Commonwealth Secretary-General, Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC, has set milestones for women. She moved to Britain at the age of two from Dominica. Before beginning her tenure as the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal distinguished herself as a lawyer before entering the political arena in 1977. In 1991, she created legal history by becoming the fi rst black female QC (Queen’s Counsel) at the age of 35.
She aptly describes herself as ‘a classic child of the Commonwealth’. Born in Dominica and brought up in London, her story is a journey of many ‘fi rsts’. She was the fi rst black woman to join the Queen’s Counsel in the United Kingdom, the fi rst woman to hold the position of Attorney General for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the fi rst woman Commonwealth Secretary-General.
In an interaction with Diplomatist Editor-at-Large Alankar Srivastava, Commonwealth Secretary-General Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC touched upon trade, gender equality, climate change, good governance,empowering young people, importance of India in the Commonwealth, former Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma’s achievements, and much more. Excerpts...
Q. It’s a pleasure to have you with us! Comment on
the relevance of the Commonwealth, an association of 52
independent and sovereign countries, in the 21st Century.
As my predecessor Kamalesh Sharma often used to say, the Commonwealth may have emerged during the last century, but it is very much designed for the 21st Century. Comprising more than 80 diff erent intergovernmental, civil society and professional organisations, the Commonwealth is a symbol of diversity and unity, and an incubator of ideas that help to drive positive change in the world.
Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for example, which were agreed by world leaders at the United Nations in September 2015. In many ways, the 17 goals mirror the 16 articles of the Commonwealth Charter, which was adopted in December 2012. The charter, which is a defi ning legacy of Kamalesh Sharma’s period in offi ce, provided a blueprint for the SDGs with its focus on human rights, rule of law and good governance, health, education, gender equality, among other priorities.
The Commonwealth has a proud history, from our campaign against apartheid in South Africa and eff orts to promote debt relief for least developed countries. However, I fi rmly believe that the Commonwealth’s glory days are ahead of us, not behind us. At the Commonwealth Secretariat, we are looking for the solutions to today’s problems, from cybercrime to global warming.
Q. You have so many ‘fi rsts’ to your credit. Take us through your journey so far.
On the journey to becoming the fi rst woman Secretary- General of the Commonwealth, I was proud to have been the fi rst black woman to be a Queen’s Counsel and the only woman to have been Attorney General for England, Wales and Northern Ireland since the post was created in 1315. But in all honesty, I always feel a sense of regret when I refl ect on these fi rsts, as it shows how little diversity there has been in so many institutions and high offi ces. My focus is on supporting the next generation of female leaders. As I tell my friends and colleagues, I would rather hear that I am the seventy-eighth or, better yet, three-hundredth woman to be appointed to a post.
Q. Elaborate on the 2016 theme - ‘an Inclusive Commonwealth’. What are the priorities that you have set for yourself as Commonwealth Secretary-General?
The Commonwealth makes up a third of the world’s population and includes every raceand religion of the world. Inclusivity is, therefore, at the heart of everything we do. The Commonwealth is about ensuring that no-one is left behind, and the principles contained in the Commonwealth Charter are applied to all.
As the organisation’s first woman Secretary-General, I am especially conscious of the need to redress gender inequalities and empower women and girls all around the world. That’s why addressing violence against women is one of my key priorities for my term of offi ce. I also want to give a voice to the Commonwealth’s young people, who make up more than two-thirds of our total population. I have also made it my mission to help countries enact policies, which extend economic security and prosperity, through enhancing trade and bolstering good governance. One of the major concerns that we have identifi ed, both in the Commonwealth Charter and the Sustainable Development Goals, is the critical need to address corruption, human rights and the rule of law.
Addressing the existential threat of climate change is one of the greatest concerns for Commonwealth countries and so it is incumbent on me, as Secretary-General, to advocate for the needs of the most vulnerable among our membership. As someone who hails from Dominica, with a population of little more than 70,000, I know only two well the acute sense of anxiety that small states feel given the threats of rising seas and the onslaught of ever more worrying extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Matthew which recently hit the Caribbean.
Q. How do you see the post-Brexit global order?
The first thing to say is that the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union came as a real shock for many Commonwealth member countries. Many governments are still getting over that shock and I think it’s fair to say most were hoping that the UK would have stayed in the EU, as they have benefi ted from EU trade preferences and relied on Britain to be a voice for them within Europe.
Today our member governments are trying to determine how they may be impacted, particularly in terms of trade and fi nancial fl ows. The Commonwealth Secretariat recently published research that showed that the UK is the fourth most important market for Commonwealth exports, behind only the USA, China and Japan. Countries such as Botswana, Seychelles, Belize, Bangladesh, Mauritius and Sri Lanka could be among the biggest aff ected, with the UK market accounting for more than 10 percent of their total exports. So the concern is that the decline in the value of the pound could aff ect countries. But, with change comes opportunity, and so undoubtedly there will be new trading relationships that are formed as a result.
Q. You recently remarked that the Commonwealth will ‘turbo-charge’ eff orts to increase trade advantages for its 52 member countries.What are the commercial and economic opportunities within theCommonwealth?
