The Commonwealth, one of the world’s oldest political associations of states, has its roots in the British Empire when Britain ruled countries around the world. And ever since 1949 when the modern Commonwealth was founded, the institution has been at the forefront of promoting world peace, representative democracy, individual liberty and freedom, and the pursuit of equality, among others. As the world battles the twin issue of COVID-19 and Racism, member nations and citizens look to the institution to lead and help in addressing these challenges.
In this exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine UK, Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC, the 6th Commonwealth Secretary-General and first female to lead the institution, shares some of the efforts of the institution towards addressing these current issues around systemic racism; and calls for a truth-seeking transitional mechanism. Rt Hon Scotland who was also the youngest person to be made a Queen’s Counsel, QC at the age of 34, talks about her efforts towards empowering young people. Excerpts.
There have been large scale protests in the United States and across the world in response to the recent death of George Floyd – an African American, throwing up the agelong issue of Racism. What are the implications of these developments on Africa and minority groups globally; and how is the Commonwealth Secretariat responding, in line with its mandate of promoting justice and human rights?
I think the really important thing is to identify what the Commonwealth stands for. And for the whole of the period since we’ve been in existence, we have stood for the values that are best in humankind. And you will see this if you look at the way in which the leaders adopted the Commonwealth charter, which really commits all of our countries to 16 core values, including opposing all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour or any other ground. And the Commonwealth has really been helping our members to try to reduce the inequality amongst our citizens; to improve access to justice through enhancing the National Human Rights bodies and the independence of judiciaries, and really working with our parliamentarians to apply human rights standards. But we all recognize that our systems have barriers to overcome – from equal opportunity to integration. And this, therefore, I think, is quite a defining moment in all our histories and the choices that we now make really matter. We cannot allow racism to divide and drive us into social unrest. And for many of us, we thought that the sort of things that we are seeing on our screens today was part of our past and not our future. We thought that we’d come together, that we’d fought, that we had struggled. And that because of all those struggles, we had overcome some of those fundamental beliefs in the inequality and the lack of worth, in some of our countrymen and women because of the colour of our skin. We thought we had gone beyond that. Therefore, I believe it’s a defining moment.
It has not always taken a knee on the neck to murder someone. The life and death effects of systemic racism go far beyond police shootings, worsened poverty, and deepened inequalities. For instance, you know, African and minority ethnic people are so much more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts. We may all be in this pandemic together, but we do not share the risks equally. And so, the Commonwealth is calling for stronger efforts, for mutual dialogue and a human rights approach to root out the systemic racism, the discrimination and the inequality, which if we don’t, may tear us apart. And our approach has always been that we must be inclusive. We must be participatory, transparent and accountable. And if you look at our Commonwealth story, It is one of a family that, at times have been scarred by old hurts and resentments and a relationship, sometimes strained and afflicted by the fissures such as racism. But our Commonwealth history also shows that a strong foundation of our friendship, our shared values, our spirit of collaboration, have allowed us to be brave enough to look evil straight in the face, and boldly call it for what it is.
If you look at Africa’s own history, it was the Commonwealth who collectively refused to turn a blind eye to the South African apartheid and the white minority rule in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. And it is really important, I think, for us to remember that back in 1961, nobody was calling out racism. It was endemic. And after severe criticisms in 1961 over its apartheid policies by our members, South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth. No, it did not withdraw because it wanted to, but they knew that unless they accepted equality, they were not going to be allowed to stay. In 1977, when Commonwealth countries adopted the Gleneagles agreement, to discourage sporting contracts with South Africa so as to step up the pressure on the country’s apartheid regime, everybody thought we were wrong about doing that. But the Commonwealth said ‘no’. These are our values. These are our people. And we stand in solidarity with all races and you cannot be a member of our family and do this. And then in 1979, the Commonwealth heads committed to the eradication of what they described as the dangerous evils of racism and racial prejudice. During this time, the Commonwealth provided a system surrounding frontline states to reduce the economic dependence on South Africa, particularly Mozambique, which was not even a member of our family at that time. And I will never forget what Nelson Mandela said in 1995. He was then South African president, and he said, “35 years ago, the Commonwealth took a firm and united stand against the system of apartheid, and it added great impetus to the struggle to secure the international isolation of the apartheid regime”.
So that is our history. That is our inheritance. And I believe as a collective representing one-third of the world if we were strong before, we have to be strong now. And we have to be united in purpose. And we have to call this out for what it is. And we have to build on that Commonwealth charter, which commits us to these core values. And if you think about it today, we now have 54 countries, small and large, from five different regions, representing all races, cultures, creeds, religions, economic positions, and are bound by the same language, the same common law, and the same parliamentary institutional framework and values. Our leaders sit together in an equal way around the same table, making joint decisions on some of the world’s greatest challenges. And so, if people are looking for an example of equality, an example of comity, an example of sharing of respect and solidarity, then look at what we do in the Commonwealth. We are one family, and everyone in our family must be treated equally by everybody else.
