Date: 23 Jun 2010
Speaker: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Location: London, UK
I am delighted to address my second Round Table conference of this, your 100th year.
I repeat what I said before, how much I admire this august publication – the quality of its aims, and of its outpourings.
There are, of course, several centenarians of the Commonwealth, and their wisdom and foresight is undimmed.
This three-day event is further testimony to your great vibrancy as an organisation: Richard, Venkat and all of you, I applaud and thank you.
We all know that neither your next 100 years – nor the Commonwealth’s – is guaranteed.
The same questions are being asked about the future of civilisation.
We will continue to prosper only if we continue to move with our times, and if we are equal to them and to the ever-changing needs of our constituents.
Those constituents may be your readers, or they may be Commonwealth governments, or they may be citizens of Commonwealth who are far removed from quarterly journals and policy and politics: all they seek is some of the fullness of life, or at least some of its trimmings.
I last spoke to the Round Table on a particularly dark and wintery night in Windsor in January, but I was able then to give you bright and cheery prospects, coming out of the energy and momentum which was generated by our last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in Port of Spain in November 2009.
And now, on a morning in June which is already bright and cheery, I reaffirm that prognosis.
My particular task today, in seeking to address the comprehensive title of ‘Democracy and the Commonwealth’, is to look at what the inter-governmental Commonwealth does in the realms of democracy, and what it – and its member states – could seek to do better.
To that end, I shall look at what we do under seven different areas: our stated values, our ministerial group that is the guardian of our values, our good offices, our work in support of elections, our human rights work, our work to strengthen the practices and institutions of democracy and good governance, and our promotion of the role of civil society, the media, women and young people in the exercise of democracy.
That is quite a menu: it should take all of 40 minutes, and I would then be very happy to enter into discussion afterwards.
But, first, I know the value of a good preamble before a declaration....
And today my preamble begins with the quickest recollections of the democracy stories which exercised us towards the end of each of the last three years.
At end-2007, three months before I took office as Secretary-General, Pakistan was re-suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth in the wake of the imposition of a state of emergency and – with the dismissal of the judiciary – a clear failing in the separation of powers.
A month later, disputed Presidential elections in Kenya led to violence – and killing – on an appalling scale.
At end-2008, we were in more celebratory mood, over three elections.
Ghana’s went down to the wire, with just 20,000-odd votes separating the two parties, and high tension.
Good sense and democratic culture prevailed: the election went smoothly, power changed hands peacefully, Ghanaian democracy emerged triumphant.
Meanwhile power also changed hands peacefully in the Maldives, in only the second multiparty elections after 30 years of one-party rule.
And in Bangladesh, after a democratic vacuum of nearly two years, the country went to the polls, and successfully used its new electronic database and identity cards for 85 million voters.
At end-2009, when Commonwealth Heads met in Port of Spain, it was again no surprise that Democracy was both on the agenda, and in the air.
You will recall that Heads decided, in the Commonwealth’s 60th anniversary year, to assemble and strengthen its cumulative body of democratic declaration into one document.
The result was the ‘Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles’ – as comprehensive, as it was unequivocal, as it was far-reaching.
An important line, which was not as remarked upon as I thought it would be, was Clause 8, calling on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group ‘to explore ways in which it could more effectively deal with the full range of serious or persistent violations of such values by member states, and to pronounce upon them as appropriate’.
Meanwhile, media attention in the sidelines at CHOGM 2009 was focussed on current examples of some of the perceived threats to those principles.
You will recall the issues of legislation threatening the further criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda, and reported threats to human rights workers in The Gambia.
A story that made headlines in the Pacific, meanwhile, was the deposition of the Prime Minister of Vanuatu for travelling to CHOGM without parliamentary permission.
It transpired that his demise was prematurely forecast, and I look forward to visiting him in about six weeks’ time!
From the ‘ends of years’ ... let me look at just one sample day in the life of the Commonwealth.
I happened to be preparing some of these ideas on Tuesday June 15th, and can do far worse than to share with you some of the democratic concerns that came across my desk that day – just as they do every morning – in my daily digest of press clippings from around the Commonwealth.
