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William Hague: A 21st Century Partnership with the Commonwealth

The theme of my speech is the need to think afresh about Britain's relationship with the Commonwealth and to join with people from other nations in reinvigorating this extraordinary organisation.  It is a relationship which has endured through the ages but sadly has been undervalued in recent years.

The Commonwealth is of immense value and it is vital that Britain encourages its development and growth. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the modern Commonwealth and since that time it has made, and continues to make, an important contribution to what the current Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, has called the "great global good".  In doing so it demonstrates the unique place that it still holds and reminds us of the strengths that will carry it further.

The Commonwealth is a rich patchwork: each member is made from its own distinct material yet they are woven together by the threads of democracy, diversity, tolerance, understanding and collaboration. It is representative of nations and peoples of rich tradition, heritage and culture and it is able to bind them together with the shared values and aspirations that endure in us all in a remarkable way.   It includes and gives democratic voice to 53 countries, large and small, of all the major faiths spanning five continents and three oceans.

This foundation of legitimacy gives it the authority to act: in the promotion of democracy, the fostering of sound political and financial governance, and in opening up the opportunities of trade and enterprise. It can also do an immense amount in the future to focus the attention of a vast part of the word's population on the challenges of climate change.  And at the same time it has scores of civil and professional groups which have considerable energy, expertise and resources, and are working to address the issues of poverty, debt, unfair trading practices and pandemic diseases such as HIV/ AIDS.

And yet I still believe that, properly used, it can do more, and in this speech I will set out some thinking on why and how.

The Commonwealth has had a role in some of the most historic events of our time - most notably, helping to bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, who received a visit by the Commonwealth's Eminent Persons Group whilst imprisoned on Robben Island regarded their visit and subsequent report as a key event in the struggle against racism and prejudice.  And perhaps his comment soon after he was elected President that, "the Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity", encapsulates the moral authority and influence that, at its best, the organisation can wield. 

We must of course always be realistic and not think that the Commonwealth can take over the functions of other international institutions - it is not a mini-UN or an alternative to the WTO or regional groupings such as the EU, AU or CARICOM; but it can provide a unique perspective and forum in world affairs, and should be a source of strength and opportunity for its members.  It must be nurtured and encouraged in a way that utilises its attributes to meet the challenges of the modern world and it is up to Britain among other countries to provide a strong steer, an open mind and some real enthusiasm. 

It is a truism that the global economy and political forces of the 21st century will require multilateral rather than unilateral solutions. A cursory glance over events of the past year remind us of the power and reach of the global forces that are now in operation, the tight interdependence between our nations, and the pace with which problems can surface in one country and transmit to another.  We tragically witnessed once again the lurking presence of international terrorist networks capable of inflicting coordinated and brutal attacks on international centres of commerce in the case of Mumbai.  We saw successive attempts in the political arena to engender a unified response to the threat of global warming with seemingly slow progress. 

Dwindling energy reserves and rising prices became the catalyst for intensified political and economic machinations in the provision of oil and gas, while the malignant regime in Zimbabwe and the regime and rebels in Sudan continued wilfully to destroy the lives of their countrymen in defiance of the international community. 

Further, the weight of economic and political power in the world has started to move significantly and over time the international community will have to navigate a very different geo-political landscape to the one that we now know.  While the United States will remain a world super power with unrivalled military capability and be the essential ally of democracies, we must acknowledge that we are moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world; that the economic shift to the east cannot be ignored; that the rise of powers like China, India and Brazil is the 21st century reality; and that the predominance of Western nations, a circumstance that has characterised the industrial era, can no longer be assumed; trends that must encourage all countries to broaden their outlook from traditional parameters.  Such change brings conflict and uncertainty, but it is precisely on this ground that the Commonwealth can thrive in its unparalleled ability to reach across the barriers of culture and geography, and to form alliances between developed and emerging economies.

This changing pattern of authority and influence in the twenty-first century has rendered the decision-making procedures of many multilateral institutions and organisations somewhat out of date. The UN Security Council still reflects the outcome of the Second World War, a time when there were only 51 members of the UN. In the subsequent sixty years its membership has swollen to 192 and the composition of the Security Council no longer corresponds to today's real distribution of power, thus raising concerns over its legitimacy. In the meantime, other groupings based on shared interests and economic influence have been formed and are seizing the initiative - for example, former East Asian rivals China, Japan and South Korea held their own summit last year as did the four so-called BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China. 