There are huge economic and commercial opportunities all throughout the Commonwealth. This is because the cost of doing business is reduced when it involves parties in Commonwealth member countries - we estimate it to be around a 19 percent advantage. That is due to commonalities such as our use of English for commerce and the shared characteristics of our legal and administrative systems, not to mention the infl uence of diaspora communities living abroad.
Trade among Commonwealth countries has risen from about $200 billion in the year 2000 to more than $600 billion today. By 2020, we estimate it will be worth $1 trillion. So the economic links between our nations are growing, some would say exponentially. In the coming years, we have an opportunity to transform the Commonwealth trade advantage further - beyond 19 percent perhaps to 30 percent or even higher.
To do this, we have to enhance and share best commercial and regulatory practice within similar statutory frameworks across the Commonwealth so that we make it even easier and better for Commonwealth members to trade one with the other.
Next year, the United Kingdom will host a Commonwealth Trade Ministers Meeting, followed by the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018. These will be pivotal meetings in terms of opening up new commercial and economic opportunities for all Commonwealth member countries, including India.
Q. How do you intend to create better opportunities for young people, who make up 60 percent of the Commonwealth population?
Today the global youth population is at an all-time high of 1.8 billion, and around 640 million live in Commonwealth countries, of which a sizeable majority are in India. Young people are at least twice as likely as adults to be jobless, with the crisis of unemployment aff ecting developed and developing countries alike.
We also learnt that young people suff er disproportionately as victims of violent crime and that young women do not enjoy the same privileges of access to access to education, health, fi nancial services and digital technology as their male peers. At the same time, many countries are experiencing a ‘youth bulge’ with adolescents and young adults aged between 15 and 29 making up a third, or even a quarter, of the population. However, the birth rate in many countries is declining, so in the coming decades a smaller base of young people will be responsible for supporting increasing number of older people.
This means it is more important than ever that we seize the opportunity created by this demographic dividend and create the best life chances for young people, because everyone’s future rests on them being able to realise their potential. Attaining the Sustainable Development Goals depends on young people being engaged and empowered to lead change. Young people are our greatest asset and should be recognised not only as leaders of tomorrow, but as leaders of today.
At the Commonwealth Secretariat, we are determined that young people are included in the decision-making processes that aff ect them, gain meaningful employment, have the opportunity to carve out their own enterprises and can participate fully in all aspects of national and community life.
In this regard, I commend the leading part played by young Indians in making the Commonwealth Alliance of Young Entrepreneurs-Asia a model that is now being replicated and adopted in regions throughout the Commonwealth.
I am also working with Common Purpose to make sure we extend to the young people of India the benefits of the 33sixty programme for young Commonwealth citizens. This will complement and augment the excellent work already being done by the Commonwealth Youth Programme, to which so many young Indians have made outstanding contributions during interaction and cooperation with their peers from other Commonwealth member states.
I must also mention with gratitude the generous off er made by the Ministry of Human Resource Development at the most recent Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers to establish a Commonwealth Consortium, for need-basedresearch throughout the Commonwealth. This will build on the very successful revival in Bangalore in 2014 after a break of fi fty years or so of the Commonwealth Secretariat Science Conference.
Q. With climate change emerging as an ‘existential threat’ to small island states, don’t you think it’s time the Commonwealth steps up eff orts and help build consensus in fi ghting the menace?
Climate change is a clear and present danger for us all, but it presents an existential threat to small states and vulnerable states in particular. That is why the Commonwealth has been ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing climate change and advocating for the needs of our 30 small states - most of which have populations well below two million. Since the 1980s, we have been at the forefront of advocacy on climate change, calling for improved research, national and international adaptation strategies, reduction in CO2 emissions and improved coastal defences; encouraging the sharing of best practice models which are effi cient, eff ective and workable.
In 2015, the Commonwealth was instrumental in paving the way for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which was agreed thanks to commitments made by leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in November. Having played a big role in achieving the Paris Agreement, we now have a big role to play in delivering it.
It was especially fitting that India’s historic ratification of the Paris Agreement, less than a year later, occurred on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi who, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi then commented, inspired others to live with a low-carbon footprint. Just as Gandhi was someone who campaigned passionately for the vulnerable in society, so it falls to the Commonwealth collectively to be concerned for the needs and wellbeing of the vulnerable small states who will be most badly impacted by climate change.
Despite a target of $100 billion a year to be made available for climate mitigation and adaption by 2020, only $726 million of available fi nance has so far been received by Commonwealth small states. I was, therefore, pleased to sign an agreement with the government of Mauritius in September to host the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, which will help countries to access the resources they need - another of Kamalesh Sharma’s visionary contributions.
Last month, we also hosted a two-day brainstorming session at Marlborough House in London for experts focused on exploring solutions to help reverse the human impacts of climate change. We need our best minds working on this challenge, so that is why I brought together leading biologists, ecologists, oceanographers and authorities on sustainability and regenerative development. The purpose is to create new and enduring partnerships and spark new ideas and solutions. There’s much more to do, but I am confi dent that, if we work together, we can address and overcome this threat.
