The Secretary-General is responsible for representing the Commonwealth publicly; and for the management and good governance of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
He is charged with the development and delivery of the Strategic Plan – a four-year framework which sets out the Secretariat’s main goals and programmes.
Promoting and protecting the Commonwealth’s values is a core responsibility. The Secretary-General does so through regular high level contact with Commonwealth governments and civil society leaders, as well as through the media and public engagements. The Secretary-General also uses a low-key, personal and discreet ‘good offices’ approach in certain sensitive situations around the Commonwealth, and occasionally appoints Special Envoys.
At a meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London, 1965, a memorandum on the functions of the Secretariat was agreed, which includes details on the role of the Secretary-General:
“Both the Secretary-General and his/her staff should be seen to be the servants of Commonwealth countries collectively. They derive their functions from the authority of Commonwealth Heads of Government; and in the discharge of his/her responsibilities in this connection the Secretary-General should have access to Heads of Government...”
The Secretary-General therefore reports to Heads of Government through individual meetings and also collectively at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The Secretary-General is also held accountable through the Commonwealth’s Board of Governors which meets regularly in London on behalf of member governments at senior diplomatic level.
The two current Deputy Secretaries-General Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba (Botswana) and Ransford Smith (Jamaica) along with Assistant Secretary-General Stephen Cutts (UK), support the Secretary-General in the management and executive direction of the Secretariat. These four senior managers collectively comprise the Management Committee, and between them have supervisory responsibility for all divisions and other business units in the Secretariat. The Secretary-General directly supervises the Communications and Public Affairs Division and the Secretary-General’s Office.
A meeting between the Secretary-General and the Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II, usually takes place twice a year.
The process by which Heads of Government select a new Secretary-General is unique. Candidates are nominated by governments in the months leading up to a CHOGM where the post becomes vacant. A Restricted Session is held during the CHOGM, open only to Heads of Government and other Heads of Delegation with ministerial status. The Chair leads in determining which candidate has the greatest support amongst the 53 leaders, and may conduct one or more secret “straw poll” ballots to assist that process. Once a clearly supported candidate becomes apparent, the governments whose candidates are unsuccessful withdraw from the contest in order to achieve unanimous support by Heads for one candidate.
It was agreed at the 1993 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Cyprus that Secretaries-General would serve a maximum of two 4-year terms.
Kamalesh Sharma (India) is the fifth Commonwealth Secretary-General. His predecessors were: Arnold Smith of Canada (1965-1975), Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal of Guyana (1975-1990), Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria (1990 - 2000) and Don McKinnon of New Zealand (2000-2008).