Articles - December 2019


The Rt. Hon. Lady Patricia Janet Scotland QC, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Just hearing the name of the institution, the Commonwealth of Nations, immediately conjures memories of the historic British Empire on which the sun – proverbially: never set.  Yet, that institution came to an end in the years following World War II as British power waned and former colonies, dominions and territories claimed their independence.

The emergence of the new Commonwealth of Nations began in 1949 following the end of World War II as those British colonies, beginning with the partition of British India into the states of India and Pakistan, became sovereign states in their own right.  At that time the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Ceylon along with the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs met in London to simultaneously reaffirm and reshape the Commonwealth values that had nurtured them toward independence.

The prefix “British” was dropped from the Commonwealth title, but the members agreed that they would “remain united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely cooperating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”   In 1953, during her Christmas broadcast, Queen Elizabeth II would describe the Commonwealth as “an entirely new conception – built on the highest qualities of the Spirit of Man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace.”

More recently those values have been updated and enshrined in the Charter of the Commonwealth adopted in 2012.  That renewed vision describes a Commonwealth for the 21st century.  “We aspire,” the signatories agree, “to a Commonwealth that is a strong and respected voice in the world, speaking out on major issues; that strengthens and enlarges its networks; that has a global relevance and profile; and that is devoted to improving the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth.”

Today, that Commonwealth has grown to a voluntary association of 53 “independent and equal sovereign states,” including both advanced economies and developing countries.  It is home to 2.5 billion of the world’s people.   In its own words, “The Commonwealth Secretariat supports Commonwealth member countries to achieve development, democracy and peace.  We are a voice for small and vulnerable states and a champion for young people.”

Serving as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is the Rt. Hon. Lady Patricia Scotland QC.  Born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, she moved to the United Kingdom as a child where she was educated and trained as a lawyer.  She recalls the obstacles she faced growing up and pursuing a legal career.  “I was not an Oxbridge graduate.  I had no connections. I am a black woman.  Every time I arrived at career decision points, I could hear the voices of my parents ringing in my ears saying that it was our duty to hone our God-given talents and use them for the benefit of others.”

And so she has.  Patricia Scotland became the first black woman appointed a Queen’s Counsel (QC) and the first black woman to be appointed Deputy High Court Judge, Recorder and Master of Middle Temple (one of the United Kingdom’s four Inns of Court).  She joined the House of Lords in 1997 as Baroness Scotland of Asthal and went on to serve as a minister in the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department.  In 2007 she was appointed Attorney General, the first woman to hold that post since it was created in 1315.  Throughout her career she has had a particular interest in criminal justice reform introducing the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act and founding the Eliminate Violence Global Foundation.

In 2016 Rt. Hon. Lady Patricia Scotland became Secretary-General of the Commonwealth having been appointed by the Commonwealth Heads of Government.  Diplomatic Connections was privileged to interview her at her offices in Marlborough House in London.

Diplomatic Connections:  Would you explain the origins of the Commonwealth – the shift from the British Empire to the British Commonwealth to this modern Commonwealth of Nations, which has more than 50 members today?

Secretary-General Scotland:  The Commonwealth today represents countries that were bound together at one stage by compulsion now voluntarily choosing to stay in alignment together.  That is quite an extraordinary thing to have done.
It happened in 1949 with the London Declaration.  At that time eight countries came together and pledged to each other that they would work together in equality and in charity to promote the values they held dear.  In 1949, India could easily have said: we have our freedom and we want to cut all links with the history of the British Empire.  Each of the other seven signatories could have said something similar.
Instead, they said quite the opposite:  “We have worked together.  We have been a family together for many, many years.  Although we are honoring and celebrating our independence, we accept that we as nations of the world are still interdependent.  That interdependence, that friendship, that family is so important that we wish to be attached to our other brothers and sisters who are still part of the old family to which we used to belong.”
What has happened is remarkable.  The Commonwealth started with those original eight independent countries, but as every country that was once part of the British Empire has decided to take its own independence, most of them have made a similar commitment.  If you think about it, what other force would bring a tiny island in the Pacific together with a tiny island in the Caribbean or a country in Asia or in Africa?