Britain must therefore be a powerful advocate of the reform of ageing international institutions, and we must fully support measures such as permanent seats on the UN Security Council for countries like Japan, India, Germany, Brazil and African countries, and a redesign of the governance structures of the World Bank and IMF.

The need to reform our multilateral institutions and revitalise international co-operation and partnership are subjects on which both David Cameron and I have spoken widely in the past and will be an important component of our foreign policy if we are elected to form the next government. It is one of the five key elements of our liberal conservative approach to foreign affairs, an approach we have developed with careful consideration over the past few years whilst in Opposition.  It is liberal because we support the goal of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention, where it is practical to do so, and conservative because we recognise the complexities of human nature and are sceptical of grand designs to remake the world.

The other elements which complete this approach are first, that we should fully understand the threat we face; second, that democracy cannot quickly be imposed from outside; third, that our strategy needs to go far beyond military action and finally, that we must strive to act with moral authority and in accordance with our values at all times.  In each of these areas, our work with the Commonwealth has a role to play in British foreign policy: in its potential to liberate and reform, in utilising its extensive network of civil society groups, in building expertise in financial, electoral and democratic reform, in increasing international collaboration between western and Muslim states, and in working peacefully and constructively for change. 

Clearly, the alliances and relationships forged during the long history of the Commonwealth - instead of becoming a relic of the past - have become more relevant as the twenty-first century progresses. Indeed, when the present government came to power in 1997, it made clear in its manifesto that it was "committed to giving renewed priority to the Commonwealth in our foreign relations" and pledged to "seize the opportunity to increase trade and economic co-operation" and "build alliances with our Commonwealth partners." Tony Blair himself said, "The Commonwealth contains one quarter of the world's population... It is the only organisation, outside the UN itself, to transcend regional organisations and bring together North and South... We cannot let a priceless legacy like this fade into nostalgia". 

Despite these intentions, we have seen a failure by the government to deliver on these promises over the last decade; instead the government's term in office has been characterised by a neglectful ambivalence. Two recent Foreign Secretaries often failed to attend CMAG meetings even when they were held in London - a peculiar example to the other national ministers who flew thousands of miles to be present.  Since 2003 the government has closed Embassies and High Commissions in seven Commonwealth states; the Bahamas, Cameroon, Kiribati, Lesotho, Swaziland, Vanuatu and Tonga.  Last year, it contemplated ending the ancestral visa route which allows people from Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand to make a significant contribution to the economy of Britain but has thankfully seen sense and now changed its mind.  Furthermore, in March 2008 the Foreign Secretary announced that the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Fund to developed nations would be withdrawn. This is incredibly poor timing given that 2009 is the 50th anniversary. 

It is a prestigious programme and the students from Australia, Bahamas, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Malta, New Zealand and Singapore who are selected frequently become leaders in their fields and fine ambassadors for our universities.  The tragedy is that the government will leave our country in such a sorry state that no Opposition can plan with confidence to reverse such an injudicious measure.

Relinquishing our Commonwealth commitments is incredibly short-sighted and ultimately detrimental to the prosperity and sphere of influence of our country. Other countries are aware of the benefits that the Commonwealth brings: the Indian Minister for Industry has described the Commonwealth as the "perfect platform" for trade and investment and the facts speak for themselves - over the past 10 years, intra-Commonwealth trade has expanded from $2 trillion to $3 trillion and investment flows have reached over $160 billion. Commonwealth trade and investment now accounts for over 20% of the world total and there is the potential to increase this share further. There are huge economic benefits to be gained and Britain must capitalise on these opportunities. 

The advantages of commonalities in language, education, professional training and legal and financial institutions still often remain and it has been estimated that these create a 15% cost advantage over business with countries outside the Commonwealth.  Increasingly Commonwealth countries are knowledge driven and great innovators - the foundations upon which future economic prosperity will depend - and are proceeding with some of the fastest growth rates in the world.  Britain has much to learn from them.