In your recent Op-ed on Racism, you mentioned that “unions like the Commonwealth can bring a touch of healing to our sick world.” Can you throw more light on this position?
I think it’s about using our experience, mobilizing in support of human rights and against those forces who have been systematically seeking to erode the rights of those who are most in need. So ending apartheid, the abolition of slavery, preserving workers rights, promoting women’s rights, looking at how we better protect people who are subjected to domestic violence, making sure that people have access to what is now a digitalized world so that no one is left behind is what we do.
And I think, if you look at the problems in our world, and ours does look sick at times, a truth-seeking transitional mechanism is required, which gives all our people and all our communities an opportunity to tell their stories, to share their pain to somebody who listens, and that’s an acknowledgement of the testimony and the right to be heard. We saw that in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. And they had the legal mandate to gather testimonies, to hold public hearings, and to seek truth and begin a process of restoration, nation-building and healing. This national reckoning, I think, provides a template for justice that today still holds relevance in many of our societies. That dialogue and that recognition of our multiple identities are essential.
And one of the things that I was speaking about in my op-ed is that we must also acknowledge the lived reality or the pervasive reach and impact of racism across our society in our institutions. We must approach this challenge through the lens of human rights and ensure that all actions we take are true to those human rights tenets, those inclusive, participatory, transparent tenets. The freedom of speech, the expression, the association, the assembly -they are all crucial because they allow individuals to express their grievances. And one of the things I am thinking about right now, and I haven’t spoken to our leaders yet, is this a time for us once again to have some sort of race and reconciliation summit? And we will be trying to bring our leaders together, at this time when leadership is so important in a world that is hurting, the Commonwealth could once again bring that touch of healing -because when you look at us, we are one-third of the world. And what we are saying is not in our name, and not in our family – but one-third of the world are going to stand together. And we are going to call this out, just as we called it out in the 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s. We are calling it out again because we came together to write that charter in 2012. That was calling it out. And if you look at the charter, 1 to 16 reflects the Sustainable Development Goals, and then 17, which is partnerships, is in the preamble of our charter because it’s the way we do it. We do everything in partnerships. So, we call it out by saying we the 54 countries are going to adhere to and promote and deliver that charter because those are our values. It’s been incredibly important because we’ve got examples of these good practices – the New Zealand Human Rights Commission that has a race relations Commissioner, whose primary role is to promote positive race relations. The Australian Human Rights Commission has a Race Discrimination Commissioner, and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island social justice Commissioner. Fiji, now has a National Human Rights Commission, and in South Africa, the deputy chairman of the Human Rights Commission focuses on equality and social cohesion. All these examples underscore the priority given to this issue by our member states. The Secretariat is also here to help; to create policy; to do framework laws, framework regulations, implementation, and to enforce.
And what we’re also doing is we’re looking across the Commonwealth, and we’re saying to each other, what works? What has not worked? Sometimes we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. However, it’s been quite solitary to look at what is happening right across our Commonwealth. And it’s sad. The reason I wrote what I wrote is because I was so heartbroken by what that nine-year-old said. I thought, Oh my goodness, I remember when I was nine. And I see all these things happening across the world, and for my whole life, I have worked to make sure that the nine-year-olds of today would not have to see that. And it’s this feeling that we can’t go back, we have to go forward.
I think my hope is in the reaction around the world when people saw what happened, and there was an instantaneous reaction and a rejection. And you saw the people; it was not just black people – black people, white people, everybody else. I initially was so upset, and I thought, has nothing changed? And then I realized it has changed – all that fighting and working and driving and bringing people together; seeing we were humans first and everything else second. That’s why across the world, people came out immediately to say this is not acceptable in 2020, and that’s what we have to hang on to. The protests in all our Commonwealth countries, for local governments to remove statues, to rename streets, buildings named after figures, who sought to preserve and benefit the systems of racial inequality and exploitation, most of this outpouring, is saying we want to heal. We do not want the past. We want a new future, a future that is in inclusive and loving and equal and robust enough so that when our grandchildren are nine, or our great-grandchildren are nine; they will not be seen. People suddenly realize that these are things which touch all of us, if my family and those islands have to be safe, your family and those you love, have to be safe. So the interconnection between us as human beings comes before the place, nationality, race and religion. We are fundamentally human.
Part of the mandate of the Secretariat is to help member countries in solving National problems. How is the Commonwealth Secretariat supporting member countries, especially the small island nations to handle the challenges arising from COVID-19 and the looming global economic recession?
