Date: 22 Feb 2010
Speaker: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Location: Chatham House, London, UK
Thank you Robin; and thank you ladies and gentlemen.
I am delighted to be back here at Chatham House: I was last here on April 28th 2009, the exact 60th anniversary of the day when the British Commonwealth came to an end, and the modern Commonwealth was born.
I am also conscious of being amongst experts: peace-building, conflict resolution and state fragility are sciences in themselves, and much has been said and written about them.
I personally can claim no such expertise: even after I distil my great experience as Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in East Timor from 2002 to 2004.
I am also conscious that I shall bypass what you might call the ‘chapter and verse’ on these topics, such as the OECD’s Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States and Situations.
When you look at the UN strategy document for peace-building of July 2009, you see a broad menu of rebuilding the army and the police, strengthening the rule of law, supporting political processes, building civil society, establishing tax and public administration systems, and promoting stronger economies .... activities of which the Commonwealth does some, but not all.
But, above all, I am conscious of the huge significance of the topic of fragile states.
The headline fact is that there are over 50 fragile, failing or failed states in the world – fully one quarter of the world’s states – which are also home to one-seventh of its population, and one-third of its poverty.
Today I wear the hat of the Secretary-General of a Commonwealth comprising a quarter of the world’s countries and a third of its population.
So I have a real interest.
And my thesis is that ‘Peace’ is more than the absence of conflict; and that there are multiple layers of ‘fragility’.
All countries are journeying, and solidarity in that journey is part of the collective touch of a family of nations such as the Commonwealth.
You will already have discussed why fragile states matter.
They require huge investment of attention and resources; their woes are contagious; they provide a key to our success as a global community.
They render the achievement of our highest goals, the Millennium Development Goals, a formidable challenge.
I shall state the obvious fact that the Commonwealth has known – and still knows – fragility and even violence.
The World Bank Country Policy and Institutional Assessment tables are seen as the definitive listing of state fragility: in 2008, they were issued for 69 countries, of which just under half were in the Commonwealth, and nine of those were seen to be at the highest level of risk.
A formidable challenge, but it is our task to make our own contribution to building peace and strengthening governments, peoples, and entire states.
Ours is the force of argument, rather than the argument of force.
Let me quickly tell you three ways as to how the Commonwealth works in fragile states.
First, by playing a serious role as an organisation of values.
Those Commonwealth values are the foundation on which a state can build resilience to vulnerability and fragility.
In the Commonwealth, those values transcend the bonds of shared history, language, institutions, and even of collective challenges.
Indeed the Commonwealth Principles of 1991 were famously quoted by President F W De Klerk in 1992 as being his ideal of the guiding principles of a new South Africa.
When those values are seriously or repeatedly violated, we have a mechanism for reacting, based on the peer review of a committee of nine rotating Foreign Ministers.
That is the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group – or CMAG – which was established in 1995.
One of its very first actions was to address the situation in which Nigeria had been suspended in the wake of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others in Ogoniland.
We will always work positively with a country which is subject to the decisions of CMAG, ready to help it to address its challenges and to restore respect for and adherence to our values.
While Fiji currently remains on CMAG’s agenda with its membership suspended in the absence of a democratically elected government, ...
and while Zimbabwe took itself out of the organisation, ...
... Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, The Gambia and the Solomon Islands have all come off the CMAG agenda over the years, after sustained Commonwealth engagement.
This includes addressing some of the root causes of the instability that led to their country coming on to CMAG’s agenda in the first place.
And indeed, after restoration to the Commonwealth, some of the democratic governments thanked our association for suspending the previous unconstitutional regimes.
You will note that these cases all relate to the constitutionality of government.
They do not encompass conflicts between states, and nor do they encompass some of the very serious grievances which can happen within states, and within constitutionally elected governments.
The Commonwealth is looking to be more actively engaged in such situations.
Our latest Commonwealth ‘Affirmation’ of values, from our Summit of Heads of Government in Port of Spain last November, includes a clause asking us to strengthen our response to ‘serious or persistent violation of our values and principles’.
We are therefore examining how to strengthen the role of CMAG, in adherence to our values.
The Heads see it as a work-in-progress.
The second element of Commonwealth work on fragile states – linked, yet quite deliberately distinct – is what is called the Secretary-General’s Good Offices.
There have been no hard and fast rules as to where these Good Offices should apply, other than that they should come about by invitation and the will of all concerned, and not by interference.
The essence of the work is in opening doors, removing bottlenecks and bringing about political dialogue.
And the earlier the engagement, the better: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of conflict resolution and recovery.
Commonwealth Good Offices work in places of political tension has tended to focus on two broad areas: helping to achieve new or revised Constitutions (in countries like Fiji, Swaziland, Kenya, The Maldives and Tonga); and new or revised parliamentary and electoral systems (in places like Lesotho, Zanzibar, Cameroon, The Gambia, and Guyana).
In other words, creating the framework for establishing or strengthening both the institutions and culture of democracy.
Underlying both is the aim to ensure that people have a sense of pride in, and ownership of, the institutions that govern them.
Good Offices work is an intuitive process of ebb and flow, to and fro, building delicate relationships and rebuilding bruised ones.
A key to our Good Offices work is time to build relationships; and time to help rebuild or create strong democratic institutions.
A quick fix is rarely – if ever – possible.
No two Commonwealth interventions are the same, but all will exhibit the four qualities of inclusiveness, impartiality, local ownership and international partnership – all of which, I think, are self-explanatory; and all of which, as you know, are complex and textured.
Almost all of the Good Offices work is supplemented by longer-term programmes of technical assistance designed to support reform initiatives and to strengthen democratic institutions.
In the case of one country in Africa – with the government’s support – human rights training has been given to police and prison officers; women’s concerns have been brought into government planning; new solutions have been developed to computerize judicial reforms; while the Commonwealth has also been a partner in creating the new Independent Election Commission.
Most recently, we can look at The Maldives in Asia, which President Nasheed himself has very publicly claimed, to other Heads at the Port-of-Spain summit, to be a Commonwealth success story.
Consider what happened in that country at the end of 2008: after a one-party state of over 30 years’ standing had negotiated and introduced a new constitution, it conducted multi-party elections.
In these, it saw power change hands – and smoothly.
All this, with Commonwealth help and advice behind the scenes, and assistance in building institutions.
And you may know that at our last Commonwealth Summit, our leaders mandated the Secretary-General to extend these ‘Good Offices’ to the environment, given that so many of our members’ vulnerability has an alarming environmental context.
Third, let me look beyond the traditional work tackling fragility through strengthening democracy and improving political climates – because Commonwealth work to tackle fragility at its core can be seen in almost every other aspect of our work, too.
For instance, in our gender equality programme, our youth programme, our media training programme.
A seminal Commonwealth contribution in this area is the work of our Commission on Respect and Understanding, which was prompted by 9/11 and other instances of the deep fractures in our societies.
It led to a report, Civil Paths to Peace, copies of which I have brought with me today.
One of its core theses is that we are people of multiple, not single identity.
A great deal has come of this work.
One result was a dossier of the practical – local, and often quite basic – ways in which different Commonwealth countries have approached different causes of tension.
A current initiative is a teachers’ resource pack on how to present to schoolchildren themes of our times involving conflict.
Meanwhile a network of seven Commonwealth universities is linked by the Commonwealth of Learning, in sharing best peace-building practice, including a module on student community service.
We have also developed citizenship courses.
Many ambitious possibilities are being explored.
I hope I have been able to shed some light on Commonwealth ideas of building in fragile states.
Simply, all countries have elements of fragility, and the surest path to long-term stability is in building the local ownership and culture of democracy, and the institutions which support it.
That is why our work in supporting such bodies as election commissions, human rights commissions, ombudsmen, youth councils, media regulatory bodies – and, of course, parliaments – is so very important.
These institutions are crucial elements of stability and of democracy.
But that democracy has a twin, and both of these twins are our concerns.
The twin is ‘development’. The two are intertwined, and organically linked: we can safely say that where democracy flourishes, so does development.
With 16 of our Commonwealth members officially Least Developed Countries; and 32 small states with populations of less than 1.5 million, we urge that the issue of state fragility be looked at in terms of economic as well as political fragility.
That is why we run extensive economic development programmes, in areas such as capacity-building in trade negotiations and in national export strategies, promoting investment in small businesses, and debt management.
We are not financially heavy players, but we strengthen crucial capacities.
Let me end with one very topical Commonwealth example of a state that was ‘failed’ and which has now made remarkable strides; of a state which was in conflict, and which is now at peace.
I refer to the Commonwealth’s newest member, admitted by Heads of Government in November 2009: Rwanda.
We all know what dreadful and chilling things happened in that country in 1994. Deep scars, of course, remain. Yet Rwanda today is a country on the move. Two weeks ago, addressing the two Houses of Rwanda’s Parliament in Kigali, I praised ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’, as it is known, for the many hills which it has itself climbed – slowly, surely, and ever higher.
While acknowledging some of the continuing challenges in the new state, I was able to praise it for its achievements in the field of governance.
The decision of Heads of Government to accept Rwanda was a statement of affirmation, and the expression of a desire to engage, and be a partner.
The Heads saw a glass half full – they seek to fill it further.
But each Commonwealth country is climbing hills; each carries elements of fragility on the way; all are journeying on the often rugged and winding paths of democracy, development and diversity; all have known reversal, but look towards advance.
So: fragility may be relative; yet tackling fragility is more absolute – it is an exercise that can be best built on values, on institutions, and on the home-grown will of nations and peoples to meet their challenges and walk free.
To all of you, in your various ways tackling state fragility, I wish you courage and strength in your great work. ENDS