The failure to deliver on the pledges of the last decade is obviously concerning but a cause for greater alarm is that the government appears to be jeopardising Britain's prospects for the future - the only place where the Commonwealth was mentioned in the FCO's most recent Strategic Plan was the title of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and it did not appear in the rest of the document at all. Nor was it raised during the Foreign Secretary's speech last week on multilateralism and managing global insecurity.  This is not good enough. I much enjoyed an article on the Commonwealth written a year ago by the author Derek Ingram who has spent many years covering Commonwealth affairs, who said: "The British , having spawned it, have not known what  to do with it, have often wished it would go away and then realized there is no way that can happen.  The French, struggling to make something of their Francophonie, look on in bafflement".

He goes on to say: "The fact that it is not being seen as a big player is because its leaders are not using it enough. Arnold Smith, the first secretary-general and a man whose achievements are hugely underrated and, alas, now rather forgotten, used to say that the Commonwealth was a tool to be picked up and used in situations when it was seen to be appropriate. In recent years our leaders have not been picking it up. I am not talking about getting the Commonwealth into such situations as the Middle East - the Commonwealth should stay well out of that one - but I am talking about matters like UN reform and the environment, which is now at the top as an international political issue. If we use words like niche or marginal, no leader will think of using the Commonwealth as a platform on which to tackle the big issues". 

We must refresh our vision of what the Commonwealth offers and what it can do. The world is moving on and we must not let outdated views of the past cloud our prospects for the future.  The failure of the Labour Government needs to be followed by a significant change in outlook and attitude; driven by a modern, forward-thinking and positive view of the important role that the Commonwealth can take to address current issues. 

This change in approach needs to stretch beyond the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, across other government departments such as International Development and Energy and Climate Change, and across Whitehall. It was disappointing to hear Don McKinnon, the previous Secretary General of the Commonwealth, reflect, "In the course of my political years...I have dealt with Foreign Secretaries Hurd, Rifkind, Cook, Straw and Beckett. Naturally, they had nothing but the UK's interests at heart. Within that, they have always been warm towards the Commonwealth, but that warmth hasn't always permeated down to all officials."

We must take responsibility and act in concert with others to develop the Commonwealth for the future.  Despite being an island nation, Britain has always been global in its outlook and demonstrated a sense of duty towards the rest of the world. The history of our country with its commercial aptitude, trading energy, naval prowess and restless exploration has enabled us to display international leadership and play an important role on the world stage.  It can never be more appropriate for this country to take on such responsibility than in times of uncertainty and doubt; sticking firmly to principles of freedom and inclusion, and eschewing protectionism and isolation.  As in the nineteenth century, Britain must promote a fair and transparent economic environment that that can provide opportunity for rich and poor nations alike.  The Commonwealth offers Britain the chance to widen its circle of influence as it can be used to strengthen relationships in Africa and Asia. 

Such partnerships are crucial to promoting good governance, based upon the values that we espouse.  Britain's continued engagement and partnerships with developing countries is essential; globalisation means increased competition in business and commerce, but also for ideas and values.  Too often, it seems, we have been hampered and paralysed by our imperial relationship with the Commonwealth of the past. The Queen has been an inspiration as head of the Commonwealth for the past fifty seven years but in other senses we should not see it as automatically being led by Britain or centred on us. Its great value comes from being such an extensive and multi-faceted network, and a modern network does not have a fixed centre or a pyramid of seniority or command. We must rediscover the will and desire to participate energetically whilst remaining confident that our beliefs, experience and ideas remain of value to other Commonwealth countries.

There are at least five areas in which the role of Commonwealth can be enhanced. The first is the expansion of its membership, as this will bring dynamism and new enthusiasm. This is happening already and is something we need to actively encourage. In the last twenty years countries such as Cameroon, Namibia and Mozambique - the first country without historical ties to Britain - have joined and it is little known Rwanda, Algeria, Yemen and even Japan have all expressed an interest. We should welcome the Commonwealth's expansion and new applications. Whether countries meet the membership criteria and share the Commonwealth values is of course a matter for the Commonwealth Secretariat but the fact that there are potential members is heartening and has the potential to uplift the entire association. 