Well, given the unprecedented nature of the current pandemic, it was important to immediately get the sort of knowledge and resources needed, and make them available to our member states. So we created the Commonwealth Coronavirus Response Centre on our innovation hub, where we were able to pull together all the data coming from the WHO, and from other sources, including data sets that we had pulled in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals. We did things like embed John Hopkins University information and others so as to create a one-stop-shop, particularly for the small member states who find it very difficult when they dive into the data of the bigger institutional database. They find it quite hard to find their data in a way that makes better sense to them. We also have been looking at how we face some of the economic and financial crises because we know that most of our countries are locked down to save the lives of their people. And they put the people first. And you’ve got to do that because if you have no health, you have no wealth. So that was the focus.
But what we also saw, and we’ve seen from the data, it is likely for the developing world, if you exclude China, to suffer about $220 billion in terms of loss of our GDP and the economy. So, there is a big shock coming. However, it was interesting when you looked at the 2008 /2009 global financial crisis. We think that could offer some insights about the Commonwealth possible performance, because over the years following the global crisis, the Commonwealth’s overall exports of both goods and services grew at a faster rate than the world average. And from 2010 to 2018 the Commonwealth exports in goods, which make up 70% of its trade, grew by around 8% compared to only 5.5% for the rest of the world. And in fact, during the global trade slowdown in 2012 – 2016, the Commonwealth services exports were especially resilient, expanding by 7% on average, more than twice the growth rate for the rest of the world. So when Commonwealth health ministers came together in a virtual meeting on May the 14th and agreed to coordinate their response in tackling the Coronavirus pandemic, they weren’t just looking at the medical issues, but they were looking at some of the why and what. The health ministers, I think, were quite extraordinary in the way that they committed to coordinate their response in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and sharing all the information they had. They endorsed the removing of fees for Coronavirus tests and claimant, especially for migrants and refugees, as appropriate within the National context. And they created a voluntary mechanism to share and to distribute extra medical supplies, including ventilators and testing kits. And you know, there was a big problem because many of our small states said that they had huge difficulties getting access to these medical supplies. And we were proud of the commitment from the 54 member states to work together to deliver a coordinated Commonwealth COVID-19 response. And that collaboration is really important because you just cannot underestimate such a critical message of solidarity in the current global climate. And we see divisions and disagreements amongst some of the world’s leading countries, as well as the tendency to look inward and to protect your own. And so what we have set up is an open-ended technical working group, to facilitate the exchange of information while promoting innovative solutions between our member states. The group will also seek to respond to the urgent needs and concerns raised by our members, such as challenges in human resources and financing. And I don’t know of any group of nations, certainly not across the five regions, who are doing that. So if nobody else wants to do it, we the Commonwealth are sticking together and showing how we can support each other.
And so, aside from Coronavirus, the ministers also discussed some of the continuing and the coordinated action on other health challenges. In our Commonwealth, we have got a big challenge on non-communicable diseases. We have got issues on malnutrition, immunization, malaria, which are all priority areas of concern among our Commonwealth governments. So we are committed to doing all of it.
We started a virtual webinar series on the economics of COVID-19 for all our countries, so we could share the new challenges they’re facing. We held webinars on the impact of COVID on income inequality, the population effects, the role of technology and the impact on tourism, debt, disaster risk management. So the big thing for us is we’re trying to listen. We’re trying to hear what our members are telling us so that we can respond in a way that will really help them to implement the changes that we need to make. And we’re now in the process of tailoring propriety information and price sharing database for pooled procurement to focus on providing the data on health supplies necessary to combat the pandemic, including drugs, testing kits, personal protective equipment and technology.
We did not just start now. Our health ministers last year in 2019 said they were worried if we have another epidemic like Ebola, but what are we going to do if we have a pandemic? How are we going to help each other? We also identified that some of our countries were paying 30 times more for similar medication because they hadn’t got access to that at scale. So that is why our health ministers asked us a couple of years ago that we set up this platform to make it easier for us to buy medication and equipment to help each other in times of need. And look how prescient that was.
Africa has been described as the youngest continent, with over 60% of the population within the ages of 16-25; yet they remain underrepresented in politics and key decision-making sectors of the continent. How is the Commonwealth helping to address this imbalance?
