The Commonwealth is "back at the heart of British Foreign Policy"

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Secretary William Hague reaffirms that the Commonwealth is “back at the very heart of British foreign policy” and highlights the active steps the Government is taking to embed the 54-member organisation in UK foreign policy thinking.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a very great pleasure to be here, and I am grateful to the Speaker who invited me to speak to you today. I accepted his offer with great enthusiasm. For as you have heard from our Prime Minister, this government has put the Commonwealth back at the very heart of British foreign policy for the first time in more than a decade.

For years, the Commonwealth has not received the attention it deserved from Ministers in the British government.

This was typified for me when I was in Opposition by the occasion when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had produced an entire report on the work of the Department in which the only reference to the Commonwealth was in the title.

From our very first day in office I pledged to put the ‘C’ back into the FCO. I never forget for a single day that I am not Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, but Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that this Government has rediscovered the Commonwealth and placed it once more back at the heart of how Britain views the world.

The Commonwealth not only occupies a special place in our affections and our history here in Britain; it is a cornerstone of our foreign policy, alongside our role in the EU, our membership of NATO and our Special Relationship with the United States of America. It plays a key role in our thinking as we adjust to the new international landscape and the rise of the emerging economic titans of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

For it is a striking fact that even though the Commonwealth has its historical roots in the 19th Century, and is 62 years old this year, it is perhaps one of the international organisations or platforms that is most suited to the world of the 21st century.

In a world that is dominated by networks and not by the power blocs of old, the Commonwealth is the ultimate network.

It has extraordinary reach - across 54 countries, six continents and oceans and two billion citizens.

It is united by the same principles of liberty, democracy and human rights, but at the same time it is extraordinarily diverse: demonstrating that democracy allows countries to develop in their own way, and that it provides the essential foundations for sound economic development. The Commonwealth is a powerful global brand that many millions of people around the world are proud to be associated with, as our Government and our Parliament certainly are.

It is a fantastic web and latticework of civil society, including over 100 professional, educational and scientific associations and bodies which enable the sharing of skills and expertise. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which does so much to strengthen parliaments and democratic processes across the Commonwealth, is a leading example of this.

And coming down to solid and tangible here-and-now benefits it is a source of economic dynamism for its member states, containing some of the fastest growing new economies in the world; the countries that will shape the global economy of the future and to which we all have our own ready-made connections through the Commonwealth and its increasingly intensive network of trade and investment flows.

Most crucially of all, more countries want to join us. I was in South Sudan as it declared independence, and one of the earliest acts of the world’s newest nation is to say that it too aspires to join the Commonwealth and has already put in its application to the Commonwealth Secretariat. The flexibility that enables us to welcome new members that meet our standards is one of the great attributes of the Commonwealth.

On top of this, I do believe that a sense of affinity and closeness binds the members of the Commonwealth. One of the diplomatic conventions that I am most fond of is the reason why we send High Commissioners to Commonwealth countries rather than Ambassadors: because, as was stated at the landmark Commonwealth Conference in 1949, we do not regard ourselves as foreign in relation to each other, just as our Commonwealth Games are sometimes known as the ‘friendly games’, because the competition is between individual sportsmen and women rather than nations.

So at a time when other international organisations are feeling the strain of their years, we are members of a group that is bursting with potential for the future.

But that does not mean that we don’t have to work hard to ensure that the Commonwealth remains relevant to our citizens.

Polling has shown a decline in the number of young people in some of our countries who are familiar with the work of Commonwealth and understand what it does. These trends could lead to a gap developing between the Commonwealth as an organisation and its citizens.

And we also need to change if we are to ensure that the Commonwealth is as effective and inspiring a standard-bearer of democratic principles as it can and should be.

The question for us all to confront as members of the Commonwealth is whether we wish to rise to these challenges.

As Ministers in Britain we are working energetically to place greater emphasis on the Commonwealth in tangible ways. In our first year in office my ministerial team and I have already visited more than 20 Commonwealth countries, including Australia and New Zealand, both of which had not been visited by a British Foreign Secretary for nearly twenty years. We have trebled the number of staff working in the FCO on Commonwealth issues, we have re-focussed where Britain gives its international development assistance so that more than half of the 27 countries that receive our aid are now from the Commonwealth, and we are dedicating more of our Chevening Scholarship programme to Commonwealth students.

But as members of the Commonwealth as a whole, we have a common interest in making the most of its influence, its capacity to do good and the economic opportunity it presents.

In our view the next CHOGM in Perth has the exciting potential to redefine the Commonwealth; reforming its current structures and laying new plans for the future and creating the basis for a reinvigorated Commonwealth with a more ambitious remit.

We think there is scope for change in three important areas.

The first is to strengthen the Commonwealth’s work on human rights and democracy.

