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Volume 13 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2006

Do Commonwealth People Matter?
A Personal Perspective

Daisy Cooper
Acting Head, Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit

Improving the voice of civil society organisations (CSOs) is a ceaseless task, not least in the Commonwealth. Civil society activity in the Commonwealth peaks at the Commonwealth People's Forum (CPF), a week of workshops and cultural events preceding the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The 2005 CPF in Malta saw three significant improvements in CSO input - an extended period of civil society consultation, a CSO meeting with Foreign Ministers, and a dialogue with President Museveni of Uganda, the 2007 CHOGM host - but for many, the process was frustrating and lacked impact.

The CPF was supposed to be the final stage of a process, having been preceded for the first time by 14 national consultations, a pan-Commonwealth e-consultation, a 1-day civil society consultation, and a half-day dialogue with the Committee of the Whole (CoW), during the previous 9 months. Whilst this new extended process reflects efforts to mainstream civil society input, logistical problems and the number and nature of the topics discussed precluded any advancement of dialogue.

For example, the UK and Indian national consultations were organised at such short notice that many of the participants were either un or ill -informed about the Commonwealth, thus consuming valuable time with basic or irrelevant questions. In the UK, questions were answered by two government representatives from the Department for International Development's '2005 Unit' who were only prepared to answer questions on '2005 issues' - Africa and the G8 debt relief promises. Whether this was orchestrated or not, the UK report gave the impression that UK civil society was happily in cahoots with its government. In New Delhi, there was no government representative from External Affairs and the representative from the Planning Commission left partway through. A series of presentations further limited the discussion, resulting in substantive points going unvoiced.

The issues raised at the 14 national consultations were then supposed to inform future discussions. In reality, the pre-CoW civil society consultation (and presentation to the CoW) focused on only four issues, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Africa, Sustainable Development, and Statistics on International Development (SIDs), whilst the CPF had three thematic days, omitting SIDS, and the final CPF communiqué had four completely different sections. As a result, the final communiqué did not touch on many important issues raised in earlier discussions.

Another problem was holding a pan-Commonwealth CSO meeting with the CoW at such an early stage in the process. This ‘dialogue’ only involved interaction when a CSO representative asked governments to respond to their presentation, however not one official responded to the demands made in the presentation. The Commonwealth Secretariat and Foundation could have better timed the meeting so that participants were granted more than a one-way conversation with officials who were not briefed.

Three simple improvements can be made. Firstly, the civil society agenda should match the intergovernmental agenda from the outset and include an “other issues” section. This would enable CSOs to perform their dual role of monitoring and influencing the intergovernmental agenda. Under this arrangement, CSOs would likely not have failed, as they did, to consider key issues facing the Commonwealth over the next two years – the suitability of Uganda as the next CHOGM host and the selection of the next Secretary-General. Secondly, civil society should draft only one communiqué, the drafting process should begin at the first consultations, and should only be tweaked at the CPF. Thirdly, any future meeting between CSOs and the CoW should take place after the CoW has a draft agenda, and the Chair of the meeting should ensure officials address civil society’s views and demands.

At the CPF in Malta, a series of needless logistical problems impinged on civil society’s participation. Many civil society representatives had difficulties obtaining visas and for some it was impossible, as their applications were said to require additional security clearance allegedly on the basis of unsubstantiated or racist grounds. Similarly, the registration and accreditation process was unnecessarily time-consuming, requiring each civil society delegate to fill in the same form three times for three different ‘partner’ institutions. On arrival in Malta, concerns were raised about the information on local maps, distance between venues, and transport to and from the airport.

Finally, the five mile journey between Valletta and St Julians, could only be traversed by a slow bus or over-priced taxi. For example, with the media lounge in St Julians it was hard for CSOs based in Valletta to attend press briefings; there was a press conference specifically for civil society to speak with the media, but only a few people knew about it. The difficulty of being in two places at the same time was compounded by the new rules that only the head of each civil society delegation could gain access to the hotels of government delegates; this caused a duplication of responsibility that prevented many CSO delegations from meeting with their government counterparts.

The meeting between civil society and the Foreign Ministers was an innovation that should be institutionalised. The idea of matching Foreign Ministers with a national CSO counterpart was favourable as Foreign Ministers often asked how many people from their own country would be attending the CPF, and were always more interested in engaging once they learned that people from their own country would be there. However, it excluded many who attended the CPF as representatives of pan-Commonwealth organisations. Similarly, the meeting with President Museveni was better in theory than in practice; the ‘dialogue’ was in fact a speech and a short Q & A session, which left civil society unable to challenge him on his dismissive attitude towards CSOs. Despite these innovative high-level meetings, civil society had little chance of either affecting or measuring its impact on the CHOGM communiqué. Unlike the UN Summit outcome document, the CHOGM communiqué was not made public at any stage of its drafting.

Commonwealth Heads once again recognised civil society as partners, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Unless the logistical and substantive obstacles to meaningful engagement are removed, there is a real danger that CSOs may abandon the Commonwealth fora with sour grapes.

CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2006

Editors: Mary Rendell & Clare Doube , CHRI;
Print: Chenthil Paramasivam ,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.