Having removed the names of the countries themselves, I am simply going to repeat, verbatim, some of the newspaper headlines I read that day:
Here are three from one of our regions:
· ‘Opposition parties have failed the people’ ‘MP held over hate speech claims’
· ‘Department pays 2.7 million to root out corruption’
And three from another:
· ‘Federal government must treat all states fairly’
· ‘Minister criticises media’
· ‘Court adjourns blasphemy petition against Facebook’
And one more:
My point is that on any day before or since 15 June 2010, I could cite another batch of headlines, from another batch of countries from around Commonwealth, which leave no one in any doubt that democracy is literally the day-to-day business in which we are all engaged, and that - in being so - we are ever-journeying, ever-faltering, but hopefully also ever-advancing.
Because Democracy – giving people a say in how they are governed, and ensuring that that government is fair and efficient – is our first reason for being in this, our Commonwealth of Values.
Our second reason for being – Development – is inextricably linked, as our own 2003 Commonwealth report under the chairmanship of Manmohan Singh clearly showed.
We cannot do one without the other.
Democracy itself may formally mean a vote and an election – but its meaning to ordinary people goes far, far beyond, encompassing first the institutions that make a vote a thing worth having, and second the true democratic culture which allows non-governmental organisations, and the media – in fact, all citizens, all of whom should have ‘voice’ – to be individuals at large within societies which care for them.
True democracy is deeply ingrained, and I often say that the surest way to examine the democratic health of a society is to look at the status and fortunes of its women.
There are and will be local variations of democracy, and there is no one established model.
Democracy is a belief, and aspiration, a process, a work-in-progress, and one which often involves challenge and change.
But there are underlying principles and indicators which will always ring true in democracy, wherever it is practised.
‘Democracy’, said Plato, ‘is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike’.
The nobility of its aims in general does indeed allow us to describe its faults as ‘charming’, rather than anything worse.
Power may corrupt, and terrible things may, over the years, have been done in the name of democracy, but far worse things have happened in other causes.
It is not democracy that has been at fault, but those that commandeer its name and virtues.
We live with the reality of political life, in that the extent, shape and quality of democracy vary widely across Commonwealth countries.
Yet democracy – both of spirit and of institutional protection – remains our highest goal.
Gandhi said that ‘democracy, disciplined and enlightened, is the finest thing in the world’.
‘The spirit of democracy’, he wrote elsewhere, ‘cannot be imposed from without –it has to come from within’.
I am talking today, therefore, about how, ‘from without’, we can influence what comes ‘from within’.
I have promised to do so in the seven main areas in the affairs of democracy, in which the intergovernmental Commonwealth is engaged.
By this, I largely mean the collective of Governments themselves and their executive arm, the Commonwealth Secretariat.
But I also mean the Commonwealth Foundation, which represents civil society, and a number of other Commonwealth bodies, the Round Table included.
Because democracy is nothing if not an inclusive and a people’s enterprise.
Abraham Lincoln used three very good prepositions – ‘of’, ‘by’, and ‘for’ – when he turned a rather tidy phrase on this subject, at Gettysburg in 1863.
And here, I cite a recent and excellent initiative from the Royal Commonwealth Society and the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which assembled a small team of unofficial Commonwealth observers at the time of the May elections in this country.
We might have predicted that some would point to other countries’ imperfections and ask what on earth they thought they could teach the country that gave many of them the Westminster model, and the ‘mother of Parliaments’.
But The Economist and several other UK and Commonwealth press saw the group’s findings in the round.
The 11 countries represented declared themselves impressed by the conduct of the election, and especially by the culture of trust and honesty that pervaded the entire process.
But they made real and constructive criticisms about the need for better identification of voters, improved verification of postal votes, more staff at polling stations, a centralised electoral roll, and the right of all to vote.
This is a perfect distillation and illustration of my theme today.
All Commonwealth members are engaged in this difficult but important exercise of democracy; all should be thus engaged with commitment and humility; all can learn and share in the process; all should show solidarity with each other.
This is our (unending, but we hope inexorably improving) Commonwealth task: to make democracy a way of life.
And when judgements are passed, whether by citizens or observers, we should listen.