A second area would be to enhance the Commonwealth's role in conflict prevention and resolution. The Secretary General's good offices which promote reconciliation, peace and stability without prejudice to the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states is a flagship programme of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and performs great deal of work behind the scenes which often goes unrecognised. Hostilities in countries such as Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Cameroon and in Kenya, following last year's post election violence, have benefited from the Commonwealth's involvement.

It is able to carry out this task as it is seen as non-threatening, can act with discretion and has no other motive besides a peaceful outcome, and should develop this programme further by working in non-Commonwealth countries. The establishment of a semi-permanent secretariat of experts from Commonwealth countries to provide an immediately accessible source of expertise necessary to mediate in disputes or conflicts would be of immense value.

Thirdly, it should take a leading role where appropriate in addressing state failure. Prime Minister Nehru who negotiated India's association with the Commonwealth at the point of independence remarked the organisation can deal with problems "with a touch of healing" in a way which would be "good for us, good for certain other countries and I think good for the world".  This sentiment certainly holds true sixty years later and there are several places where the Commonwealth could apply its deft touch. An obvious example is Zimbabwe, a country whose demise has tragically been played out through the recent history of the Commonwealth.  The devastation in Zimbabwe after decades of misrule is a cause for both shock and great sadness and it remains a cruel irony that the main statement setting out the Commonwealth's values is named The Harare Declaration, given the contempt with which the democratic principles that it enshrines have been abused in the country.

Mugabe may have withdrawn from the association in 2003 amidst condemnation over the way in which the Presidential elections were conducted the previous year but the Commonwealth family has a moral commitment to the people of Zimbabwe and to the neighbouring Commonwealth countries, into which its problems have now spilled. 

The Commonwealth's help in devising a reconstruction plan for the country will be required, along with its expertise in areas such as post-conflict resolution, development, education and health. In the same way that South Africa looked to the Commonwealth to reconnect with the world after the end of apartheid and decades of isolation, Zimbabwe can use the Commonwealth network to reinvigorate its economic, political, cultural and sporting ties once democracy is restored. When South Africa left the association in 1961 the Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker said there would always be a candle in the window for the day of its return and I very much hope that a similar candle is burning for the people of Zimbabwe. I can think of no better way for the Commonwealth to commemorate its 60th anniversary than for it to help the country through this very dark period and to welcome it back into the Commonwealth family as soon as it is able.

Similarly, the Commonwealth can also play an important role in other recent trouble spots, like Pakistan, with whom it has had a long but often fraught relationship.  Returning to the Commonwealth fold in May 2008 after its most recent suspension, it is essential that collaboration with Islamabad gains momentum over the coming years.  Cooperation with Pakistan in the area of security and intelligence continues to be of paramount importance for world security against a continuing terrorist threat.  The terrorists who carry out these actions thrive in the climates of fear and mistrust that they seek to create, so our joint solidarity in facing down such divisive forces must be unwavering.  The Commonwealth rightly condemned the terror attacks in Mumbai and will continue to stand against all forms of extremism.  I hope that its conciliatory influence will promote peace and stability in this and other areas of the Commonwealth.

Fourth, it should extend its influence to areas outside the domain of its traditional membership and build bridges where its expertise would be welcomed.  The make-up of the Commonwealth countries, containing approximately 500 million Muslims, could make it an ideal conduit for certain reform initiatives in the Arab world using its own particular strengths to foster cooperation, goodwill and trust in the region.   Interestingly, Malaysia believes that the Commonwealth offers a ready-made network for moderate Muslim states to have a voice on the international stage. Let us also not forget that in some of these countries the young represent the majority of the population.

We should work with them through new initiatives going both ways here in Britain through the VSO and in other Commonwealth countries through similar networks that can bring the young closer through exchanges of ideas and practical assistance.

Fifth, the Commonwealth is a prime forum for tackling issues which cross divides and national boundaries and its efforts should be given more recognition. One example is inter-faith dialogue since approximately 800 million Hindus, 500 million Muslims and 400 million Christians make up the constituent members of the Commonwealth.  It is fortunate to be able to draw together such a great cross-section of opinion, culture and tradition; something that can stand in direct contrast to the pernicious and divisive rhetoric of the extremists.  Moderate and constructive dialogue, especially in times of economic and social turbulence, can help to build trust among different ethnic groups and also nations.  Over recent months places such as Orissa state in India and the city of Jos in Nigeria have witnessed brutal attacks on Christian minorities and the Commonwealth could draw upon its experience to help prevent religious discrimination in locations such as these, just as it worked towards ending racial intolerance in South Africa.

