Lords debates developments in the Commonwealth

08 March 2013

Members of the Lords debated developments in Commonwealth countries and the Commonwealth Charter yesterday (Thursday 7 March).

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat), government spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office opened the debate, saying: ‘One of the greatest challenges we face is ensuring that the Commonwealth keeps pace with today's changing world. Much work has already been done to respond to this challenge and the UK has been active in this. Our Commonwealth policy over the past two years has focused on modernising and improving the organisation's internal institutions and strengthening respect for its values. We are pleased that modernisation discussions that started before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in 2011 reached a conclusion last year, and that the heads have endorsed a number of reforms including the new Commonwealth charter.’

He continued: ‘For the first time in its 64-year history, the Commonwealth now has a single document setting out the core values and aspirations of its members, and it is all the more significant because it has come at a time when human rights and democratic values are demanded more vocally than ever by citizens across the world. It is now important that we work collectively to raise the charter's profile, both within the UK and throughout the Commonwealth, to embed it within the Commonwealth's architecture and ensure that all its members uphold those values.’

Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative) followed, saying: ‘The peoples of the Commonwealth are family, not foreigners. Commonwealth governments may be unfriendly at times, awkward, difficult or, frankly, even hostile, but these are family matters, not foreign policy matters. Today's Commonwealth is an all-powerful network concept. The governments and policy-making establishments in a number of countries may not have fully understood this but, outside government, the peoples, businesses and civil societies of the Commonwealth nations certainly have. It is both people-driven and driven by the magnetism of shared values, language and culture, a network of peoples and societies as much as of governments and states-possibly even more so.’

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Labour) compared the Commonwealth to other organisations, saying: ‘It is important for us, but is a second-tier organisation compared with NATO for defence and the EU for commerce and international political clout. Increasingly, member countries give more priority to their own region and to bilateral relations. Countries such as India give relatively low priority to the Commonwealth. Let us laud the diversity and ideals but not lapse into a starry-eyed overload of Commonwealth capabilities, as the Foreign Affairs Committee emphasised.’

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat) concluded, saying: ‘The Commonwealth is not like the EU or NATO. It is a very different organisation of networks, links, soft power as opposed to hard power, aspirations rather than obligations. That makes it very difficult to assess and to judge and very easy to get deeply frustrated with the moderate lack of progress. It is a loose and diverse association that has to be judged by criteria different from those we currently use to assess the EU, the transatlantic relationship or NATO.’

He continued: ‘The government are focused on building stronger links within the Commonwealth and strengthening the Commonwealth as a network of networks... We opened a new deputy high commission in Hyderabad in India last year; another will follow in Chandigarh. We are strengthening our commercial capacity in countries such as Canada, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and Guyana. Here in London we have increased the number of staff working on the Commonwealth... I hope that... the Commonwealth, with the efforts that we and many other Commonwealth countries will make, will remain a vital, vibrant and values-based international network.’

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

More news on: Parliament, government and politics, Parliament, Economy and finance, International affairs, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, International politics and government, International economic relations, International trade, House of Lords news, Lords news

Share this page