25/06/2015 13:24 BST | Updated 25/06/2016 06:59 BST

A Critical Year for the Commonwealth

As the rival campaigns on the UK's membership of the European Union begin to take shape, there's another inter-governmental political battle getting underway this year that must not be allowed to fall off the foreign policy agenda. November 2015 will see leaders from the 53 countries which form the Commonwealth of Nations meet in Malta, where their business will include the election of a new Secretary-General for the 2016-2020 term.


And a significant challenge faces the winner. Sixty-six years on from its foundation, the Commonwealth is in urgent need of renewed vision and purpose. Heads of Government no longer prioritise attending meetings, there are visible fault lines between developing and wealthier nations on a whole host of issues and, crucially, some of the larger economies - including the UK, Australia and Canada - are reducing the financial support that underpins the organisation's activities.

A 2011 report by one of its own panels pointed to its declining relevance, not least given its lack of formal powers to challenge members over human rights violations; the report and its recommendations were then significantly downplayed, to international condemnation.

This is a sad state of affairs given the important role played by the Commonwealth in the past, such as in facilitating an international consensus against apartheid. If it continues on its current path, it is not impossible to imagine that the Commonwealth might no longer exist in ten years' time. This at a time when co-operation between nations is both more necessary, and in theory more realistic than ever, given our more globalised economy, politics and communications.

So the election of new leadership at this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) could prove critical. To reverse the current course requires a Secretary-General with three attributes: a relevant vision for the 21st Century Commonwealth, the stature to champion it alongside other major players on the international stage; and the adroit management experience needed to lead a Commonwealth Secretariat lacking in confidence and unity.

Any member country can nominate a candidate, yet by tradition (though not by rule), the position rotates among the different regions of the Commonwealth. It's usually expected that a consensus candidate emerges out of the relevant region, which is currently the Caribbean. Yet ahead of a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government meeting in Barbados next week, regional leaders have not yet coalesced around a single candidate of the three Caribbean competitors currently in the race.

Perhaps the best-known candidate is Dominica's Patricia Scotland. Prominent in the UK, to which she moved as a child, as a former Attorney General, Home Office and Foreign Office minister, she has also worked extensively in the Caribbean and internationally promoting good governance, the rule of law and human rights. She is the architect of the UK-Caribbean Forum and the 'Quintet' of Attorneys-General from the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and is also an acknowledged authority on combating violence against women and child abuse.

The challenge to her candidacy according to some of her opponents is that her career in the UK is a liability, though others would argue that her combination of small island developing state heritage and developed country experience actually means that her life reflects the unique nature of the Commonwealth. She is at any rate undoubtedly a global figure, with a network including a certain prominent female candidate for the US presidency (very pointedly pictured on her website). What's more, at a time when women's representation in high office is under more scrutiny than ever before, Scotland could benefit from that momentum to become the first female Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

Yet she faces a tough fight. A second significant candidate is the former UK High Commissioner from Antigua and Barbuda, Sir Ronald Sanders, who is well known within Commonwealth circles as a journalist and commentator. A member of the Eminent Persons' Group that produced the controversial 2011 report, his contributions to the reform debate have been considerable. He writes frequently and with authority on matters of concern to small states, most recently rebuking the EU for identifying 12 of these as "tax havens" in a move he describes as "playing dice" with their reputations.

However, there are likely to be questions in relation to his past conduct. Payments made to his Isle of Man bank account were reportedly investigated as part of a major corruption inquiry relating to diverted government funds in 2009, and he was publicly named as a person of interest by the Antiguan police in 2012. However, Sanders' lawyers criticised the police's conduct and the investigation was closed with Antiguan police stating that Sanders "should not have been named 'as a person of interest' in the first place" later in 2012. Given the high level of public trust and authority expected of a Commonwealth Secretary-General and considering the Caribbean's trauma and embarrassment during the current FIFA Scandal however, it would be surprising if these issues did not resurface as the election approaches.

The third Caribbean candidate is Professor Bhoendradatt Tewarie, the current Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development in Trinidad and Tobago. A former academic with impressive credentials in public policy and governance, he is nevertheless likely to be seen as lacking the international clout and experience necessary for the post.

The Caribbean impasse may bode well for a candidate from another of the Commonwealth's regions - Botswana's Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba. The former Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is an experienced diplomat with a previous career in technology and investment. The archetypal "safe pair of hands", she does not match Scotland for stature or Sanders for forensic analysis, but if the Caribbean fails to make up its mind, Africa might seize the opening and jump the rotation queue.

While it is not impossible that other candidates may yet declare, it seems most likely that one of these candidates will become the next Secretary-General. And with the Commonwealth tradition of electing Secretaries-General for two successive terms, the winner could either be the last of a declining Commonwealth or the first of a revitalised one. If this longstanding institution is to live up to its potential as a global model of diverse states working to tackle common challenges and seize common opportunities, it needs the right leadership at this crucial moment. For the sake of the people and the countries that rely on the Commonwealth, and those who could benefit from its flourishing, let us hope their governments choose wisely.