS:      Well, that’s a rather interesting comment. The dialogue and the meetings were taking place in New York, and so, in a sense, the Commonwealth was not directly involved in this process. So, within the Group of 77, we had different schools of thought. There were some who were quite radical in their position on the NIEO and ECDC. There were others, including myself, who were seeking, if you like, a common platform on which we could work with the developed countries or the member states of the OECD. So, I suppose you could say that my views and thinking on this would have been fairly closely aligned with those of Sonny, as reflected in the work of the Commonwealth.

What I can recall – and what we were certainly aware of – was the fact that there were a number of countries who didn’t take kindly to either Sonny or to some of Sonny’s initiatives. I would probably suspect Britain being foremost among them, since this was also the period when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. I think there was a school of thought which, indeed, in later years, became much more pronounced and visible, when you had some countries –  notably, Britain, and to some extent Australia, Canada and New Zealand, popularly known as the ABC countries – who were unhappy with some of the initiatives taken by Sonny. So, it wasn’t that Sonny, his initiatives and his kind of highly proactive role were appreciated by all the member states of the Commonwealth. I think there was criticism, and some of it was fairly vocal and visible, but there were others – certainly among the developing countries – who supported Sonny’s initiatives.

There were initiatives taken by Sonny in support of the ‘Small States’, another very important initiative because, by then – I forget the exact number – some 32 countries, roughly, more than half the membership of the Commonwealth, fell into the category of small states. 25 of the Small States were small island developing states, most notably in the Caribbean, but you also had a few island states in the Pacific. We had also some states in Africa and the Indian Ocean – Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives – so it was quite a sizeable group. And then we had this interesting initiative of a collective representation at the United Nations. I forget the exact number – I think it was a group of five or six countries that came together to have a collective mission supported by the Commonwealth.

So, we did see a very engaged and active Commonwealth, and I suppose it’s no secret that when Sonny threw his hat in the ring for the post of Secretary General of the United Nations, there were some countries which not only didn’t support him but actively campaigned against him.

SO:     Yes, that was in 1981. I understand Lord Carrington said that he would “personally swim the Atlantic to vote against Sonny becoming SG of the UN.”

FS:      So, I was around in those days and…Yes, so, Sonny, in a sense, paid the price for his activism and support of certain causes, which were not very popular among some of the member states of the Commonwealth.

SO:     Well, indeed. He certainly followed the instruction from Mrs Gandhi when he first became Secretary General, who told him, “You’ve got to shake it up! You’ve got to shake up the Commonwealth.” So, he certainly seized that remit with both hands. 

Sir, if I could ask you, please, your view on this. You talked about going as High Commissioner to Malaysia and working with Dr Mahathir on a number of Commonwealth-related issues. What was your perception of Dr Mahathir’s view of the Commonwealth when you arrived, and did you see it alter during the time that you were in Kuala Lumpur?

FS:      I think it’s fair to say that, when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur in August 1984, Dr Mahathir had a rather dim view of the Commonwealth. I think much of this probably had to do with the somewhat acrimonious relations that existed between him and Mrs Thatcher. One of the key foreign policy advisors of Dr Mahathir was a close friend – who, alas, has passed away. This was Tan Sri Dr Noordin Sopiee. Noordin, at that time, was the head of Malaysia’s premier think tank, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, ISIS – which obviously bears no relationship to the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] of today…

SO:     No!

FS:       …that’s currently in the news. Noordin worked closely with Dr M. I think he helped in writing some of his speeches. And so, when the issue of Dr M’s participation in the Commonwealth Summit in 1985 came up, there was some talk about whether Dr M would attend it or not. Well, I would like to think that both Noordin and myself argued strongly in favour of Dr Mahathir going to Nassau. One of the reasons that we argued in favour of his participation was that this would provide an excellent opportunity for him to promote the South Commission. Later, on his way to attend the Non-Aligned summit in Harare [1-6 September 1986], Dr M met with Julius Nyerere and was able to gain his support for the idea of the South Commission.

Then, of course, at the CHOGM in Vancouver in 1987, he surprised everyone by offering to host the next CHOGM in Kuala Lumpur in 1989, where Emeka was elected Secretary General. So, it was what I would call almost a 180 degree turnaround in the position of both Dr M and Malaysia.

SO:     Sir, would you say that this reconfiguration of the Malaysian Head of State’s focus on the Commonwealth was a product of advice from Foreign Service officials? I know that ISIS prepared a report arguing the pros of the Commonwealth as well as the cons, as did the Foreign Ministry in Malaysia. Had Dr Mahathir himself come to see how the Commonwealth could be used as a platform for Malaysian national interest? That is, as a way to reach out to individual African states, to promote trade and development, but also to set Malaysia more on the regional and international scene in south-east Asia?

FS:      Absolutely; 100%. One of the very interesting initiatives which Dr M took in later years was reaching out to African heads of government from the Commonwealth. And, indeed, he was involved in setting up a forum which, while not strictly under the umbrella of the Commonwealth, did have certainly some element of the Commonwealth in it – particularly since the 19 or so African countries that he reached out to were all member states of the Commonwealth. And he would meet with them regularly: once a year in Africa and once a year in Malaysia. This initiative was the Commonwealth Smart Partnership Summit.  I attended one of the summit meetings as a special guest. This was during the time when I was campaigning for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth: I thought the Smart Partnership was a splendid initiative taken by Dr M. It focussed on creating investment opportunities for the Malaysian private sector to invest in Africa. Indeed, I forget, but at one time, possibly during that visit to this event – it was at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe – I was told that Malaysia was the largest foreign investor in some nine or ten of the African Commonwealth member states. So, it wasn’t simply a talk show, it was backed by action. There were lots of business interests involved, and so he walked the walk: that was something which I certainly gave Dr Mahathir high marks for.

SO:     Sir, you say you attended a number of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings. This is a time when the press pay particular attention to the Commonwealth, and so it is certainly a highlight for the Commonwealth organisation. How far did you perceive that this question of personal contact – the personal chemistry between heads – was valuable glue for the organisation?