Diplomatic Connections:  Can you describe the “glue” that holds this assemblage of quite different countries together?

Secretary-General Scotland: Most of these people come from the same root.  There are so many things that Commonwealth members share.  It is humor.  It is sport.  It is language.  It is quite extraordinary that you could have sitting around a room 53 leaders of the world – some of them representing immensely wealthy states and some of them representing some of the world’s poorest states, some of them landlocked, some of them island states – yet when they gather on their own they are all communicating in one language.  There are no translators.  There are no accompanying retinues of bureaucrats.  These leaders can just talk to each other.
What do we have in common?  It is a bit like our DNA.  99.9% of every human being’s DNA is identical.  What makes us different is the 0.1% of our make-up that distinguishes us as individuals.  We can, if we wish spend all of our time concentrating on that 0.1% that makes us distinctive.  It is beautiful because it is what makes us white or black, male or female.  However, the 99.9% makes us human.
My thought was that what the Commonwealth could do best was to just put to one side for a moment the 0.1%, which is important and difficult and must not be ignored, but let’s turn our eyes first to the 99.9%, the things that we have in common, which we share and which we can do something about.  That is where we can pool our intelligence, our knowledge, our innovation such that if one of us has come up with a solution, then no other member state has to struggle with it.  If one of us has spent a pound, a shilling, a penny, then the other does not have to spend the same pound, shilling or penny.

Diplomatic Connections:  How would you describe the evolving relationship between the 53 Commonwealth states and the British monarchy?

Secretary-General Scotland:  If you look at the Queen’s service from the time she was twenty-one, she said that whether her life was long or short she would dedicate it to the service of the peoples of the Commonwealth.  Now, for more than seventy years, that is exactly what she has done.  The Queen’s love of the Commonwealth is palpable.  She has attended every single Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that she’s been able to.  She has supported the Commonwealth faithfully.  And, she has known many of these Commonwealth leaders since they were children.
This is a matter of continuity and an enormously important personal underpinning for the Commonwealth.  The Queen has met all of the Prime Ministers and the Presidents of these countries.  She knows the history of the Commonwealth and the history of each of the countries.  She knows their pain and their tribulation.  She has also been a very wise sounding board for many of these leaders.   That has given her a sagacity and a fund of experience that is second to none.

Diplomatic Connections:  There are, however, members of the modern Commonwealth who have had no British colonial history.  Are there not?

Secretary-General Scotland:  It is not just people who have been members of the group who want to join us.  If you look at the new countries that have come – Mozambique never had any connection with the British Empire, Rwanda never had any connection with the British Empire, Cameroon never had any connection with the Empire, and there are others as well in Africa and elsewhere that are looking at this Commonwealth family and thinking: What have they got?
The aspirations the Commonwealth has, the values it strives to create and to deliver offer something that other countries find attractive.  There are a number of other countries in Africa that wish to join this family.  They come from different traditions that are not part of Anglophone Africa.  When I ask them: “Why do you want to join?” they say: “We aspire to share the values that the Commonwealth affirms."

Diplomatic Connections:  It has been reported that you are a cricket fan.  At your direction, the Commonwealth is starting a program called “Peace at the Crease.”  It appears that you are blending sports and diplomacy. How does that combination work?

Secretary-General Scotland:  I was at a cricket match thinking about the power when the cricket ball hits the bat.  That’s a place of real conflict and friction, and that is where the excitement is supposed to take place – at that crease, where batsman faces pitcher and ball meets bat.  That makes it both the most dangerous place on the pitch and the most productive place on the pitch.  That is precisely where we need to make peace.
We are going to take cricket, and we are going to underscore the developmental role that it can play.  Cricket brings people of different races, different religions and different economic backgrounds together in a way that is very powerful.  It can be a hugely important instrument for building community and encouraging peace.  So the basic idea is to create Commonwealth community cricket, which can be played in villages and towns and any local area, particularly where there is dysfunction, particularly where there is dissent.