60% of our Commonwealth is under the age of 30. And Africa has the youngest population. We are trying to cater to the issues of our young people through the Commonwealth Youth Programme, which has driven the Global Youth Development work of the Secretariat for over 45 years. I think we are probably the first to concentrate on youth in that way. And it really has made a difference, because our young people I believe, are our greatest asset in the whole Commonwealth. And they are in so many of our Member States. In some cases, like Uganda, more than 70% of the population are youths. This is a young Commonwealth. And It may be important for us just to look at the demographics of what is happening with the race protests because we have to design and implement a strategic intervention to make sure we assist our young people. We need to give them the right skills, the right support, to enable their talents, and they are brilliant. I am really proud to have one of the oldest intergovernmental youth programmes in the world – the Commonwealth Youth Programme. It’s been there since 1973. It offers really coherent interventions. We’ve got the Commonwealth Youth Council, which is the official voice of young people and they are very integrated. They make human rights, climate change, education, peace, gender rights, disability, everything you could possibly imagine. And I think they are at the very heart of our sustainable development, our strategic thinking, and our planning. And of course, they have been really leading the way on the climate change issue, because it’s their future. And I was so proud of the work we did in Africa. So, we’re youth main-streaming the challenges, challenging how young people are perceived and treated because we think that they are our leaders of today, not just our leaders of tomorrow.
It is a part of this direct engagement to overtime, support more young people into politics and into public service. I think this is another way that we add that touch of healing because we know that if our young people feel ignored, and hopeless, as opposed to hopeful, then our future is not bright because they are our future. And unless we can make them absolutely convinced that we see their glory, their potential and we have their back, then I think we will be letting them down. So, my passion for young people is to see them fly. I love to see them fly.
I’ve been to your office, and I see young people all over the place. You don’t just say it; you practice it.
Yes, we try to walk the talk.
You have been many firsts, including first female attorney general in the UK, first female Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and you’ve been a pace-setter for women everywhere. However, there is still so much to be done for gender equality. What’s your take on empowering women within the Commonwealth?
I think we have come a long way; my sadness is to discover that we haven’t come as far as many of us hoped and that there are so many places to go. But you know, if you look at what has happened in the last year there is a lot for us, to celebrate in terms of women’s leadership. I think it’s significant if you look at many of the countries who have done remarkably well across the world in facing and dealing with COVID-19. The women leaders have been remarkable and are almost set aside when you think of how they have performed. Many of the other male leaders chose women leaders within their cabinets to lead on these issues. And so I think the leadership that women can bring can be quite remarkable and I’m very proud to see that many countries look to the direction that has been demonstrated by Rwanda. In Rwanda, you’ve got about 67% of the Rwandan Parliament as females; more than 50% of the cabinet is female, and what the president of Rwanda, President Kagame said, and he said this to me very directly, he has chosen talent irrespective of gender. If you select talent and if you can see talent, then you will know that you have as many talented women as you have the skilled men.
We need both women and men, and as we craft our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the financial crisis that is looming ahead of us, we want to make sure that leadership is both male and female. And the women’s voice is heard not because it’s tokenism but because we know that we need both our women and our men. We need all our talent to be there, jointly sharing with that burden, and that is our responsibility. So if we’re going to succeed, and I know that Professor Margaret Cobia, who is the chair for the women Affairs ministerial meeting, is calling on the Secretariat and we are answering that call to host women Affairs ministers meeting, for us to talk about the impact of COVID-19 and the multiplicity of difficulties it is having on our countries. What she said, and I agree with her, is that there is a potential that all of these traumas could put us back a hundred years; and we’re not going back on the race issue, we’re not going back on gender either, because we know we need to go forward to have the world that we want to have. So, I wish I could tell you that all our struggles are behind us, but they’re not all behind us. Some of them are, and we can be the final judge of our future if we choose, and I’m very proud of how the leadership of women are coming to the fore. For Kenya, it is Professor Margaret Cobia, who has called for the women affairs ministers meeting. Amina Mahammad of Kenya is the chair for the sports ministers meeting, and we are going to be looking at how sports culture can contribute to our recovery. And that virtual minister’s conference is again going to be led by a phenomenal African woman, and that is Amina Mahammad. Hence, I think we are united in saying equality for all includes balance on gender, and race, and disability, and religion.
We are not leaving anyone behind. The truth is most of us have seen so many changes. We have seen changes where black people, women, people of different religions, people with different economic positions, people with disabilities, have been treated differently, and that’s what the Commonwealth stands to change.
What’s your final word in terms of what Africans should be looking forward to from the Commonwealth Secretariat in the coming days?
I think that we are focused on the future. This is a radically changed world, a digitalized world which is interconnected, interdependent, and needs that connectivity to make sure no one is left behind. We have intellectual powers, and we have the desire to deliver on all the sustainable development goals. However, we have to choose, because this time in our history is an inflexion point, and what we do will determine what the world will look like tomorrow. You know people seem not to always to take on board that history doesn’t just happen; history is made; it is made by the decisions that we take or refuse to take. So at this moment of global inflexion, where we are together facing a climate crisis that we have never encountered before, and we are the first generation to suffer from this crisis but the last generation to be able to do something about it. So, I would say to the leaders of Africa; we can do this. We just have to choose. The Commonwealth is choosing. I hope that all our leaders will choose with us and they will be the difference that we need to have the future our children deserve. We have to make that history because nobody is going to make it for us.