FS:      Oh, extremely. I thought, in fact, [that] the essence of CHOGM was the interaction between the heads. The Retreat, where heads mingled without their aides… The whole dynamics of that process was what made the Commonwealth, as an organisation, unique. You now have a Retreat in some of the other regional groups and organizations like SAARC, but I would say this whole idea of the need to see the heads together in an informal setting, where they could talk to each other without aides, came out of the Commonwealth and the CHOGM process. Going back to Lusaka, it was really the Retreat where you saw Malcolm Fraser and a few others prevail on Mrs Thatcher to give ground on the Rhodesia issue, which eventually led to the birth and independence of Zimbabwe. Similarly, when I attended CHOGM as Foreign Secretary in Auckland, although I did not attend the closed door meeting, I was at Millbrook where we had the Retreat. It was the way Nelson Mandela took charge and his personality that resulted in the birth of CMAG. If it wasn’t for Mandela, it was highly unlikely that the Africans would have agreed to take action against Abacha’s Nigeria at that time.

SO:     Yes, indeed. Sir, if I could ask about your recollections of Lusaka. You commented about Malcolm Fraser being of key importance in pressing Mrs Thatcher to go for an all-party conference. I know that there was a particular group of heads that stayed behind in Kenneth Kaunda’s study with Sonny Ramphal, while others went off to the Retreat. I just wondered if you recall at what point you realised that this was going on. Does there seem to be, at the retreats, a particular core of leaders that emerge or drive business? You suggest that again, in Auckland and Millbrook, Mandela was of critical importance in persuading his colleagues. Is there a pattern of a leader/group that emerges at a retreat?

FS:      I think very much so. I recall in the closed door sessions which I was privileged to attend at Lusaka, Nyerere was loud and clear on the subject of Rhodesia. He set the tone for the discussions on Rhodesia. I think that these discussions possibly prompted Malcolm Fraser to understand and appreciate the strong feeling and mood of the African Heads that were present. Mention should also be made of the role played by Kenneth Kaunda. The personality and deft handling of the summit proceedings by the Zambian President, Mr Kaunda, who was chairing the Summit, eventually led to the meeting of a group of Heads at the Retreat which resulted in the break-though. And you see this happening in other Commonwealth Summits. Of course, I’m not sure we will ever see someone match the kind of authority commanded by Nelson Mandela at the 1995 CHOGM or see a Head of Government dominate the proceedings the way Nelson Mandela did at the summit.

SO:     I understand that, at the Millbrook Retreat, there were two identified gainsayers [who were] against suspending Nigeria and the idea of CMAG: one was Robert Mugabe, and the other was Dr Mahathir. I understand from talking to Jim Bolger – who was, of course, the New Zealand Prime Minister and host of that meeting – that he and Nelson Mandela agreed to divide the responsibility of persuading these leaders between them. Mandela decided to talk to Robert Mugabe and Jim Bolger talked to Dr Mahathir to persuade them of the necessity of this.

FS:      Yes, well, as I said, I was not inside the room at the Retreat, frankly, but I did get some feedback from at least one person who was inside the room. It’s interesting that the person who was representing India on behalf of his Prime Minister was their Foreign Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, who now happens to be the President of India.

SO:     [Laughter].

FS:      And immediately after the Retreat was over, the head of our delegation and I met with Mr Mukherjee and the Indian Foreign (Permanent) Secretary and we did a post-mortem on what happened. And yes, I would say I have no reason to take issue with what you’ve just said regarding the role of Nelson Mandela and, of course, Mr Bolger at that time.

SO:     So, was that standard practice for the Bangladeshi and Indian High Commissioners and Permanent Secretaries to get together at a Commonwealth meeting to have a post-mortem from a South Asian point-of-view?

FS:      As you rightly pointed out, so much of this came out of not simply your own personal contacts, but the opportunities that an occasion like the Retreat provided for people to talk to each other on the side-lines. So, we certainly seized that opportunity. Both the head our delegation – who later became Foreign Minister, Mr Morshed Khan – and myself knew Mr Pranab Mukherjee extremely well. I had served as High Commissioner to India, during which period of time I got to know Mr Mukherjee extremely well and then I knew my counterpart the Indian Foreign Secretary extremely well. So, whenever we had an opportunity and found ourselves in the same city, we would meet. In this case, we were in the same complex at Millbrook, so we did certainly seize that opportunity to spend some time together.

SO:     Sir, would you say that, in addition to the contact between heads and the contact between senior officials, there’s also – as far as the Commonwealth is concerned – that beneficial loop of the High Commissioners’ regular meetings in post?

FS:      Absolutely. Obviously, the High Commissioners have a very important role to play, and they provide guidance and set the tone. I don’t know what the number is today, but I reckon we must have something pretty close to the entire membership of the Commonwealth represented in London through their High Commissioners. So, that is certainly a very important and useful platform to sort of support the work of the Commonwealth and provide it with a certain degree of guidance.

SO:     Sir, thank you for that. Please, could I ask your views on CMAG as it evolved out of the Millbrook Declaration? I am aware that, in the latter part of the 1990s, one of your key platforms in your bid to be Secretary General was indeed a reform of CMAG?

FS:      Well, at one level, I was certainly all for CMAG. There were issues, in a sense, which were articulated by Dr Mahathir about this being an instrument to be used primarily by the ABC countries to interfere in the affairs of the smaller developing countries in the Commonwealth, and that this was essentially a kind of one-way traffic, so to speak. My view on this was that a small ministerial action group would be certainly very important in terms of getting people to take the Commonwealth more seriously, because otherwise it was essentially a case of the Commonwealth acquiring a certain degree of prominence and relevance only when CHOGM or the summit took place. In between, there was a kind of a vacuum. So, CMAG would, in some ways, fill that vacuum. It would also address the issue – which remains a burning issue today – of the relevance of the Commonwealth.

So, I think CMAG did, to some extent, fulfil that role, but the fact of the matter is [that] a lot of countries in the membership – particularly in Africa – had reservations because they saw this as really something which was used by the ABC countries to focus attention on some of their misdeeds: violation of human rights and Zimbabwe being, of course, the most notable cases. My view on this was that we should balance the political agenda with the economic and social agenda, so that CMAG should not simply meet to address issues relating to the violation of human rights or where democracy was being threatened, but should also address the plight of its member states – whether it’s a humanitarian crisis or whether it’s the need for urgent economic assistance of one kind or another.

