Speech by the Guest of Honour during the Commonwealth Day-James Thornton, British High Commissioner
I am delighted to be here at the Commonwealth Youth Programme Regional Centre for Africa for this event celebrating Commonwealth Day. I have been most impressed by the poems, singing and drama presented by the different groups participating today. They have done a very good job of illustrating this year’s Commonwealth theme of “Connecting Cultures”.
The United Kingdom sets great store by the Commonwealth. The full title of my parent ministry in London is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My Minister, William Hague, is keen that the Commonwealth part of his functions should be given greater emphasis. The British Government contributes thirty million pounds – around 250 billion Kwacha – a year to Commonwealth institutions and programmes.
Yet in many places the Commonwealth is not well understood. So let me try to answer three questions: What is the Commonwealth? What does it do and what does it stand for? And why is it relevant to Zambia? First of all, what is the Commonwealth?
It is a grouping of 54 nations from all six continents of the world. It contains some very large and populous nations such as India and some very small ones, including various Caribbean and Pacific islands. And of course it includes Zambia, which is somewhere in between! Its membership is increasing. Rwanda joined in 2009, and South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has applied to join.
It includes almost a third of the world’s population. Within the organisation, all members are treated equally. Her Majesty the Queen is the much-respected formal head of the organisation, but policy is made by member governments.
But the Commonwealth is about much more than a group of nations. It is a series of links between peoples, embodied in over a hundred organisations as diverse as the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth. This year the latter body is holding its biennial meeting here in Zambia.
Second, what does it stand for and what does it do? Fundamentally, it stands for friendship and co-operation between nations that share specific values. One symbol of this is the title borne by myself and by my diplomatic colleagues present today. Those present at the founding conference of the modern Commonwealth in 1949 decided that, in view of the special relationship between Commonwealth countries, they would not use the normal term of Ambassador to describe envoys sent between them. The alternative that they came up with was High Commissioner. For that reason I am proud that my title is British High Commissioner to Zambia!
The Commonwealth is active in many specific areas. One such is strengthening democratic processes and institutions. For example it sent an observer mission to ensure that the elections here last year were free and fair. Another is assisting members in the adoption and implementation of international human rights.
The Commonwealth works towards the Millennium Development Goals, being particularly active in education, gender and health. It works to support and empower young people, including through centres like Commonwealth Youth Programme. And, as you know, this year’s Commonwealth theme is Connecting Cultures.
Finally, why is the Commonwealth relevant to Zambia?
First, Zambia shares the Commonwealth’s values and has much to gain from working with like-minded countries through the organisation. Various Commonwealth programmes and bodies are active here.
And second, the Commonwealth represents a forum in which Zambia can use its influence for good in Africa and beyond.
Of course the Government of Zambia understands this well. One of the first things the new administration did on coming to power was to send a strong delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia last October. The Zambian Parliament also understands the value of the Commonwealth. It has a branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which organised its own commemoration of Commonwealth Day.
In conclusion, I am delighted that so many schools and other groups have come here today to promote Commonwealth values through their performances and displays. I wish the Commonwealth Youth Programme Centre well in further raising awareness of the important organisation that is the Commonwealth.