Royal Succession: Small Comfort at Difficult Commonwealth Meeting

29/10/2011 16:55 BST | Updated 29/12/2011 10:12 GMT

At what looks set to be a disappointing Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting, we can take small comfort that leaders - 16 of them at least - have finally agreed to abandon the archaic laws of royal succession.

A move instigated by David Cameron to bestow equal rights to the throne upon female members of the Royal Family has been approved by the other 15 nations that retain Queen Elizabeth II as their monarch.

From now on, order of birth will determine succession, not sex. And about time too.

But while this may be of "historic significance" as Julia Gillard put it, it's a law change that won't exactly do much for girls outside our Royal Family. On that front, it looks likely that the Commonwealth is going to seriously disappoint.

Leaders meeting in Perth have been presented with a real - and much needed - opportunity for Commonwealth reform. A highly critical report compiled by an 11-member Eminent Persons Group, including former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has warned that the Commonwealth's persistent failure to uphold its own values has led to an "organisational decay" which, if not promptly addressed "will occasion the association's irrelevance - if not its actual demise".

Civil society organisations like the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) have been lobbying hard to see this report's recommendations endorsed. But it looks increasingly likely that our hopes - and those of several governments, including the UK and the Australian hosts - are about to be dashed.

All the fanfare around a change that will bring gender equality to one British family shouldn't distract from the fact that Commonwealth leaders may be about to bottle it in a big way. All 54 Commonwealth countries have been asked to demonstrate that the commitments they have made to upholding human rights and democracy amount to more than just empty rhetoric. They have been asked to demonstrate that they are willing to be held to account by a strengthened and reinvigorated Commonwealth. And too many have been found wanting. This weekend's final communique looks set to side-step all but the tamest proposals for change.

Across the Commonwealth, there are numerous examples of serious and persistent human rights violations. But, since the Commonwealth seems keen to boost its gender-credentials this week, let's take the inequality faced by women and girls. Every year 10 million girls under the age of 18 are forced into marriage. That's a new child bride every three seconds. And this practice represents one of the biggest obstacles to education facing the 75 million girls not in school today, trapping them in a desperate cycle of poverty and ill-health.

Many people meeting in Perth have joined the call, first issued by the RCS and Plan, for Commonwealth leaders to take steps to end early and forced marriage. Even the Queen alluded to the importance of this year's Commonwealth theme 'Women as Agents of Change' in her speech to leaders in Perth, when she said we must "find ways to allow all girls and women to play their full part".

Many commentators took this remark to be a coy reference to the Queen's support for a change to the rules of royal succession. I prefer to give Her Majesty more credit. Having shown herself to be deeply committed to the Commonwealth over the course of her sixty year reign, it seems far more likely that forefront in her mind was the urgent need for the Commonwealth to live out its values, to make a tangible difference to the lives of its citizens.

For someone who has overseen, and herself encouraged, so much change since the birth of the modern Commonwealth sixty years ago, I'd put money on the fact that, privately, The Queen is backing reform. And not just reform designed to boost the leadership chances of her future great-granddaughter.

This Commonwealth Summit has delivered a change to the laws of royal succession after 300 long years. Let's hope it won't be another 300 before the Commonwealth delivers on anything else.