So, in a sense, the idea was to make CMAG in to a kind of a mini-Commonwealth Security Council with a fairly broad-based mandate, and where we wouldn’t necessarily have the problem which we currently face in the functioning of the [UN] Security Council, where you have five member states armed with the veto and where the Council can only act if and when all five permanent members agree on something. That, as we all know, is not very often.

SO:     How much support did you get for your suggestion that you should expand CMAG into being really a mini-Commonwealth security council? At what point did you decide to stand for the Secretary General position?

FS:      Oh, well, that came during my period as Foreign (Permanent) Secretary. The Commonwealth had never had a Secretary General from Asia and our Prime Minister at the time – who happens to be Prime Minister today, Sheikh Hasina – was someone who was quite committed to the Commonwealth. Part of this, of course, also goes back to the early days of Bangladesh and the fact that her father took a keen interest in the Commonwealth, and also the role played by Arnold Smith

SO:     Indeed.

FS:      …and the membership of the Commonwealth. So, when this issue of who would be the next Secretary General came up, I think we had already got some indication of the interest of the then-Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, Don McKinnon, in the position. Some of us took the view that it should be someone from Asia. And the Prime Minister, during the CHOGM in Edinburgh, spoke – I wasn’t there, so this is second-hand information – she spoke to two persons in Edinburgh. One was Mr Gujral, then-Prime Minister of India, who again was someone I happened to know extremely well from my days in Delhi as High Commissioner. When I arrived in Delhi in 1992, he was not holding any official position and we became – if I can be so bold as to use the term – good friends. We saw each other often, and so when he later became Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, I still had the privilege of being able to see him and he remembered our earlier relationship. The same was the case with Dr Mahathir, whom I got to know extremely well during my tenure as High Commissioner in Malaysia. Reportedly, Sheikh Hasina spoke to both of them in Edinburgh. She first asked them whether either India or Malaysia were planning to field a candidate for the post of Secretary General. When they both indicated that there were no such plans, she mentioned the fact that there had, so far, been no Secretary General from Asia. She raised the issue with the two of them, in particular, because India and Malaysia were the two, in a sense, most proactive member states within the Commonwealth from Asia: Dr M, because he was such a dominant personality in Asia; in the case of India, because it was India and India, certainly, in my view, loomed large within the framework of the Commonwealth.

So she spoke to the two of them and said, ‘What are your thoughts about the Commonwealth, and are you planning to field a candidate, and how would you react if I nominated Farooq for this position?’ And my information – as I said, I was not there – was that she received an enthusiastic response from both Mr Gujral as well as Dr Mahathir, which eventually led to my candidature. What happened was that Dr M remained not only committed but – again, my information is [second hand] – he lobbied very actively in supporting my candidature. Unfortunately, he didn’t show up at the Durban summit in November 1999 because it coincided with the run up to the General Elections in Malaysia and, therefore, reportedly, at least, the large number of Commonwealth countries – in particular, from Africa – who had promised him that they would support my candidature may not, in fact, have done so. The long and short of it is that Don McKinnon was the person chosen by the Heads of Government in the straw poll that is traditionally held to determine which candidate should be formally elected at the closed door meeting of the Heads in Durban under the chairmanship of President Mbeki of South Africa.

The other, I think, important development was that – shortly after Edinburgh – Mr Gujral ceased to be Prime Minister and Mr Vajpayee became Prime Minister. I would say that the attitude of [Vajpayee’s] BJP Government at that time was not particularly helpful. I would have, frankly, based the argument in support of my candidature as hinging very much on getting the support of the Asian region behind my candidature, and, obviously, if that support was not forthcoming, then I would say it seriously undermined my chances. So, India sat on the fence. They did, eventually… I was at Durban. Our Prime Minister was told by the Indian Prime Minister that India would support my candidature and the Indian Foreign Minister told me something similar, but my own feeling was that India’s support came rather late in the day, and had the Indians come out more openly in support, as I had hoped they would, we may – I’m not saying we would – we may have seen a somewhat different outcome.

SO:     Indeed. Sir, please if I could just ask you, coming out of those remarks… During your time as a leading Bangladeshi foreign service officer and leading civil servant, how had you regarded India’s commitment and involvement in the Commonwealth? You have said that, in the early part of the 1990s, India was very much more involved, but then you’ve indicated in the second part of that decade a greater degree of distance. I’m aware that, in the earlier period, when Mrs Gandhi was Prime Minister of India, that the Non-Aligned Movement was seen to be the principal platform and vehicle for India’s foreign policy, and that her successors had a varying degree of commitment to that. I’m constantly struck by India: although it is the largest democracy within the Commonwealth, it appears relatively reticent to use ‘the Commonwealth’ in quite the same way that Dr Mahathir came to use the association.

FS:      No, absolutely. I should add [that] many years later, when the election for the Secretary General took place, I had then strongly argued – as indeed I argued when I was campaigning for the position of Secretary General – that we needed to make the Commonwealth more broad-based and that the support of countries like India, South Africa, [and] Malaysia was crucial to the future of the Commonwealth: to its relevance and to its engagement in the international community. And so, I argued [that] when India floated the candidature of Kamalesh Sharma, who is now the Secretary General, that perhaps the best way of ensuring India’s engagement in the Commonwealth is through electing an Indian Secretary General. We have had an Indian Secretary General for the past seven years or so, and what is, in a sense, ironical, as far as I’m concerned, is that during most of this period we had Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister of India, where we had ample evidence of Mrs Gandhi’s legacy as distinct from Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. But the degree of interest and involvement and support extended by India to the Commonwealth, I think, at least in my view, left a lot to be desired.

SO:     Sir, how much is that a product of India’s foreign policy being shaped more by its regional interactions? By this I mean its regional interactions in the North-West with Pakistan, its regional interactions across its other frontiers with Bangladesh, the southern dimension of India’s foreign policy down towards Sri Lanka, and because these regional issues have a direct bearing on Indian domestic politics. So, India’s foreign policy is formulated in a very different way?

