From the 21st to the 29th November the Commonwealth descended on Malta for the 24th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. As Leaders, Ministers, civil society, business people, youth leaders and officials return home across the Commonwealth there will be much reflection and morning-after analysis. The summit aimed firmly to position the Commonwealth as a network which embodies the theme, ‘Adding Global Value’. Spurred on by an ambitious new Chair in Office in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta, the Commonwealth appears to have shown that it can.
The summit began with the Youth Forum in St Paul’s Bay, Malta. This was the first time that the youth-led Commonwealth Youth Council was involved in the convening of the youth forum. While small complaints about overrunning sessions, crowded panel discussions and limited time for discussion did emerge, the forum appears to have been largely a success. Youth leaders from all the Youth Councils in the Commonwealth elected the new Executive Committee for the Commonwealth Youth Council and agreed their Action Plan for implementing their priority policy areas. Despite only 9 of the 47 candidates for the elections being female, supporters and voters ensured that there was much greater gender parity amongst the newly elected Executive Committee. The voice of Commonwealth youth was successfully transmitted from the Youth Forum directly to Heads of Government, including Prime Minister Muscat and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, by means of the Youth Dialogue session, highlighting their concerns but also the vital role of young people in achieving development goals.
The People’s Forum also showed that it was capable of moving away from being a Commonwealth ‘talking shop’ to a forum for innovation of ideas that is capable of adding a Commonwealth contribution to global debates. While the topics of discussion were not always the most accessible for every-day citizens and civil society, the resulting Malta Declaration provides a new concept of ‘resilient societies’. Addressing climate change, strengthening health systems, promoting renewable energy and sustainable planning, and protecting minorities can all help societies respond and adapt to new shocks and build capacity for self-organisation and transformation. The issues of LGBT and indigenous peoples’ rights were explored in several official sessions. These issues brought in a new dimension of dialogue and for the first time in the People’s Forum policy makers sat down with LGBT activists to discuss this sensitive issue before this dialogue continued on to civil society presentations to the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting.
The first ever Commonwealth Women’s Forum built on discussions started in Perth in 2011 and established itself in Malta. Empowering women‘s leadership in politics and business were key themes of the conference with Commonwealth organisations, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association and the Commonwealth Businesswomen’s Network playing a role in pushing these agenda. The Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network led the way in terms of ensuring the voices of young gender equality champions were included in discussions and that there was an element of inter-generational dialogue. The forum urged Commonwealth governments to create an independent Technical Working Group on gender equality and women’s empowerment in alignment with the targets for the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Organised by the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) the Commonwealth Business Forum demonstrated its value through sheer weight of attendance and networking critical mass. Over 1,000 delegates participated in the conference along with 20 Heads of State to discuss infra-structure, technology, healthcare, financial services and centres, high value tourism, sustainability, the blue economy and smart cities. A crowning achievement was the launch of a Commonwealth Trade Financing Facility, signed by Mauritius, Sri Lanka, India and Malta as anchor investors, to help boost trade and investment, in particular for importers and exporters from small and developing countries.
It is of course at the governmental level that the largest successes from CHOGM have emerged. 31 countries were represented by their Heads (compared to 27 in Sri Lanka) although several leaders dropped out in the wake of the November Paris attacks. The CHOGM became critically timed in respect of other global meetings, and provided an opportunity to create some North-South global consensus and to enable the voices of smaller states to be heard. The Maltese initiatives of a Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub and the Commonwealth Small States Centre of Excellence are no surprise to Commonwealth commentators, and have been in development by the Maltese Government for some time. These initiatives utilise unique Commonwealth strengths, particularly where they support small states. The more substantial agreements were the creation of a Countering Violent Extremism Unit to be located within the Commonwealth Secretariat, with governments including Australia and the UK pledging significant funding for the next five years; and a strong intent to negotiate for a legally binding resolution in the Paris climate change negotiations (COP 21). Finally, after successive rounds of discussion, the Heads of Government came to a consensus agreement on a new Commonwealth Secretary General, Baroness Patricia Scotland. With her stated interests in tackling corruption, gender inequality and violence against women, the new Secretary General will need to ensure that the Commonwealth does not rest on its post-Malta laurels but continues to be a relevant and cohesive force in the modern world as it continues to add global value.