Writing earlier this month, a distinguished environmental commentator and entrepreneur admitted that having rather discounted the impact and potential of the Commonwealth, he had “failed to notice the extraordinary impact of the organisation’s behind-the-scenes lobbying captured in 2015’s Commonwealth Leaders’ Statement on Climate Change, targeted at the COP21 summit in Paris”.
Q. What is your take on the prospect of new countries applying to join the Commonwealth?
The Commonwealth is a beacon to the world and it should come as no surprise that there are countries out there who want to join us. In recent years, Cameroon, Mozambique and Rwanda have all been successful in their applications. Membership is, of course, a consideration for Commonwealth Heads of Government.
Q. What are the steps that are imperative to advance gender equality and end violence against women?
Action on gender equality and women’s empowerment is core to the success of the Commonwealth and all of its member countries. We all bear a responsibility to ensure that women and girls enjoy the same life chances as men and boys. If women and girls face inequality in terms of their rights before the law, their employment or their participation in public life, we all lose out.
Throughout history, women have led movements for change and played an integral role in delivering political, economic and social change - from movements for selfdetermination and women’s movements for social justice, to the revolution on micro-credit and eff orts to rebuild societies after violent conflicts.
It is especially concerning to see vulnerable women and young girls fall victim to violence, both physical and mental. Domestic violence aff ects one in three women globally and causes lasting damage not only for those directly aff ected but for everyone in society. The economic cost of such violence alone runs into many billions of dollars - over £20 billon in the United Kingdom in 2003 alone. This is a problem which aff ects every country on Earth, and we must no longer sweep it under the carpet.
When I was a Minister and later Attorney-General in the UK government, we were able to bring down the cost of domestic violence - reducing it by 64 percent and saving £7 billion in the process. We did this by bringing together all those groups, which have a vested interest in delivering improvements and cutting costs - government, business leaders, non-governmental organisations, charities and faith leaders.
As Secretary-General, I want to see greater international collaboration and sharing of information and best practices among all countries. That’s something the Commonwealth is ideally placed to deliver, and that is why it is one of my top priorities. I have tasked the Commonwealth Secretariat to assess the economic cost of violence in every member country and to forge new alliances. This builds on our years of experience in addressing fi nancial policies that exclude women and women’s lack of participation in economic decision-making.
If we continue to allow women to be abused and disregarded, then that has a huge impact on the social and economic health and wellbeing of our world. But if we choose to make a change, then we can accomplish so much more.
At the recent 11th Commonwealth Women Affairs Ministers Meeting in Samoa, the importance of women’s leadership, equitable participation and empowerment as critical drivers for inclusive sustainable development was recognised, and Ministers agreed to four priority areas for action - women’s economic empowerment; women in leadership; ending violence against women and girls; and gender and climate change.
Q. India, as part of the Commonwealth, shares a unique bond with the United Kingdom. What, in your opinion, is the importance of India in the Commonwealth? Also, please highlight the achievements of former Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma.
India occupies a special place in the modern Commonwealth as one of its original founders. It was at a Prime Ministers’ Conference on April 28, 1949 that the London Declaration was signed by Jawaharlal Nehru, bringing into being this voluntary association of free and independent states. As the prime minister later said, India chose to be a part of the Commonwealth “because we think it is benefi cial to us and to certain causes in the world that we wish to advance.” Those words, I believe, are as true and relevant today as they ever were. The Commonwealth is a vehicle for advancing countries’ shared values and priorities, from democracy to trade and economic development.
All Indians can be immensely proud of the leading role their country has played in the Commonwealth over the past decades. India is respected and even revered by many other member nations, including the United Kingdom, for its rich history, culture and achievements, including its commitment to small and developing countries, for example through its support to the newly established Commonwealth Trade Finance Facility, which will help boost trade and investment. As India looks ahead to the 60th anniversary of its independence next year, the country is deserving of commendation and has much to celebrate.
Of course, no Indian public servant has given more to the Commonwealth than my predecessor, Kamalesh Sharma. During his eight-year tenure, the Commonwealth Secretariat championed so many causes, from the concerns of our smallest states to the empowerment of young people, women and girls. Our ‘culture of democracy’ was greatly strengthened under his watch, with the establishment of the Commonwealth Electoral Network and Junior Election Professionals Network, which help election officials to connect with and to learn from each other in a very practical way. By the time he stepped down, the number of elections the Commonwealth had observed had risen above 130.
My predecessor was also quick to understand the power of digital technology to break down barriers between peoples. He recognised that the Commonwealth could and should exercise its convening power not only at physical meetings but also in the online sphere. In the years ahead, I hope to continue and build on his great work and legacy to ensure that the Commonwealth will continue as a global force for good. As he himself said, “The need for the Commonwealth to act as an inclusive network for mutual support, development and growth of opportunity and rights for all is as great as ever.”
It has been my pleasure in the last six months to celebrate and highlight those achievements, so that one participant in our recent Commonwealth Climate Change Workshop was ‘forced’ to disclose, on learning what pioneering work had been done during Secretary-General Sharma’s time, that he had fallen back in love with the Commonwealth.