We are familiar with the facades of countries which may have regular elections – but which in fact have minimal political space.
We know of elected parliaments – whose powers are constantly usurped and undermined by the executive.
We know of supposedly multi-party systems – in which one party is so dominant that there is no real political diversity or competition.
We know of supposedly free medias – which are in fact so controlled, as to limit severely their freedom of expression.
I am as conscious of the Commonwealth names at different points on lists, in registers such as those by Freedom House, Transparency International, and the Mo Ibrahim African Governance Index.
Our members may not agree with all the findings or approaches, but we must always be sifting the reality from the form.
But our business is not naming names and ranking performance.
We deal in solutions, not criticisms, and our task is to support precisely every Commonwealth member state on the path to democracy.
So now let me look at those seven areas.
First, our stated democratic values.
What the Commonwealth means by democracy, democratic institutions and democratic practices has been clearly spelt out.
We have the Commonwealth Declarations of Singapore 1971 and Harare 1991 which set out our fundamental political values.
The former was a far-sighted statement of aspiration, which was qualified by the context of the Cold War; while the latter declaration sought to make real those earlier aspirations.
It was no coincidence that the Harare Declaration was born out of the demise of the Cold War.
It, in turn, gained the apparatus with which to scrutinise our egregious failures in embodying those aspirations, with the Millbrook Declaration of 1995.
Our Latimer House Principles of 2003 defined and differentiated the roles of the three branches of Government: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
The Aberdeen Principles of 2004 set out the cornerstones of democracy in local government – that is, democracy in depth.
And as I mentioned, all have been brought together in the 2009 ‘Affirmation of Values and Principles’, a landmark document in our association’s 60th year.
All of our Declarations are inherently linked to other international norms, especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various of the international covenants and conventions which sprang from it.
All are referable: we can and do cite them.
The fact that member countries from six continents and oceans – representing such diversity in terms of culture, religion, ethnicity, political ideology and sheer scale – can come together and agree a common set of values and principles is powerful testimony to the enduring centrality of democratic principles across the world today, and the contribution the Commonwealth has made to them.
And the graph undeniably climbs upward: awareness of and belief in those principles is far, far greater in 2010 than it was 50 years ago.
So our Declarations and Affirmations are an expression of our shared purpose and beliefs.
Further, they can act as a moral compass, and exert a form of moral pressure, as we all try to move in one direction.
For the moment at least, I think we can be satisfied that our democratic foundations are good, in the form of our stated values.
But we have further to go, perhaps, in helping our members articulate their own foundational values.
We have worked with the Maldives, Swaziland, Lesotho and Tonga, for instance, in developing their national constitutions – a long and complex task which can easily founder, even over definitions: what exactly is ‘freedom of association’?
The task is to move slowly if we must, but surely: continuing to inspire trust and confidence as we go, and continuing to offer the service to those who need it.
Second, the work of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.
This, most of you will know, is the rotating group of nine Foreign Ministers, established in 1995, which reviews what we term ‘serious or persistent violations’ of those stated values.
CMAG is the guardian of what we most cherish: it is what distinguishes the Commonwealth from other organisations, both in being able to censure its members, but also to hold out to them the hand of non-judgemental support, which promises to help in strengthening their democracy and its institutions.
We led the world in this venture of setting standards and appraising ourselves – and others have sought to replicate the model.
Many of you will be familiar with its work over the years, and the fact that – with two exceptions – all who have been suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth, have sought to return.
The exceptions are Zimbabwe, which - ironically - was adjudged to be in breach of the Harare Principles, and which left us in 2003; and Fiji, which was finally suspended fully from Commonwealth membership in 2009, after having initially been suspended from the Councils only, in the wake of the overthrow of a democratically elected regime.
And those who returned had made enough quantifiable progress – often with our help – to do so.
I cite Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone: the latter even asked to be kept on the CMAG agenda after its return to the Commonwealth, to keep it up to the mark in the long, painful and delicate task of emerging from a horrible period of civil war.
Sierra Leone saw CMAG as supportive of its nation-building, and not censorious of its state failure.
There is a general sense among our Commonwealth Heads of Government that more is needed of CMAG.