FS:      Well, I suppose many issues come into play here. India is today – unquestionably – not simply a regional power, but I would look upon India as an emerging global power. So, they have a very active ‘Look East’ policy. Central to this is its engagement with ASEAN and the Asia Pacific region: with Japan and with China. When I was ambassador in China some 25 years or so ago, Sino-Indian trade was less than $1 billion; today, the two countries expect their bilateral trade to cross $100 billion in the next two years. India’s relations with Russia remain close and the strategic partnership with the US has received a strong boost [with] Mr Modi taking over as PM. So, there’s been a change, and India has been lobbying aggressively – albeit with limited success – for a Permanent seat on the Security Council. So, India’s global agenda has, in my view, changed significantly. And I would have argued that, if India wished, it could have made the Commonwealth a rather useful platform – a platform which India could have easily dominated rather than allowing, if you like, Australia, Britain and Canada to run the show. But the long and short of it is [that] this hasn’t happened. I would basically say that there’s been very little interest, and my guess is that part of this goes back to the BJP government and their strong sense of national identity, their views about the Raj – the British Raj – and I would add to that their view that the Commonwealth is essentially a legacy of the past. Therefore, over-fraternisation or support for the Commonwealth didn’t quite gel with how they see the Commonwealth and its future, and my guess is that India’s interest in the Commonwealth under Modi will further decline rather than increase.

So, the challenge, really, for any Secretary General, as far as I’m concerned, has always been trying to reach out to the membership as a whole – to our friends in Africa and the Caribbean and so on. And yes, there are three or four issues where I think they have carved out a niche for themselves in terms of relevance: there’s the whole election monitoring process, which I think the Commonwealth does well; the support for the small states and that programme; and then, to some extent, the role played by CMAG. But it still remains an organisation where, in my view, at least, the ABC countries exercise a disproportionate influence. And a lot of this has to do with the interest and the degree of financial commitment of the other member states – most notably India and countries in Africa. So, this, once again, I think, brings to the forefront the whole issue of the relevance and what it is the Commonwealth is really all about?

SO:     Indeed. Sir, that’s a very good point for us to end the first part of our discussion. Thank you very much indeed.

FS:      Sure, I’d be quite happy to do a follow-up.



Transcript Part Two:

Location: Skype Internet Call between London and Dhaka

Date: 5th January 2015

SO:     Sir, your time is very precious, so thank you very much indeed for agreeing to a second discussion.

From your comments in the first interview, I would be very pleased if I could put to you questions on your view of the Commonwealth’s role on trade and investment for Bangladesh, and also for the South Asian region generally. I know this is your particular area of work and I’m trying to set in context the particular value of the Commonwealth or the Secretariat and its Secretary General towards Bangladesh’s own drive for development, be it in the public or private sector. How much importance would you attach to the Commonwealth as an association for sustainable development in Bangladesh?

FS:      I’m afraid you will have to be prepared for…not quite a barrage, but something close to it, because this is a subject which has certainly been of enormous interest to me. So, let me take you back all the way to 1997 and the Commonwealth summit which – if my memory holds good – gave birth to the Commonwealth Business Council [CBC] with which I was, over the years, very closely associated.

As we know, at the CHOGM in Edinburgh, under the chairmanship of Tony Blair, there was a view – it was, frankly, the same old subject – on, “How do we make the Commonwealth more relevant to the membership at large [and] to developing countries, such as Bangladesh?” Some of us had been advocating the idea of getting the Commonwealth more involved in business, trade and investment and carving out a role for the private sector, because it was understood that this was something which clearly needed to go beyond the inter-governmental framework. This was also something which didn’t, strictly speaking, fall within the ambit of the Commonwealth Foundation, and so we saw the birth of the Commonwealth Business Council.

Unfortunately – and I’m being quite candid – relations between the Secretariat and the Commonwealth Business Council over the years were not always the best. On the contrary, a sort of rivalry emerged. In the early years, largely because it was a new initiative and also because they were able to get, in my view, a few heavyweights involved from the private sector – I have in mind people like Lord Cairns, Simon Cairns, who was a very prominent member in Britain in the corporate world…You also had people like Mr Rahul Bajaj from India, one of India’s leading industrialists. They had other prominent business leaders from Australia and South Africa, namely my friend Cyril Ramaphosa, and many others.

These members of the Board of Directors of CBC were, in my view, leading business personalities not only in their own countries but also globally. Their involvement in the CBC helped in mobilising support and interest in the work of the CBC throughout the Commonwealth. I attended a number of meetings of the CBC in the early years. The CBC, a few days ahead of every CHOGM, would convene a Commonwealth Business Summit, which was very well attended by representatives of the private sector from across the Commonwealth. What made the CBC Summit a special attraction was the presence of several heads of government from the Commonwealth, who would come a day or two ahead of the CHOGM and would be invited to address the Business Summit. This also provided an opportunity to those attending the Business Summit to meet the heads. It did acquire a certain relevance, but I should say that this almost inevitably meant that the role of the Commonwealth Secretariat itself was seriously diminished in the area of trade and investment. ComSec assumed, primarily, the roles of providing technical support, producing research papers, doing some capacity-building and working primarily with the government. So, you had the inter-governmental process on trade and investment under the ambit of the Secretariat, whereas the actual business promotion work and interaction within the private sector across the Commonwealth was taking place under the umbrella of the Commonwealth Business Council.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, there were one or two other initiatives. One initiative with which I was briefly associated was the Commonwealth Smart Partnership which was promoted by Dr Mahathir when he was the Prime Minister of Malaysia. In my view, the Commonwealth Smart Partnership seems to have worked extremely well. Dr Mahathir would meet twice a year with all the African heads of government – once a year in Africa, where it would rotate among the African member states of the Commonwealth, and once a year in Malaysia. These twice a year summit meetings attracted a lot of high profile businessmen from Africa and Malaysia, and a number of joint ventures resulted thanks to this Smart Partnership initiative of Dr Mahathir. In these twice a year summit meetings, you had the Presidents and Prime Ministers from Commonwealth member states in Africa present. So, it was a very high level participation [and was] attended by top businessmen, which produced some concrete results in respect of joint ventures. Malaysia emerged as the largest foreign investor in a number of these Commonwealth member states in Africa. So, we actually saw some concrete results emerge on the ground in the area of trade and investment but, in all honesty, I can’t say that the success for this goes to the Commonwealth Secretariat or the Commonwealth Secretary General. I think these were initiatives which were quite independent of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Secretary General.

SO:     Sir, I have one question. In his memoirs, Chief Emeka presents, understandably, a rather different view. He emphasises the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative which led to the establishment of the South Asia Regional Fund early in 1998. Now, in your view, was that really of relatively little importance then?