Another example which requires additional attention is migration and the inter-related issue of human trafficking, given that the Commonwealth comprises a third of the world's population. No country in the entire world is immune from human trafficking - a form of modern day slavery - be it as a country of origin, transit or destination, and this worldwide trail of destruction can only be eradicated by national authorities working in close contact with each other, and by sharing information and knowledge about the criminal networks and their methods. 

I am very pleased that the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is holding a conference on international migration and human trafficking this month which will bring together politicians, leading academics and experts from around the world and look forward to reading their conclusions. To complement this work, the Commonwealth's substantial network of civil organisations could be harnessed and used to form a powerful coalition in raising awareness, urging national governments to devote more resources to combating this crime and in assisting those who have fallen victim.

In addition, the Commonwealth must take up the mantle of its own reform and examine its own structure, governance and internal machinery. According to the Cabinet Minutes of the meeting which heralded the Commonwealth's modern birth in April 1949, "emphasis was laid on the importance of maintaining the strength and cohesion of the Commonwealth...when international relations were so unstable".  This imperative certainly still holds true in today's international climate and requires the Commonwealth to better represent the make-up of its membership in the modern world. 

For example, the budget formula for subscriptions to the Commonwealth Secretariat is outdated and does not reflect the new dynamism and economic success of certain members - the UK pays 30%, Canada 19% and Australia 10% whilst India, Singapore and Malaysia all pay less than 3%. It is also vital that the sense of ownership of the Commonwealth is spread among different countries and that they are given the chance to assume responsibility for specific ideas. This could be achieved by building more intergovernmental organisations away from London, such as the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi. This is on top of the good work that the Commonwealth does in other areas, such as climate change, where it has taken the lead and must continue to do so.

The point is not that the Commonwealth is inactive in any of the areas that I mentioned but that its achievements will depend on the readiness of its member governments to make use of it, and that greater use of the Commonwealth can be made. In an age of networks it can be one of the most valuable networks of all; in an age of flexibility it can be of practical value in ways which more rigid institutions find difficult, and in an age of globalisation it can exploit its unuqie global reach.

However, it will be up to individual governments, including our own, to summon the political will to ensure that has adequate support and resources to evolve in a manner which continues to serve the interests of its people. In the case of Britain there needs to be a significant change of attitude across the entire government towards the Commonwealth - its value must be recognised and our long and friendly relationship with it must not be allowed to fade away.

It is worth sounding one cautionary note: if the organisation is to remain effective it must protect its own moral authority.  The Commonwealth should be commended as the only international institution to possess a mechanism which facilitates the suspension of members that breach its fundamental principles, via the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.  But at different times it has failed to take decisive action against persistent violations by member countries with continual and serious democratic defects such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and the Maldives.  Credibility gained by the CMAG's tough stance towards Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gambia, will be undermined without consistency in its dealings.

So I say to the friends of the Commonwealth who are gathered here tonight and to the tens of thousands of others who may wonder why it is that this fascinating and valuable organisation so often escapes the minds of British Ministers, that we should be excited and determined about what the nations of the Commonwealth can do together. Amidst the shifting global landscape, the Commonwealth can act as a bridge across divides of religion, ethnicity, culture and wealth, to the benefit of common humanity.

When the modern Commonwealth was born sixty years ago with the inclusion of a newly independent India, the final Communiqué from the Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting stated that the association had demonstrated the ability to "strengthen its unity of purpose while adapting its organisation and procedures to changing circumstances".  It should draw upon this experience and continue to evolve in the full assurance that it has an important role to play in the twenty-first century. It should also have complete confidence that it will have the unwavering support of a future Conservative government for it will be an important instrument in our foreign policy tool box.

We will adopt a more assertive, energetic and enthusiastic attitude towards the Commonwealth since there is vast potential to be unlocked and Britain must, along with our friends and allies, be at the forefront of these efforts. 

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