We see an even greater role for the organisation to speak out against political oppression, religious intolerance and racism, with all the authority its broad membership affords, and building on its proud track record from South Africa to Sierra Leone. At a time when people in the Middle East and North Africa are seeking in their thousands the same rights we enjoy in our countries, the Commonwealth should not shy away from a larger role in promoting human rights and democracy.

The Commonwealth already does sterling work supporting democracy amongst its member states - it has for example monitored 85 elections in the last decade alone. It is essential that the Commonwealth complements these missions by working to support member countries in building their democratic institutions. I commend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s important work in this regard, working with parliamentarians across the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group has identified human rights as an important area for the Commonwealth’s development, and while we look forward to the presentation of its recommendations at CHOGM, this is an area which will receive enthusiastic support from Great Britain.
In particular, we hope it will be possible to extend the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s remit beyond democracy to support the respect for rule of law and human rights which underpin it, for example by working to support members to protect their citizens from forced marriages and by making the case against capital punishment in the more than 40 members where it is still practiced. Its role should not just be about censorship when things go wrong, but also supporting members to get it right.

We should be inspired and given new confidence by the demand for freedom that is sweeping parts of the Middle East and North Africa, which confirm what our countries have long known, that the desire for political and economic freedom is universal, and which make it more important than ever that we, as individual countries and as an organisation, are seen to stand on the side of freedom, not just in our words but in our actions.

Second, we see great potential for the Commonwealth to increase its engagement on global economic issues. It includes many of the fastest growing technologically advanced economies in the world - the great markets not just of today but of tomorrow -a combined GDP that has more than doubled in the last twenty years. The Commonwealth urban population increases by 65,000 people daily and cities in members such as India, South Africa, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore will be economic power houses of the future. The middle class in the Commonwealth has expanded by nearly one billion people in the last two decades, and it contains 31% of global population, representing a huge and growing consumer market.

In our view, the Commonwealth could and should become one of the leading voices in the global economy, working to liberalise trade and break down barriers for international business.

We ought also unashamedly to make the most of the opportunities for trade between members of the Commonwealth. Over the last two decades the importance of Commonwealth members to each other as sources of imports has grown by a quarter, and by a third as destinations for exports. More than half of Commonwealth countries now export over a quarter of their total exports to other Commonwealth members. This should be good news for all our member states, large and small, since trade is the only way to bridge differences between poor and rich countries and to secure our prosperity into the future. We welcome the fact that Perth CHOGM’s Business Conference aims to deliver $10 billion in business deals, a tenfold increase on the previous Conference two years ago. Business clearly need no convincing of the Commonwealth’s credentials as a serious trade and investment network, with the Conference already fully subscribed and non-member states such as China sending delegations. I congratulate the Australian government for its leadership in this area.

Third, we would also like to see the Commonwealth assert an even greater role in development and conflict prevention in the coming years.
Part of this is what the Commonwealth can do for other countries through its example or through practical assistance. We see scope for an even greater Commonwealth role in fragile states and young democracies, a mission which should be given even greater importance in the light of the transformation now underway in Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

But the other vital part of this work is what we do for each other as members of the Commonwealth. Half of the Commonwealth is under the age of 25, yet 70 million Commonwealth children have never seen the inside of a classroom. For many of its members, the Commonwealth’s support in their own development is one of its most important functions. We are already doing our part to help, and development aid to Commonwealth countries is a substantial part of Britain’s aid programme. It is also vital that the Commonwealth reflects and respects the views of smaller nations. The Commonwealth can amplify their voices on the international stage. We have seen this on the issue of climate change, particularly poignant as many small island states will suffer disproportionately from its effects. Australia has shown great leadership by increasing funding to the Commonwealth small states offices at the UN, providing $7 million to help strengthen the organisation’s voice in the Doha multilateral negotiations and in increasing by around 50% its development aid to Commonwealth members. India too is providing around £7 million a year to the 19 African members of the Commonwealth through its Special Commonwealth Assistance in Africa Programme. We welcome and support such actions.

So our Government’s vision is of a Commonwealth that plays an even greater role on the world stage; that helps to find solutions to the pressing global challenges of our times; that harnesses its increasing economic clout for the prosperity of all its members, large and small; and that is an inspirational and effective advocate of democracy and human rights. In this period of transition in world affairs, greater cooperation among member states and more effective action to promote the values that bind us and that ultimately make us secure, are prizes worth striving for.

Our challenge between now and October is to work together across the Commonwealth members and organisations to raise awareness and build support for a stronger and more effective Commonwealth of the future. At a time when we face so many global challenges and an increasing need to work collectively it is all of our responsibilities to not squander the opportunities provided by the Commonwealth’s vast network. It is truly an exciting time for the Commonwealth and I look forward to CHOGM, as I am sure you do, with anticipation, hope and optimism.