PM speaks at the Commonwealth Joint Forum Plenary: 17 April 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to the Joint Plenary Forum at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018.

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Thank you, Zeinab, and good morning everyone. It is an honour for the UK to serve as host of the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and it is a pleasure to welcome the world to our wonderful capital city.

London, perhaps more than any other place, embodies what the Commonwealth is all about. It is a city that draws strength from its diversity, that welcomes people from every continent and unites them as part of a greater whole. And it is a city that is rightly proud of the contribution made to its history by members of this very special and enduring family of nations – a contribution that contributes to this day, and which we will always value.

As we meet in this most Commonwealth of cities, the Commonwealth itself must confront global uncertainty. It is a time when our members and the wider world are faced both with emerging new threats, and with a resurgence of challenges and arguments many thought had been consigned to history.

Free and fair trade, which for decades has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, is under threat from a new wave of protectionism. Climate change imperils not only lives and property, but also risks undoing half a century of progress by pushing millions back below the poverty line. And health risks continue to evolve, be it through antimicrobial resistance or the rise in non-communicable conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

These are global challenges that require global solutions. Yet, at the very moment that international co-operation is so important, some nations are choosing instead to shun the rules-based international system that underpins global security and prosperity.

And the danger of the rules based system being undermined is nowhere more obvious right now than in Syria. On top of the huge suffering inflicted on the Syrian people by years of conflict, we have seen a persistent pattern of behaviour in the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, most recently in the barbaric attack on Douma earlier this month.

That the use of chemical weapons is morally wrong and strictly prohibited is one of the international community’s most protected norms. Yet in Syria, we risk seeing that principle eroded.

We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, or on the streets of the UK or elsewhere. So through international co-operation, we must reinforce the rules-based system and ensure it is protected for future generations.

And it has never been more critical that the Commonwealth demonstrate its capacity and willingness to make a difference and provide support both for the rules-based order, and the very concept of international co-operation.

But I am confident that our family of nations can rise to these challenges.

Because the Commonwealth is unique. No other organisation can rival both our geographical and cultural diversity while giving all nations an equal role, an equal voice and equal standing. From small tropical islands to the vast Arctic tundra, from nations of just a few thousand people to countries that are home to hundreds of millions, the modern Commonwealth is a snapshot of the world at large.

Many of the challenges faced by the world today are the challenges being tackled across the Commonwealth every day, and when we capture a consensus on how to deal with them it gives us a truly global voice that no regional body can claim.

That is why, everywhere I look this week, I see a Commonwealth that is optimistic about its future.

I see it in the return of The Gambia, which left our family of nations at the behest of a dictator but has been welcomed back following free and fair elections.

I see it in the new generation of leaders arriving here in London, Prime Ministers like Jacinda Ardern, Roosevelt Skerrit, and of course Andrew Holness. All were born in the closing decades of the 20th century, all have their eyes fixed firmly on the possibilities of the 21st.

I see it in business leaders who are forging new links, driving exciting innovations, and creating opportunities that will benefit millions.

Most of all, I see it in the members of the Commonwealth Youth Forum. Five hundred exceptional young people from around the world, united by their desire to make their communities, their nations, their Commonwealth and their world a better place for us all.

And those 500 young people here in London represent many more around the world. While the Commonwealth of Nations is nearly 70 years old, the people it serves are far younger. Today, some 60 per cent of Commonwealth citizens are under the age of 30.

If they are to be inspired and engaged by the Commonwealth, if this organisation is to maintain its relevance and fulfil its potential, then we must meet the challenges that the Youth Forum and others have laid at our feet. We must deal with the problems they have highlighted, showing that the Commonwealth is capable of shaping a safer, prosperous, more sustainable world for all of us.

So let us use our unique voice to shape global opinion. Let us use our diversity to generate new solutions to our problems and the world’s problems. And let us lead by example, working together to light the path towards our common future.

Let us begin by making this a more sustainable Commonwealth. Our members know only too well the many threats faced by the world’s oceans. That is why, this week, I want us to agree a landmark Blue Charter to safeguard our seas for generations to come. The Charter sets out the principles by which member countries will lead international efforts by sustainably developing and protecting their oceans. It is a commitment to real action that will benefit members and non-members alike.

In addition, the UK will be working with Vanuatu to lead the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, investing more than £61 million to help fellow members tackle the scourge of plastic pollution and support the sustainable growth of marine economies.

We are only meeting in London this week because of the devastation wrought on Vanuatu by Cyclone Pam in 2015. The impact of other recent extreme weather events in the Caribbean and Pacific have underlined the vulnerability of smaller states across the Commonwealth. So I am proud to say that the UK, long a supporter of such nations, is investing a further £44 million to help improve members’ ability to prepare for and deal with natural disasters of all kinds. It is an issue Prime Minister Holness and I have already spoken about this morning.

But extreme weather is not the only threat our people face from nature. Today, some 90 per cent of Commonwealth citizens live in countries where malaria is endemic. Worldwide, the disease kills 445,000 people every year, many in the Commonwealth and most of them children. Malaria has a serious impact on the economies of countries it affects. The human cost is incalculable.

We cannot talk to the young people of the world, talk about securing a legacy for our children and grandchildren, without tackling a disease that, worldwide, kills one of them every two minutes.

That is why, this week, I will be calling on my fellow leaders to commit to halving malaria across the Commonwealth by 2023.

It is an ambitious goal, but one that is firmly within our reach. Since the Commonwealth Heads of Government last met, Sri Lanka has been declared malaria-free. Malaysia is on-course to eliminate the disease by 2020. And, since the year 2000, global malaria deaths have been cut by more than 60 per cent – the result of a concerted effort by governments, civil society groups, and individuals alike.