FS:      My candid answer is ‘yes’. In fact, as someone who was associated with this on the margins, frankly, it had very little impact. We did do a couple of events, but I would say [these were] of very little significance. So, the perennial problem of the Secretariat was something which, in my view, was quite visible in the case of its programmes and initiatives in the area of trade and investment.

One big perennial problem was the issue of funding and resources. I think the second was that there were so many other initiatives on the table which seemed better resourced and better funded, and where there was much greater impact and resonance. So, my sense was that the role of the Commonwealth in the area of trade and investment was, to a large extent, overshadowed by the work of the Commonwealth Business Council, as well as the Commonwealth Smart Partnership.

I should say that, as someone who worked very closely with successive Heads or Directors of the Economic Affairs Division [EAD] at the Commonwealth Secretariat over a period of almost three decades, I was always impressed by the high quality of the people at EAD. But if you make a comparison between the time that Sonny was Secretary General and then compare that to Emeka’s tenure as SG, and then compare that to Don McKinnon’s tenure, and then compare that to the present situation, what do we see? We see an Economic Affairs Division which, in terms of numbers… I can’t give you an exact figure offhand, but which was probably close to one hundred during its heyday under Sonny. Today, it’s probably down to maybe ten, twelve, fourteen people. It’s a mere shadow of what it used to be.

During Sonny’s tenure, when I was chairing the Group of 77 in New York, we constantly referred to the work of some of the commissions set up by Sonny on the global economy, on the North/South divide, [and] on the New International Economic Order. So, the Commonwealth was very prominent in terms of the dialogue taking place at the highest level. That completely evaporated during Emeka’s time. The quest during the years that followed was the effort to find a new role or perhaps a niche area. Thus we see the Commonwealth giving special attention to subjects like corruption and how to combat corruption and money laundering. There was this quest for relevance, and I think that probably did prompt people to say, “Shouldn’t we have a role here for the private sector?” And it was perhaps this that resulted in the birth of the Commonwealth Business Council. As a result, when it comes to key subjects like trade and investment, we see the Secretariat becoming even less relevant, because the focus of attention on these two key issues had clearly shifted to the Commonwealth Business Council.

SO:     Please, if I could just ask… I understand that the Secretariat has contracted dramatically since the heyday of Sir Sonny Ramphal, who was running a mini-United Nations in terms of the size of the Secretariat and its breadth of human skill resources. But is it also, surely, a question of the commitment of funding from member states? I know that at the meeting of the Bangladesh chapter of The Round Table in 2011, you yourself were arguing very strongly that there needed to be more funding for the Secretariat from India, from South Africa, from Singapore and Malaysia. When the South Asia Regional Fund was established in January 1988, there were commitments of $108 million, but has there not been a marked gap between these commitments and actually producing money to implement mandates?

FS:      I don’t know of any concrete figures, Sue, but my guess is that very little of that $108 million commitment ever actually translated into hard cash or into programmes. And, yes, funding was a big issue. I had always argued – and this was perhaps the centrepiece of my platform when I was campaigning for the post of Secretary General – that if the Commonwealth is to have relevance and importance in the world today, we really need to see many more member states playing an active role in the Commonwealth: in particular, countries like India, South Africa, Malaysia, [and] Singapore, just to mention a few. We need to get out of this ABC syndrome where member states from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific would complain about the dominant role played by the ABC countries but [then would] be unwilling to be more proactive. But the fact is that what little funding still continued to come into supporting the work of the Secretariat came from the ABC countries, so the crunch issue of getting financial support from a wider group of member states didn’t really materialise. We did see some of these countries give some support for a while to the Commonwealth Business Council but, in most cases, it was corporate houses rather than governments that extended the financial support. As I mentioned earlier, the Malaysians gave their full support as well as the funding for the Smart Partnership Initiative, so they felt they were doing their bit.

As someone who has tracked India’s involvement in the Commonwealth over the years, I can say that India’s interest in the Commonwealth pretty much evaporated after the departure of Sonny. Sonny had an excellent personal rapport with Mrs Gandhi. I was at the Commonwealth Summit in Delhi in 1983, when Sonny got five more years as SG – without a note of dissent, thanks to Mrs Gandhi. The drafting committee – of which I was a member – was chaired by Dr Manmohan Singh, who later became Prime Minister of India. The declaration that was adopted at Delhi clearly reflected Mrs Gandhi’s commitment to the Commonwealth and endorsed the role of the Commonwealth in support of a New International Economic Order, a pet subject of Sonny’s.

During the tenure of Emeka, he [Emeka] invited Dr Manmohan Singh to chair one of the commissions set up by him, while he [also] invited another famous Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner, Professor Amartya Sen, to chair another commission. [Still,] India’s interest in the Commonwealth never ever matched the interest shown during the years that Mrs Gandhi was in power or during the many years that her father, Pandit Nehru, was in power. We never ever saw the Commonwealth regain the kind of glory or importance or attention it enjoyed on economic issues as it did during the Ramphal years.

An area where the Secretariat did play an important role was in support of the Small States. Thirty-two of the fifty-four member states of the Commonwealth are designated as small states, mainly by virtue of the small size of the country and its population. The Small States programme did acquire a certain degree of relevance and resonance, but then we see the United Nations, having first focussed attention on the Least Developed Countries, then also extending the support of the UN and some of the specialised agencies to programmes in support of small states, which extended to both land-locked as well as island-developing countries. So, even in this niche area carved out by the Commonwealth Secretariat, I find that over the years the Commonwealth’s role and its programmes have shrunk quite visibly. This is explained by the simple fact that less resources and less manpower have reduced the capacity of ComSec to be active even in key niche areas. This, in turn, has adversely impacted on ComSec’s ability to mobilise interest across the Commonwealth.

So, ComSec remains an institution where the ABC [countries] continue to dominate. We, of course, have a situation currently where, for various reasons, Canada, which has been a major supporter over the years of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation [CFTC], has decided to cut back its funding to CFTC. So, the whole issue of resources continues to bedevil the work of the Secretariat.

SO:     Sir, could I also ask… In addition to a diminution of resources at the Secretariat in terms of capacity, a lack of attention to trade and development, [and] the comparative importance of the Commonwealth Business Council, has the Commonwealth also been a victim of the growth of regionalism among its members? I’m referring specifically, in the case of Bangladesh, to the SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. So, if there has been an emergence of a tighter group of seven and then eight member states who are able to collaborate precisely because there is a regional focus to their activities, does this then mean a shift in international relations, as more regional associations establish themselves? Does this diminish the importance of the Commonwealth as an overarching association?

FS:      Yes, absolutely. I would say that the move towards regionalism is in evidence throughout the Commonwealth. In the Asia-Pacific region, we have the Pacific Forum, we have ASEAN, [and] we have SAARC. In South Africa, we have SADC. In West Africa, we have ECOWAS, and in East Africa, we have the East African Community. And then we have CARICOM in the West Indies. And if that wasn’t enough, we also have to accept that, even in the case of the ABC countries…We note that Britain, for example – and this was a big issue over the years – is willing to invest much more in its membership in the EU than it was ever willing to do in the case of the Commonwealth. NAFTA became Canada’s prime focus. For Australia and New Zealand, they were members of the OECD [and] they were much more plugged into their relations with Britain and the US than they ever were with the Commonwealth. And then we see the Australians pioneering their own initiatives, two examples of this being their involvement in APEC and in the Indian Ocean Rim.

But what I had suggested, again, in this quest for relevance was [that], if we look at all of these organisations that I’ve mentioned, we see that we have member states of the Commonwealth actively involved. If we look at, certainly, CARICOM, virtually the entire membership of CARICOM is made up of Commonwealth member states. If we look at SADC, for example, the overwhelming majority of members are from the Commonwealth and this holds true for the East African Community. It holds true for ECOWAS and, to a lesser extent, it holds true in the case of ASEAN, where we have Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. In the case of South Asia we have India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and also the Maldives that are members of SAARC. I would like to say, “Look, where the Commonwealth can play a role is through bringing the heads of these regional organisations together, so that they can exchange experiences and can share best practices.” It can be a good platform: to develop better connectivity among these regional bodies on trade and investment, in particular within the Third World. Well, this remained and still does [remain] a proposal which has simply gathered dust. I don’t think anyone took it up seriously. So, we are where we are today, limping along rather sadly.

SO:     Yes, indeed. With the establishment of SAARC, was there a conscious echoing of the structures of the Commonwealth in terms of setting up a Secretariat in Kathmandu and having regional offices, as well as the idea of the Secretary General? In other words, did the Commonwealth provide something of a template for this South Asian regional forum?

FS:      Well, yes and no. As someone who was closely associated with the birth of SAARC – in fact, I wrote the concept paper for SAARC way back in November 1979 – to be perfectly frank, the last institution we had in mind was the Commonwealth. What we did look at very closely was the ASEAN experience and what lessons we could learn from programmes we might borrow from ASEAN. But, having said that, yes, we followed the practice of the Commonwealth in having a Secretariat, but the SAARC Secretariat is a very different kettle of fish compared to ComSec.

The SAARC secretariat has a Secretary General. He has eight Directors, one each from the eight member states who are on secondment for a period of three years from their Foreign Office. Each of them, I reckon…The number of subjects covered by SAARC would now number in the region of twenty-plus, so each Director gets two or three subjects to look after.

In my view, it’s been a very unhappy arrangement. The Secretariat is very poorly funded. In the early years, we fought battles over strengthening the Secretariat. There was strong resistance from the Indians who wanted to keep it weak and feeble and poorly funded. The Secretary General was there for two years and, with great difficulty, we got his term extended to three years, but the SAARC Secretariat has been an even weaker institution or organisation than the Commonwealth Secretariat. It should also be noted that the Commonwealth Secretary General enjoys a much higher status than the SAARC Secretary General, and his discretionary powers are far greater than the SAARC Secretary General, who has virtually no authority to take any initiative without the approval of all eight member states.

We have a lot of interest to support SAARC now from the World Bank and all the major countries from the US to China to Japan, but the Indians have not been very supportive of the idea of giving a role to outside powers to support the regional cooperation process. There seems to have been some shift, recently, in the Indian position. They seem now quite willing to allow the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and others to play a role, but we still have to see what actually happens on the ground.

The second point is the Summit and the format of the Summit. We do have a retreat along the lines of the Commonwealth’s retreat. The Summit itself, unfortunately, is much more in the nature of a structured meeting with set speeches by the heads of government. Frankly, we’ve tried very hard over the years to change the format of the Summit but without success, because the heads of government seem quite keen to deliver long speeches singing the praises of regional cooperation, presenting a catalogue of their hopes and expectations for the region. The speeches are all milk and honey, and then nothing happens after that. So, as someone who has been intimately associated with this whole exercise, the attention has now shifted within the region to specific projects. So, we see some activity in the area of energy co-operation, [and] in the area of connectivity, trade and investment. But these projects are taking place outside the framework of SAARC, with two or three countries coming together, looking at an opportunity and then moving forward with help possibly from the World Bank or ADB to implement a particular project.

So, SAARC itself is going through an evolutionary phase. Another major problem which impeded the progress of SAARC was the India/Pakistan problem, so I would frankly say that at no juncture did we ever look to the Commonwealth as an example to follow. For us, it has always been ASEAN, since they’re our next-door neighbour, and, to some extent, the European Union. A fair amount of work has been done in the way of research and comparative analysis, but it has always been ASEAN and the EU, never the Commonwealth.

SO:     So, you were looking more at the EU model and the ASEAN model in the diplomacy of trying to establish a South Asia free trade area to lower tariff and non-tariff barriers?

FS:      Correct. and that, too, in a sense, has acquired its own dynamics, because we now have a situation where you might say SAFTA has become largely irrelevant. India has a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka, and India is providing duty free access which it had done earlier for Nepal and Bhutan. It has now also done so in the case of Bangladesh and the Maldives. So, for all of us, we now have duty free access to the Indian market. This is indeed a big step forward. What we’re now struggling over is the issue of the removal of non-tariff barriers and moving forward in the area of road, rail, and sea connectivity, which has been totally neglected over the years. We are now focussed on specific projects, and although India has given duty free access to all the countries – with the exception of Pakistan – progress within the framework of SAARC continues to be impeded because of the India/Pakistan divide. So, SAARC continues to limp along. We’ve seen progress in some areas, but we are now really going much more in the direction of sub-regional co-operation rather than regional co-operation.

SO:     Sir, in terms of the relevance of the Commonwealth, I made reference to the 2011 meeting of the Bangladesh chapter of The Round Table where, in addition to recommending that there should be pressure for more funding for the Secretariat, you also recommended permanent Election Commissioners. I wondered… What was the origin of your thinking there?

FS:      In support of full disclosure and full transparency, you’re very gracious in giving us the fig leaf of The Round Table, but these were really my ideas which I had propounded as far back as 1998-99 when I was campaigning for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth. So, I repeated some of these ideas and no one seemed to object violently to these ideas. But it goes back to this whole issue of the relevance of the Commonwealth, and one area where the Commonwealth has done good work has been in the area of observing elections, providing support, [and] building the Election Commissions in different countries, including my own. This was an area where the Commonwealth had built up a track record. We [the Commonwealth] had done work with Election Commissions [and] we’d sent election observers to a number of countries, with remarkably good results. There was strong acceptance. I know that I speak for Bangladesh [when I say that], during the four free and fair elections that we’ve had over the years, we have always reached out to the Commonwealth for support, and that support has been available.

My point was that – again, as someone who was associated with some of the work – one of the problems the Commonwealth always faced with election observers was getting people to agree to join an election observer mission at short notice. So, I thought [that] if you have a permanent panel of observers then it makes this process of looking for people to sign on less arduous. Then, with perhaps twenty Commonwealth Election Observers on this panel, action to mobilise a team of observers will be much easier. The twenty members would be selected by the Secretary General in consultation with member states. Every two years, five observers from the panel can step down to be replaced by five new observers. The Commonwealth’s Panel of Election Observers could then become a prestigious body. So, for example, if Bangladesh has someone who’s a member of the Commonwealth’s Panel of Election Observers, this will be considered a feather in the cap of the individual as well as the country. So, it was [with a mind] to institutionalise this practice, to give it more prominence and to make life easier for the Secretariat that I put forward this proposal.

In my view, ComSec generally faces two problems in putting together a team of election observers. First is the issue of funding, and second is the challenge in finding the right people and that, too, at short notice. This has always been something of a challenge for the Secretariat. So, if you have a fixed panel of Election Observers, it should be easier to get some funding for its work, and an election observer mission can be mobilised at short notice.

SO:     Sir, when you were campaigning for the position of Secretary General, what was the reaction to this important idea?

FS:      Well, as I went round the Commonwealth and said all these things, my sense was – to the best of my knowledge – [that] everyone warmly endorsed all these ideas and suggestions. It cost them very little to endorse what, at that time, were just ideas, and so no one seriously questioned it. I think, for them, the much more important issue was not the ideas that I put forward or for anyone to say, “We would like to elect Farooq because he’s put better ideas on the table than Don McKinnon has.” I think that was never the issue in terms of who should we support. It may well have, perhaps, resonated with one or two people, but at the end of the day, it was always other factors that determined their preference. The issue was more what New Zealand was bringing to the table as compared to Bangladesh. How much support was New Zealand able to mobilise compared to Bangladesh? I don’t think any country ever gave much importance to the issue of ideas. Although… It is fair to add that, for a number of developing countries, the argument that there had never been a Secretary General from Asia struck a sympathetic chord.

SO:     Sir, please, could I ask you about your involvement in the work of the Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development? I’m aware that you are a Patron and also that you were one of the Ramphal Commissioners investigating the easing of Visa requirements for business travellers and tourism. This was a report, supported by the Secretariat, which you prepared for submission to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2013. What was the diplomacy around that particular Visa project of 2013?

FS:      First of all, about migration and development… Obviously, the right person to talk to about both these initiatives of the Ramphal Institute would be our mutual friend Richard [Bourne], and also Patsy [Robertson], but I can give you my ten cents worth as a Ramphal Commissioner.

Firstly, the idea of setting up the Ramphal Institute was to honour Sonny Ramphal and to try and develop some capacity to do research which could compliment and support the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat – in some ways, reviving some of the things which Sonny himself did under the umbrella of the Commonwealth when he was Secretary General. Now, because of resource constraints and so forth, it may be more difficult and problematic to do those things, hence the rationale for the Ramphal Institute.

We took up migration and development because this is a subject of enormous importance. I would venture to say to the entire membership of the Commonwealth [that], “You are almost, without exception, either a receiving country or a sending country in terms of the movement of persons.” Moreover, remittances received by most of the member states are of enormous importance to the economic growth and development of these countries. There is also the issue of ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain gain’, and then there’s the issue of the Commonwealth melting pot and the fact that Britain today reflects the Commonwealth as a melting pot of the entire membership. I thought we did some very interesting work. I still believe that one of the most important subjects for the twenty-first century, on the global agenda, is the subject of migration and development. Whether we like it or not, people will move in search of a better life. The key issue is: under what terms and conditions do they move?  Under the terms of reference of the Commission, we covered a wide range of issues such as the importance of remittances, the need for skills training, problems faced by migrant workers, the role of diasporas, education, etc.

On the issue of Visas, well, this came out of a very practical problem that a number of countries – including my own – were facing. On the one hand, all the member states are very keen to promote business, trade and investment, but on the other hand, it has becoming increasingly difficult for nationals of the overwhelming majority of member states to get visas to enter certain Commonwealth countries, most notably Australia, Britain and Canada. Even in other parts of the world, getting visas to go to India or to Pakistan or even my own country, Bangladesh, can pose problems.

 As you know, this idea of looking at easing visa restrictions was the recommendation of the Eminent Persons Group. The Commonwealth Secretariat entrusted the Ramphal Institute to undertake the work and I was invited by the Ramphal Institute to visit Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia as one of three Commissioners entrusted with meeting a select group of countries. During my visit to the six countries – including my own – I was able to meet Senior Officials and, in some cases, the relevant Cabinet Ministers. The response I received was quite encouraging, on the whole. There was support for easing visa restrictions for businessmen. We were promoting the idea of the APEC Business Card where, once you go through a process of vetting, you get a business card and that entitles you to a three-year or five-year multiple entry Visa. And so, for businessmen, travel becomes a lot easier, especially since businessmen frequently need to travel at very short notice and may need to visit a particular country at regular intervals.