While it may not be just to say that CMAG lacks teeth, it does need the will and the capacity to look beyond ‘unconstitutionality’, at the other values which are open to serious violation, within constitutionally elected governments.
This was the tenor of Clause 8 of the Port of Spain Affirmation, which I quoted earlier.
Under its new Ghanaian chairmanship, CMAG has met once – in April – to start to scope out what this new mandate means, and how it will apply it, and how it can speed up the process – currently six laborious steps – whereby it takes action.
While I cannot envisage us making a response to the familiar call for regular democracy health-checks and reports on our members, I can and do envisage a wider scope of CMAG activity.
I also see it as the Group’s challenge to reinforce its image as one which can cheer on and encourage as well as chide where necessary, and as one which sees accidents building, rather than cleans them up afterwards.
If more countries are on CMAG’s constructive consideration, and if there is more of an understanding that the Group is intended to be supportive, this will have the effect of lessening the stigma – real enough, as our members repeatedly tell us – of being ‘CMAG-ed’.
Just as democracy is a work in progress, so is CMAG.
And the impetus comes from within: it was CMAG’s own recommendation to Heads, that it review its own scope.
The Group understands that it has a sensitive task before it, in striking a balance which member states find to be fair.
Third, our Good Offices work – whether conducted by the Secretary-General, the SG’s staff or the SG’s Special Envoys – whereby the Commonwealth has encouraged dialogue and defused tension in member countries over many years: places as diverse as Guyana, Cameroon, Swaziland, Lesotho, Tanzania, Kenya, Bangladesh, Maldives, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Fiji.
I think immediately of the agreement we brokered between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania; or our support for a new system of political representation in Lesotho.
The fact that we have done all this work, and recorded such successes, is a measure of the unique trust and confidence that member states place in us.
Again, you will know some of the successes of Commonwealth Good Offices: I have already alluded to a particular favourite example, which is that of the Maldives, where our presence in many years of Good Offices work, coupled with technical assistance in helping to establish an electoral and a human rights commission, sowed seeds of real solidity and maturity.
In the space of a decade, these grew: the Maldives moved from being a one-party state to a multiparty democracy, in which the opposition came peacefully to power.
President Nasheed himself told CHOGM in November that his country is the definitive Commonwealth success story.
Of late, I myself have been involved in some of our Good Offices work.
Earlier, I mentioned the issue of the Ugandan homosexuality bill, in which I would hope that behind-the-scenes work, in a spirit of transparency and respect, contributed in the retracting of a bill which had attracted widespread international concern.
In public, we uphold the position that Uganda must decide its own affairs, that its laws are sovereign, and that its parliament is indeed the place to debate them.
We could – and did – explore together the relevance of the Commonwealth of Values, and its members’ collective stand against discrimination and their commitment to human rights.
In private, we can talk about support, solutions and options in a climate of trust.
By the same token, our quiet engagement (respectful of their sovereignty) with the government of Malawi over the recent release from imprisonment of two homosexual men, in fact led, I am told, to public recognition in the media in Lilongwe.
I recognise that a balance has to be struck here between quiet engagement, and public understanding of where the Commonwealth stands.
Without prejudicing what we can achieve with our ‘below-the-radar’ engagement, we need to uphold the Commonwealth of Values in the public eye.
Along with the process underway in CMAG, I am confident that we can do this.
So what more should we do with our Good Offices, remembering the important limitation that we can only act on invitation?
The challenge, I believe, is to strengthen the concept of ‘invitation’ by collective agreement, and be proactive in seeking to engage earlier in potentially problematic situations.
The current CMAG review may well enable us to venture into fields in which thus far we have been reluctant to tread.
There is a case, too, for disengaging later.
So often our actions in a country are limited to the attentions we pay towards its election cycle, and are not sufficiently focussed on deeper, often timeless, problems.
The key, as always, will be the level of trust which others confer on us.
We must continue to be seen as a partner raising a helping hand, not a wagging finger.
Fourth, our election work.
This is a brand strength for an organisation that has sent over 80 Observer Groups to presidential or parliamentary elections since 1990.
It is highly valued as such, by the member states which provide us with the extra budgetary resources which allow it to happen.