Diplomatic Connections:  What might be the impact of BREXIT on the Commonwealth?

Secretary-General Scotland:  The Commonwealth Secretariat and the European Commission have a long history of working together.  We have been working jointly across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific for over ten years, and we will continue to work together whatever might be the resolution of BREXIT.  Our goal remains supporting and assisting our member countries to negotiate trade agreements that will encourage exports and facilitate imports.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is it possible that the United Kingdom, separate from the European Union, will seek to establish and enhance trading relationships with the Commonwealth states?

Secretary-General Scotland: For the United Kingdom, as for all member states of the Commonwealth, there are appealing opportunities to expand trade with other Commonwealth countries, building on the special affinities and inheritances that enable our connection to flourish in ways that are as natural as they are deep.  We have member states on every continent and ocean, yet we all use the same language.  We have similar systems and institutions of governance and administration and comparable regulatory regimes.  Those similarities facilitate transactions and offer significant efficiencies when we trade with each other.   We call this the “Commonwealth Advantage.”
In 2016, intra-Commonwealth trade in goods and services was estimated at US $560 billion.  Our 2018 Commonwealth Trade review projected this to grow to US $700 billion by 2020.  At our 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, our leaders adopted the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment with the goal of increasing intra-Commonwealth trade to US $2 trillion by 2030.

Diplomatic Connections:  The Commonwealth has established itself as one of the leading election observation organizations in the world.  Could you explain how the observation procedures work?

Secretary-General Scotland:  The Commonwealth has observed 144 elections in 38 countries since 1991.  We were one of the original signatories to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation agreed to at the United Nations in 2005.  Those principles are followed by international election observers all around the world.  We also have our own Commonwealth Guidelines for the Conduct of Election Observation in Member Countries, which were adopted in 2018.
The role of Commonwealth election observers is to offer an independent, informed and impartial analysis of the electoral process taking into account all factors that may impinge on the overall credibility of an election.  Today we work alongside citizen observer groups as well as other international observers, including the African Union, the Pacific Islands Forum, the Caribbean Community, the European Union, the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center at Emory University.

Diplomatic Connections:  What factors do the observer teams consider?

Secretary-General Scotland:  As they conduct their analysis and prepare an overall assessment of an election, teams will take into account, among other things: the inclusivity of voter registration; freedom of candidate nominations; conduct of the campaigns; balance and tone of media coverage; participation rights for women, youth, minorities and persons with disability; neutrality of election officials; integrity of voting procedures and ballot security; the right of voters to cast a secret ballot; the absence of violence and intimidation; the integrity of the vote count; and the procedures for results tabulation.  It is a long list of factors to be considered.

Diplomatic Connections:  Given its history and geographic reach, the Commonwealth includes a substantial number of island states.  How does this reality shape the work and the agenda of the Commonwealth?

Secretary-General Scotland:  We have 31 out of the fifty small island states in the entire world.  The Commonwealth is a huge champion for its small island states.  In 1989 in Malaysia the Commonwealth came together, the big states totally convinced by what the smaller, more vulnerable island states were saying about climate change and sea-level rise, to make clear that climate change is an existential threat.  We, the Commonwealth, one-third of the world made that statement together.

Diplomatic Connections:  The oceans have become a focus of the Commonwealth’s environmental concern precisely because of the large number of island and coastal states included among the member states.  What is the substance of the “Blue Charter” to which Commonwealth member states have agreed?

Secretary-General Scotland:  The Commonwealth Blue Charter is an agreement by all 53 member states to actively cooperate to solve ocean-related problems and meet commitments for sustainable ocean development.  These issues are of great relevance to the Commonwealth because 46 of our 53 members have oceanic coastlines.
We are in the process of developing procedures for responding to the concerns expressed in this “Blue Charter.”    We have created action groups each focused on one of the nine priorities that have been identified.  To date, 12 countries have stepped forward to act as “Champions” for particular issues with the goal of unlocking the power of 53 nations and developing needed tools and training.