Everyone endorsed this idea, but in some cases with a few caveats. The issue with the Canadians was that, “We are tied at the hip to the Americans because we have all kinds of agreements with them, and we can only move at the pace at which the Americans will feel comfortable.” But in principle, they said yes, the APEC Business Card was a good idea, and if we could adopt something similar for the Commonwealth this would be a step forward. I got similar responses from all the countries I visited, so the recommendation we made was that the Commonwealth should try and adopt a visa programme along the lines of the APEC Business card. I think the decision at CHOGM in Colombo in 2013 was that the ComSec would do some further work on our recommendations with a view to taking it forward, or that at least some Commonwealth member states could sign on to a Commonwealth Business card or something similar.

SO:     Sir, did your fellow commissioners – Dr Michael Frendo and Dr James Jonah – similarly receive broad support from the countries that they visited? Or did they identify a particular resistance?

FS:      My understanding is [that] they did receive similar support, but I believe you’re much better off having a chat with Richard.

SO:     I’ll do that. I just wondered if, when you came to compare notes with your fellow Ramphal Commissioners, whether one of you had encountered a much more hostile reception to such ideas. I will certainly pursue this question with Richard.

So, it seems that this idea was tabled to the CHOGM but – like so many recommendations – it seems to have been pushed on to the backburner? This was something that was ‘taken under review’?

FS:      Correct. It’s really for the member states to push this forward. What I can say is that I did keep the Bangladesh government fully informed about both the work that I did for the Commission on Migration and Development and, later, the work I did on visas. In both cases there was strong support from the Bangladesh Government, both in Perth [at the 2011 CHOGM] – for the work which we did on migration and development – and also in respect of easing visa restrictions at [the 2013] CHOGM in Colombo. The Commonwealth Secretariat was asked to take appropriate follow up action in both cases. It is really now up to the Secretariat and the membership because, whilst there may be some countries that were very enthusiastic, there were others that had reservations. Maybe those reservations were muted in terms of the consultations that I carried out and those of the other commissioners. [But] in terms of actually giving the proposal legs and substance, without their full support and backing, I don’t see very much happening.

SO:     Sir, I have two questions. First, given your involvement in foreign affairs for over thirty years, what is your view of the value of the Commonwealth’s quiet diplomacy around the fringes of the UNO, in the run up to the annual General Assembly meeting which takes place every September? And, secondly, what is your view of the role and value of the Commonwealth going forward?

FS:      On the issue of quiet diplomacy… Yes, in a number of cases in Africa and the Pacific – even in South Asia – we have seen the Commonwealth play an important role in trying to resolve some internal problems through quiet diplomacy. This is really very much a matter for member states themselves to decide whether they would like to welcome the good offices of the Commonwealth or whether they would prefer the good offices of the UN or both.

I know Bangladesh has, on more than one occasion, welcomed the good offices of the Commonwealth, and I would say, certainly, on one occasion, we nearly pulled it off in the sense that we came within a millimetre of being able to reach a consensus on a very touchy and difficult political problem. In October-November 1994, Sir Ninian Stephen, the former Governor General of Australia, spent nearly six weeks in Dhaka as Special Envoy of the Commonwealth in an effort to broker an agreement on the composition of the caretaker government under whom the next elections – due in February 1996 – would take place. So, I’m all for continuing this particular role of the Commonwealth, but, as we know, this is something which depends largely on member states themselves. There will be those who would welcome it and there will be those who would have reservations about it.

With regard to the future of the Commonwealth, my view is, yes, I am still a strong believer and supporter of the Commonwealth. I think it does have a role to play, but I think we need to go back to addressing this issue of relevance. How do we make the Commonwealth more relevant to the membership as a whole, rather than just to a handful of countries? And I think we do need to revisit issues like the role of the Commonwealth in terms of certain key institutions, whether it’s in the political sphere or in the economic and social spheres. We need to take a hard look at the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group. I think there is still a very important role for the Commonwealth to play, but we need to give it a push. I think we need to see how we can reach out to the membership as a whole, and that will be a big challenge for whoever succeeds Kamalesh Sharma.

SO:     Do you feel that the issue of the Headship is, in any way, relevant to the future of the Commonwealth? Or is it a distraction? Does having as Head someone who happens to be the current British Monarch give an image of a relatively outdated institution in the twenty-first century?

FS:      This is one of those difficult questions. I would be inclined to think that Her Majesty the Queen has certainly been a huge plus point for the Commonwealth. It certainly has contributed significantly to giving the Commonwealth a certain degree of visibility. But, at the same time, I would think the issue of whether we need to continue this practice – and, if so, in what form – I think this is something the membership needs to address: whether we need to have, as we do at the moment, a permanent Head of the Commonwealth for life, as is the case at present. Do you need to have someone who is there for a fixed tenure, [or should] the current Chair of the Summit assume this role of the Head of the Commonwealth? Or, do we need a Head of Commonwealth at all? It’s really not for me to say. It’s for the member states to sit down and discuss this and try and arrive at a consensus.

SO:     Sir, just to conclude then…How far do you feel that the future of the Commonwealth – its strength and viability – lies with its professional and civil society organisations, rather than with the inter-governmental heads of government aspect of the association?

FS:      Yet again, I’ve always seen this as a kind of partnership. I think the non-governmental half of the Commonwealth has been a very important part of it. They constitute a very important part of the Commonwealth, and I have always seen this as a partner relationship between the inter-governmental process and the non-governmental process. A number of these Commonwealth organisations and associations have played an important role, and that’s really where the strength of the Commonwealth comes from. We need to revisit this aspect of the Commonwealth to see how we can further strengthen some of these organisations.

I believe civil society has a very important role to play, and civil society organisations in the Commonwealth need to be further encouraged. But having said that, we need to also accept the fact that in many parts of the Commonwealth, some of these organisations – particularly those that might focus on human rights and freedom of the press – can be strong critics of [those] governments that [they] believe are violating some of the fundamental principles endorsed by all Commonwealth member states, most notably at the Commonwealth Summits at Singapore, Harare and Auckland.

SO:     That was the very thought which was coming to my mind just as you were speaking. Sir, thank you very much indeed for your time. I’m extremely grateful for these frank comments.

FS:      My pleasure, Sue. Thank you.