Further, it amounts to far more than the mere observation of process.
The Commonwealth is a positive force for good at election time: a source of wisdom, calm and balance.
Our observers were at the heart of the success of those Ghanaian and Maldivian elections at the end of 2008, for instance, and we had a particularly important presence in the media.
Here, I draw your attention to the meeting of Commonwealth election commissioners and commissions, which took place in Accra last month, with 38 countries represented.
Credible election commissions are the key to credible elections. They safeguard the independent democratic choice of the people.
There are instances in the Commonwealth of dire national consequences when their integrity has not been preserved.
So the fact that Heads of Government approved the establishment of such a network of peer support and review, was a strong affirmation of a Commonwealth idea which can be revolutionary and which, I hope, can lead to a commonly agreed ‘gold standard’ for the conduct of elections.
I have the highest hopes for the way that we will be able to computerise and share all our best practice on areas like voter registration, polling practices, security frameworks, media policy, use of public funds, and a democratic level playing field.
I can also envisage Commonwealth countries actively inviting their peers, in a spirit of experience-sharing.
A 7-nation steering committee will meet in London in two weeks’ time, to plan the network’s next moves.
So what more can we do?
I fear that something we can not do, although this has been speculated, is to institutionalise Commonwealth election observation.
There is politics and there is the art of the possible – and we will simply go where we are invited, if our funds permit.
Yet what we can do is to commit to better follow-up on the recommendations which we make in our final reports.
We can do this by instituting regular reviews.
Too often we have called for autonomy of electoral commissions, strengthened registers and procedures, and pointed out the biases and imbalances in some of the media communications and public investments, and seen the same flaws still in play, a few years later.
Furthermore, we will continue the task of supporting individual national election commissions, above all ensuring their independence and efficiency.
When such bodies are created from scratch, as we saw in Cameroon, these are challenging targets to achieve.
We will remain partners in that process, but it is the creation of the peer support network which can bring the step-change in realising these goals.
Fifth, our work in human rights.
I spoke in March at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and presented our impressive and wide-ranging Commonwealth work in giving practical and intellectual support to our members going through its Universal Periodic Review process, and in supporting National Human Rights Institutions and their implementation of the two 1966 UN covenants – on Civil and Political Rights, and Social and Economic Rights.
We will always be true to the fact that we are a Commonwealth of Values, and an organisation which advances human rights.
We see an upward trajectory: a world and a Commonwealth, which committed to embrace human rights more than 60 years ago, now has the guidelines and the mechanisms – and the motivation of scrutiny – to take them very seriously.
And yet there will not, I am sure, be any lessening of the complaints we receive whenever and wherever there are disappearances, arbitrary detentions, attacks on the press, on freedom of expression or on the space for civil society, or perceived political vendetta or injustice, or any undermining of the independence of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.
So what more can we do, when we are ever-conscious that the glass of our efforts in this area will often be seen as only half-full?
As I said, a strengthened CMAG – with new powers to look at and speak out on human rights concerns – is part of the answer, and fully consistent with those initial provisions of the 1995 Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme on the Harare Declaration.
That will undoubtedly heighten the tension between speaking publicly on human rights, and maintaining our trusted relationship with our member countries.
Tightrope it may be, but we will have to walk it.
And as we walk it, we will continue to strengthen those national institutions that protect and promote human rights.
Sixth and penultimately, I mention our work in building up the institutions and mechanics of democracy.
Many of you will know of our regional seminars on the role of Oppositions, our support for the processes of Parliament, our technical assistance in fighting corruption, our training of civil service leaders, and ombudsmen, judges and their support staff.
I have already mentioned elements of such support which we have also given to election and human rights bodies.
A key area of work has been strengthening not just the culture but the mechanics of decentralised - i.e. local – government, done in part with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum.
This kind of institution- and capacity-building is painstaking and unglamorous, yet it is the key to entrenching democracy.
The underlying belief is that democracy cannot rest on the luck of the draw and its individual leaders.
Individuals can come and go, political will can waiver, and the good intentions of individuals can evaporate.
But institutions need to be built to outlast the comings and goings of those individuals, in helping to establish the rule of law, and good and unshakeable democratic practices and principles.