Bill, you and Melinda deserve particular praise for all the work you have done in the fight against this terrible disease. Your philanthropy has saved countless lives, and your tireless campaigning has kept the issue firmly on the global agenda, including at tomorrow’s Malaria Summit.

The UK remains committed to its five-year pledge, made in 2016, to spend half a billion pounds a year tackling malaria. Over the next two years £100 million of that will be match-funded by partners in the private sector. I know other Commonwealth nations are also among the biggest funders of this global effort.

That is as it should be. Malaria devastates lives worldwide but it has a particular impact on the Commonwealth. And we, as a Commonwealth, have a duty to tackle it.

Alongside threats from nature, we are also faced with individuals, organisations and others who seek to do us harm.

So let us make this a more secure Commonwealth. This year, for the first time, security is a central theme at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The security threats of the 21st century do not respect national borders, and our response should be no less international.

This week I look forward to all our members agreeing a new Cyber Declaration. A powerful statement of intent, it will ensure that the internet remains free and open across the Commonwealth. It will help protect our people and our businesses from ever-more sophisticated digital threats. And it will do much to counter those who would abuse the freedom of the internet to undermine our values, our security, even our democracies.

We will also be taking action to tackle modern slavery. And I will be encouraging all Commonwealth members to endorse the Call for Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that I presented to the UN General Assembly last year. A dozen members of the Commonwealth have already signed up to that cause. I hope more will join them this week.

Let us also make this a more prosperous Commonwealth. As President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana has said, free and fair trade is one of the keys to unlocking sustainable economic growth and prosperity. Over many years it has done much to lift marginalised and vulnerable people out of poverty. Yet as we meet today the world’s economy is increasingly threatened by a prevalence of protectionist trade measures, a surge in anti-trade rhetoric, and fragile global growth.

Such a climate represents a danger to us all, I have no doubt. But it is also an opportunity for the Commonwealth to demonstrate its ability to respond to these challenges and set the shape and pace of global trade policy. To go further than we ever have before and show the world that co-operation, not protectionism, is where the answers lie.

But we should not focus solely on international trade. Youth unemployment remains a bigger problem in the Commonwealth than in the wider world. If the young people of today do not have the opportunity to work they will not become the entrepreneurs and innovators of tomorrow and we will all suffer as a result.

That is why the UK government is putting millions of pounds into scholarships and apprenticeships to help equip the Commonwealth’s young people with the skills they will need to compete on the global stage. It is a move that will make an immeasurable difference to young lives, and benefit all of us in time.

Finally, let us make this a fairer Commonwealth. A Commonwealth in which everyone – whoever they are and wherever they live – is free to live their life and fulfil their own potential.

Right now, that is not always the case. Across the Commonwealth, tens of millions of young people – usually but not always girls – are denied the education that would allow them to get on in life.

All our members have pledged to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. But all too often young people receive only the most basic education before being forced out of school through discrimination, poverty, or simply the expectations of society.

Evidence shows that young people need 12 years of quality education if they are to fulfil their potential. I want this to be the summit where the Commonwealth agrees to make that the goal for all our members – and begins to put in place the concrete measures that will allow it to become a reality.

To help make this happen, I can announce that that the UK will be committing more than £200 million to support our fellow members in delivering the 12 years commitment. This includes funding for a policy lab that will share best practice in education. And, working in tandem with the Australian government, we will be launching a Digital Identity Innovation Challenge that will help provide women and girls with the means to access fundamental services in our modern society.

Together, these measures will help unlock the benefits of education for millions of young people who are currently at a disadvantage.

But education alone will not remove all barriers to fairness and opportunity in our Commonwealth.

Across the world, discriminatory laws made many years ago continue to affect the lives of many people, criminalising same-sex relations and failing to protect women and girls.

I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. As the UK’s Prime Minister, I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.

As a family of nations we must respect one another’s cultures and traditions. But we must do so in a manner consistent with our common value of equality, a value that is clearly stated in the Commonwealth charter.

Recent years have brought welcome progress. The three nations that have most recently decriminalised same-sex relationships are all Commonwealth members, and since the heads of government last met the Commonwealth has agreed to accredit its first organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Yet there remains much to do. Nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love. And the UK stands ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.

Because the world has changed. When, in 1953, the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth set off on a tour of the Commonwealth, she travelled by air, sea and land on a journey that took more than five months. Today, many members of the Youth Forum have only ever known a time in which they can instantly converse with one another regardless of where in the world they live.

Unlike previous generations, today’s young people don’t need an organisation like the Commonwealth to connect them. They can build their own bridges, forge their own links, mastermind and run their own campaigns.

If the Commonwealth is to endure in such a world, we must demonstrate our relevance and purpose anew. We must show what the Commonwealth is capable of. And this summit can be the moment where that change begins to happen.

The Commonwealth’s Blue Charter will set in train ambitious and co-ordinated worldwide action to will help make our oceans cleaner now and in the future. Our Cyber Declaration will make a real difference to our safety and security. Our investments in education will allow young people the world over to fulfil their potential. Our work to boost resilience will protect our smaller members from the ravages of natural disasters. And our commitment to fight malaria will blaze a trail for the world to follow, and in doing so save countless lives for generations to come.

These are the actions of a committed and active player on the global stage, a Commonwealth with a clear role to play in the 21st century.

Together, we represent a third of the world’s population, a quarter of its nations. When we speak with one voice the world has no choice but to listen. If we step up, if we choose to act, if we embrace our future…. Then the Commonwealth can lead the world. The Commonwealth can inspire the world. And the Commonwealth can change the world.

Published 17 April 2018