The case for a strong Commonwealth can be made very effectively by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Malta at the end of this week. He will be a new, fresh, non-cynical voice representing a founding Commonwealth member that, under his father and under prime minister Brian Mulroney defied the Anglo and U.S. establishments to oppose apartheid to great effect. This under the leadership of then-secretary-general Sir Sonny Ramphal.
That spirit and courage eludes the Commonwealth today. After eight years of lacklustre and week-kneed leadership under Kamalesh Sharma, a decent but ineffective Secretary-General, the Commonwealth has been missing in action on Sri Lankan human rights, vicious anti-gay laws in some parts of Africa and continued weakness in the promotion of judicial independence and democracy.
In Malta, heads of government will be choosing a new Secretary-General. One candidate, Sir Ronald Sanders of Antigua and Barbuda (now their ambassador to Washington, previously two-time high commissioner to Britain) is a twice knighted, former chair of the apartheid sanctions subcommittee of the Commonwealth.
He is an indefatigable, eloquent and experienced proponent of Commonwealth reform.
He was, with eight others (myself included), the co-author of the Eminent Persons Group Report that called for broad reform and modernization of the Commonwealth, especially around human rights, development and climate change. In the great cycle of alternation, it is now the Caribbean’s turn to lead the Commonwealth. All but one Commonwealth Caribbean country (Dominica) are stoutly behind Sir Ronald, and these countries are all Canadian allies and trading partners.
Dominica’s candidate, British peer Baroness Patricia Scotland, is a former British attorney-general and is disqualified by many for having accepted a well-paying brief from a junta in the Maldives to argue against the Commonwealth’s legitimacy when it and Canada sought the restoration of democracy in that country.
Two African candidates either come from repressive regimes or were part of the former SG’s ineffective terms in office. A possible Australian entry, their member of the high commissioner’s club in London, carries with him Australia’s horrific record of playing footsie with the now rebuked Sri Lankan regime to refuse refugees of colour from their shores.
Sir Ronald has wide support in Asia, in the many countries of the western Pacific, the Caribbean and even in Africa.
Mr. Trudeau has an important opportunity to continue a Canadian heritage of engagement across this 53-country alliance that represents every race and religion in the world, with 2.3 billion citizens, by supporting a leader who, in the tradition of Sir Sonny Ramphal of Guyana, will make the Commonwealth into a serious soft-power force.
The limits to military and hard-power prospects are readily apparent.
The Commonwealth, on education, development, human rights and diversity, can be a force for good – one that is desperately needed in these troubled times.
About Author: Hugh Segal is master of Massey College, and a former Canadian special envoy to the Commonwealth.