The Commonwealth commitment to this task is evident, not least in that we have a whole Secretariat Division dedicated to it – the Governance and Institutional Development Division, GIDD.
So where can our technical assistance work to strengthen democracy improve?
I believe it can do so, if it succeeds in addressing a fundamental deficit, which is the need in our institution-building work to help take the animosity out of politics.
We are always conscious of the persistence – in so many of our Commonwealth countries – of the ‘winner takes all’ syndrome, whereby the incumbency of power can be so overbearing.
Good and applauded as they are, our Government and Opposition seminars (and the excellent seminars run after elections by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association), can go much further in addressing this, and in particular by addressing party political structures, which are so often personalised and not collective, and institutionally flimsy.
It was my predecessor Chief Anyaoku, himself of course an African, who once said – over a decade ago, I must add – that there is, on that continent, a very limited cultural concept of a ‘loyal’ Opposition, as an integral and respected element of politics, working in the national interest.
Instead, he spoke of a polarisation – one between political ‘friend’, and ‘foe’.
At heart, this returns to the overarching task of generations, to inculcate a true spirit of democracy: the lines drawn in our heart, not the words on the printed page.
That culture is most evident in the seventh – and for you all, mercifully final! – area of this review.
Here, I refer very briefly to our work in promoting the role in democracy of civil society, of women, of young people and the media.
For democracy is nothing if it is not for every section of society, if it is not ‘bottom up’, and owned and shared by all.
Democracy is a universal stakeholder enterprise.
It is our belief in democracy that makes us champions of young people: those who will not just inherit the future, but who can and should shape the present.
We can point to 30 years’ worth of good Commonwealth work to promote youth – in part to unleash their entrepreneurial skills, and in part to give them voice in the way their societies are run.
Young people, for instance, feature in our election observation groups, and we have done important work in building up national youth bodies.
It is our belief in democracy that makes us champions of civil society – as the voice of so many local, regional and international aspirations, and an integral part of the way countries are run, in creative tension with both the public – and the private – sector.
Since 1965 an inter-governmental organisation, the Commonwealth Foundation, has amplified the voice of civil society, and we move ever forwards in giving Commonwealth civil society access and air-time whenever Ministers meet.
It is our belief in democracy that makes us champions of the media – independent, responsible, lively – as a fundamental element of any society that holds up a mirror to itself, and urges itself on.
While we and others of our own civil society organisations call always for press freedom, we are also able to provide training across the Commonwealth – strengthening media capacity to report on both democratic and developmental issues.
And finally it is our belief in democracy that makes us champions of gender equality, with another 30 years’ worth of good Commonwealth work to promote women – in affairs of health, education, enterprise – and politics too.
A cornerstone ingredient of our election observation is that women must be seen to be able to express themselves, and to be part of the political process.
Meanwhile very few of our members reach the global target of 30% female representation in either national or local government, but only one country does – Rwanda.
Let me therefore close with Rwanda, the 54th and most recent member of the Commonwealth.
The week after I addressed you last, in January, I addressed the Rwandan parliament.
That morning, I stood – moved to the core – at the Kigali Genocide Memorial which commemorates the loss of nearly a million people in three apocalyptic weeks in 1994 – when Rwanda came to the edge of the abyss, and democracy, trust, respect, love and basic humanity were severed at source.
What could I say to a country that has struggled with democracy, yet is committed to it, and has made extraordinary strides in establishing it, notwithstanding the vexed legacy of its past?
I was able to speak of Rwanda’s journey, centuries old, which began when the seeds of its languages, customs, and ways of living were first sown.
I spoke of the Land of a Thousand Hills – climbing and climbing, ever higher, hill after hill.
The Commonwealth’s decision to welcome Rwanda was a collective act of goodwill, and of affirmation.
It was recognition of the hills which that country has climbed, and a commitment to climb further with it.
Rwanda’s democratic journey rang true with all, and I have every faith that our confidence in Rwanda will be vindicated.
So I speak today of ‘the Commonwealth and a culture of democracy’, of journeys and of mountains.
We climb together.
Download the speech: Round Table centenary conference: ‘Democracy and the Commonwealth’