In 2018 the Commonwealth will hit a number of profile-raising high points: the Gold Coast in Australia will host the Commonwealth Games, Heads of Commonwealth Governments will meet in London and the RCS itself will celebrate 150 years since its founding. We hope these events will mean robust debate, greater coverage and heightened scrutiny of the Commonwealth and its potential as well as action in harnessing its links and improving the lives of its citizens.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April is one of the most important decision-making platforms for the Commonwealth. Accompanied by forums for citizens, businesses, women’s groups and young people the summit will seek to find solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges of today.
Sustainability is one of these challenges, highlighted by the devastation caused by hurricanes to Dominica, Barbuda and other Commonwealth island nations last year. Yet the Commonwealth is coming together to fight climate change. The Queen's Commonwealth Canopy project, a campaign with the aim of preserving virgin forests within the Commonwealth, reached two milestones last year. Attending the annual Commonwealth Forestry Conference in India, we were able to promote this project to one of the largest countries in the Commonwealth, home to over 70 million hectares of forest. That same year, Tuvalu – one of the smallest countries in the Commonwealth – became the 22nd country to join The Queen's Commonwealth Canopy. With just 11,000 people and noticeably affected by rising sea waters, Tuvalu's commitment sent a strong message about the importance of conserving the world's forests.
Common security is another theme of concern for the Commonwealth and related to it is giving young people paths to global citizenship and away from violent ideologies. This is a key area of interest for the RCS having worked with the Commonwealth Games, UNICEF, the Commonwealth Secretariat and partners to increase knowledge of the use of sport for peace and development among athletes. In 2017 the Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition, our flagship young writers' competition, attracted over 12,300 entrants writing on the theme of ‘A Commonwealth for Peace’. Last year we received a remarkably diverse range of entries from 46 different Commonwealth countries. The four winners of the competition attended an awards ceremony at Buckingham Palace where they were presented their certificates in the presence of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and over 100 distinguished guests.
The success of our campaigns in 2017 reaffirmed the importance of civil society organisations in raising issues which have proven too difficult or controversial for intergovernmental bodies to broach. For instance, we pioneered new dialogues with governments on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans individuals, for a long time considered taboo within the Commonwealth. Working with our partner organisation, the Commonwealth Equality Network, we continued to use an approach of building collaboration and consensus to promote respectful and progressive debate about this sensitive topic. We hope that our approach can make a difference to this component of discussions on Fairness at the Commonwealth Summit.
In 2018 we will also continue our work to support collective prosperity, the final theme of the Commonwealth summit. We remain committed to improving visa access to the UK to the benefit of Commonwealth citizens, business people and domestic industries such as the tourism and hospitality sectors. Last year we handed in a petition of 12,000 signatures to the UK Prime Minister’s office calling for visa-free access for South Africans. Over the coming months we will be pressing for cheaper access for Indian visitors to the UK, an important pillar of our contemporary relationship.
In addition to continuing these important programmes we will be previewing the Commonwealth debates in the run up to the Heads of Government Meeting. The series was launched with a preview of 'A Fairer Future' at the High Commission for the Republic of Cyprus in December, in advance of the Commonwealth Summit this year. We will be continuing to preview the 2018 Commonwealth Heads’ of Government Meeting themes ahead of the Summit in April through events, our magazine and our blog.
In our 150th year The Royal Commonwealth Society will do all it can to promote the value and values of the Commonwealth. We also look forward to coming together with RCS branches from around the world to discuss such possibilities at our international branch meeting later in the year. The longevity of the Society is testament to the continued relevance of the Commonwealth in the modern world. But, rather than resting on our laurels, we will be taking this opportunity to think of even more ways in which we can improve the lives of all Commonwealth citizens.
Photo credit: UK House of Lords, Chamber Event 2017.
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