Diplomatic Connections:  The Commonwealth has undergone dramatic changes since the days of colonialism and empire to the days of independence and multilateral collaboration.  How does such a historic institution keep itself young and organizationally energized?

Secretary-General Scotland:  One of my big passions is youth because they are our future.  Sixty percent of our Commonwealth is under the age of thirteen.  Their energy and their knowledge are extraordinary.  What we are doing in the Commonwealth Secretariat is to try to embed what these young people think, their aspirations, their talent into what we are trying to do as we create a 21st century template for the Commonwealth.

Diplomatic Connections:  That said, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – Harry and Meghan as they are popularly referred to, have been named as Youth Ambassadors to the Commonwealth.  How do you anticipate that role unfolding?

Secretary-General Scotland:  They are already doing the job.  We have a Commonwealth Youth Council, and they came to that meeting.  The young people were absolutely thrilled to see them.  And, the fact that Megan and Harry are so enthusiastic about this role and passionate about young people is marvelous.  That passion is communicated very easily and strongly.
People were touched that the Duchess decided to have embroidered into her veil symbols of the Commonwealth states. This was similar to what Queen Elizabeth did when she had embroidered into her coronation gown the emblems of the regions of the United Kingdom as well as symbols of the Commonwealth countries.  Queen Elizabeth subsequently wore that same gown to open the parliaments of New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and Canada.   The veil the Duchess wore was a gift to the 53 member states, but I am sure it was a gift to Her Majesty the Queen as well.

Diplomatic Connections:  Based on your long career as a Queen’s Counsel, as a judge, as so much a part of the British legal system, and now your diplomatic role, if you were teaching the new classes of foreign service officers from the Commonwealth countries, what lessons would you want to pass on to them?

Secretary-General Scotland:  Observe everything around you.  Look at the world with an appreciative eye and seek fresh insights.  Make strong friendships.
What happens when we start in the service is that we start with people at the same level all across the world.  At the beginning, you don’t always understand that these are the people with whom you will want and need to work with for the rest of your life.  Building strong personal relationships, listening to each other, putting yourself in that person’s shoes, looking through their eyes, is the most valuable thing that a young diplomat can do.
Don’t look at what separates you.  Look at what joins you first because what you will find is that you will agree on the greatest percentage of issues.  If you can build that relationship, then when you come to the very difficult, awkward, painful issues you have a connection that may help to bridge disagreements with your respect for each other.

Diplomatic Connections:  How is the Commonwealth moving ahead in terms of trying to protect multilateralism and challenge the virulent strains of nationalism that seems to have gained hold in so many places around the world?

Secretary-General Scotland:  Diplomats and diplomacy appear to be out of favor.  Multilateralism is under attack and nationalism is on the rise.  This is worrisome because we learned so many painful lessons about extreme nationalism in the two world wars.  We must never have to learn those lessons over again.
The Commonwealth continues to promote multinationalism as opposed to narrow nationalism and nationalistic self-interest.  We recognize that we are better together.

Diplomatic Connections:  Can the Commonwealth offer other institutions a model of multilateralism at work in the real world?

Secretary-General Scotland:  In the Commonwealth we believe that if we can create this space for interdependence, then we will be enhancing global security as well as national security and moving toward a safer world.
Once the Commonwealth family coalesces around a set of ideas and goals upon which they can agree, it is usually a good pathway to the other two-thirds of the world who look like them.   Most of the remaining two-thirds of the world can look at the Commonwealth and say that there is somebody in there who looks and thinks like me.    If our third can come up with something upon which we – with all our disparity and our differences –can agree, then it is likely that the rest of the two-thirds might think that wasn’t a bad pathway either.
That is what is happening.  We are fighting very hard to keep multilateral collaboration alive and to work together in harmony, in friendship, in brother- and in sisterhood.  We seek to show people that actually loving each other is ok.

Diplomatic Connections:  That is a perfect note on which to end.  Madame Secretary-General, thank you for allowing us time in your very busy schedule.   Thank you for your insights into not just the work but the life of the Commonwealth.

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions