The Commonwealth is an association of nations that links fifty-three sovereign states, six continents, and one third of the world’s population. Despite the vast dichotomies in geography, economy and culture, one characteristic of the Commonwealth that never fails to amaze me is that whenever its citizens convene they always find that they have more in common than separating them. These shared traits include English language, a shared history and, most importantly to me as a parliamentarian, a strong tradition of parliamentary democracy.
Last week, I and some two hundred other Commonwealth parliamentarians descended on Cameroon for the 60th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, the annual gathering of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). This annual event is a remarkable opportunity for parliamentarians to share experience and seek solutions to mutual challenges, as well as to strengthen our relationships with our international parliamentary colleagues. The CPA is also one of the few Commonwealth organisations of which sub-national legislatures – for instance the Scottish Parliament, Overseas Territories’ legislatures, parliaments of the Indian and Nigerian states – are full and equal members. All levels of democratic representation are therefore able to share best practice, a benefit I find particularly pertinent in light of the current re-evaluation of the devolution arrangements in the UK; perhaps we may be able to seek inspiration in the models adopted by Canada or India.
This year’s conference explored the theme of ‘repositioning the Commonwealth for the post-2015 development agenda,’ a theme I thought to be of critical importance for a group of countries in which fifty per cent of the population is under 25, and therefore will live in a world built on a foundation of the post-2015 sustainable development goals. Over the course of the conference, we discussed critical themes, such as the importance of providing for the most vulnerable in society, including disabled people; the importance of transparency, accountability and effective parliamentary oversight in guaranteeing good governance in the post-2015 framework; and the importance of securing adequate representation of women in Parliament. Each discussion group then agreed concrete recommendations for delegate parliamentarians to take back to their legislatures as a starting point for action.
Commonwealth parliaments largely share the Westminster system, and therefore we are able to share best practice on parliamentary procedure; but we are also able to compare the Napoleonic or presidential system as used in Quebec or Cameroon itself. We explored financial oversight and codes of conduct, and our clerk colleagues at the same time also convened their own conference of the Society of Commonwealth Clerks At The Table. The latter meetings may have contained much discussion of the challenges of managing and organising parliamentarians, but I look forward to seeing any innovations in the administration of the UK Parliament that result from ideas found in other legislatures.
I must also say something of the delights of our host country, Cameroon. It was my first time in the country and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to learn about what is often described as a microcosm of Africa. From the moment of our arrival at the airport, where a very charming Senator met us, to the moment of our departure the Cameroonian people were delightful. It is also a very beautiful country; a highlight of the conference programme was a visit to Mefou National Park, a primate sanctuary where animals which are orphaned by poachers or whose habitat has been destroyed as a result of human actions are brought to live. The sanctuary is run by Ape Action Africa and is a partner of Bristol Zoo, and is an organisation that performs extremely worthy work.
As well as being a delight to visit, Cameroon is very interesting politically as a union between the former British and French Cameroons. It is an officially bilingual country; eighty percent of the population is francophone, and twenty percent English-speaking. It contains a huge number of different tribal groups, its worship is split between Christianity, Islam and traditional African religions. However, it is a model of unity in diversity, with the importance of these different cultural heritages enshrined in the constitution. It has impressive literacy and school enrolment rates (71% and 94% respectively), remarkable political stability, vast natural resources, and is fast becoming a centre for investment and trade in Central Africa. I greatly look forward to seeing its progress on the world stage, and urge all my Commonwealth friends to visit it to see all this for themselves.
At a mere five days, our visit and our conference were far too short but made up for this by being extremely intensive. We returned on Friday exhausted but bringing with us delightful experiences of a new country and a huge bank of knowledge that we hope will benefit the citizens of the United Kingdom; I hope that our international colleagues will do the same, and that we will see further strengthening of parliamentary democracy across the Commonwealth.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.
Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office