LONDON — Leaders from the 53 countries that make up the British Commonwealth arrived in London Monday for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, where they convened 5,000 participants from a range of sectors, including government officials, members of civil society, and private corporations for a three-day summit to discuss the issues facing Commonwealth countries.
The summit will proceed along four tracks: Women, youth, people, and business, and commenced with the launch of a number of new partnerships and initiatives. The forum begins as pressure mounts on U.K. and commonwealth government officials to address urgent concerns around climate change and resilience, gay rights, the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, and the special economic and environmental challenges faced by small island states.
The first day of meetings was overshadowed by revelations over the weekend by the Guardian newspaper that U.K. officials had indefinitely postponed a guide slated to publish on the opening day of CHOGM to promote gay rights at the meetings. The guide advises on international best practices on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Critics accused the U.K. of caving to pressure from some of the 37 Commonwealth member states that outlaw homosexuality; LGBTQ rights remain a contentious issue on the biennial agenda.
“This sends a very negative signal to the more than 100 million LGBT+ people who suffer criminalization, discrimination, and violence in 70 percent of Commonwealth countries,” said Peter Tatchell, a British human rights activist.
Zeleca Julien, a queer activist from Trinidad and Tobago, argued that Commonwealth discussions about women’s rights so far have not extended to LGBTQ Commonwealth citizens. Speaking at a panel in the women’s forum, she said “in supporting women we must understand that human rights are for all,” adding that in Trinidad and Tobago, queer citizens are “losing their jobs and their homes” because of their sexual orientation.
The U.K. government has not yet specified when it will release the guidance. A U.K. government spokesperson said the guidance will be released “in due course.”
At the same time, Patsy Robertson, chair of the Ramphal Institute and chair of the Commonwealth Association, said that she felt the Commonwealth heads were cognizant of these concerns, and that “those conversations are happening quietly.”
Other critics also contend that the British government aims to use CHOGM to prime the soil for negotiating new trade deals following the U.K.’s exit from the European Union. British Minister Tariq Ahmad told a committee of lawmakers last week that the summit provided a “huge opportunity” to advance trade deals while Brexit negotiations are still ongoing.
Robertson, however, pointed out that these negotiations could be critical for future U.K. engagement with small island states, and warned them not to discount the Brexit undercurrent. “The truth is, all the small island states are going to have to start negotiating through the cruel British government on new trade deals under the WTO rules,” she said, advising SIDS and Commonwealth states more broadly to, “Speak up, and fight your corner.”
A looming employment crisis
Also sure to be on leaders’ minds: In the run-up to CHOGM, experts from the Overseas Development Institute calculated that 17.5 million jobs need to be created each year until 2030 to provide opportunities for young people entering the labor market. That is a 50 percent increase on the 12 million jobs Commonwealth countries created on average each year between 2003 and 2016.
Dirk Willem te Velde, head of the International Economic Development Group at ODI, said: “Our research demonstrates the urgent need to promote trade and investment to create more quality jobs. As more people enter the workforce, Commonwealth countries need to redouble their efforts to make sure levels of employment do not drop.”
Te Velde added that rapid trade growth between Commonwealth countries offers job growth opportunities; and that “this is particularly important for the poorest and most vulnerable states who export more than a quarter of their goods to other member states.”
By studying population data for each country, ODI researchers found that the Commonwealth needs to create 17.5 million jobs each year — 50,000 each day. India needs to create the most jobs (7.4 million), followed by Nigeria (2.3 million), Pakistan (1.8 million), and Bangladesh (1.0 million).
Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland opened the forum on Monday by offering a laundry list of concerns and themes for the conference, while also congratulating His Royal Highness Prince Harry Windsor, who this morning was appointed the Commonwealth ambassador to youth.
“This week we’ll be looking at a number of issues including ocean governance, good governance generally, cyber security, issues related to Commonwealth trade,” she told reporters.
“We’re going to look at climate change, we’re building resilience, and I hope many of you are looking forward to our launch of ocean governance, which hopefully the leaders will be able to agree on,” Scotland said during a press conference.
As well as the imminent Commonwealth Blue Charter on Ocean Governance, the CHOGM 2018 tentative policy agenda includes a new Commonwealth connectivity agenda for trade and investment, a declaration on cybercrime, and revised Commonwealth guidelines on election observation in member countries, according to a statement from the secretariat.
“We also have developed a regenerative model of development really bringing forward the SDG elements, but implementing them in a way that gives us better climate security while also looking at how we can build back better,” Scotland said.
Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Nabeel Goheer also launched a new partnership — the Commonwealth Innovation Fund — between the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Global Innovation Fund to provide financing for incubating and accelerating impact-oriented ideas and innovations within the Commonwealth countries. GIF is a $200 million venture capital firm that invests in social innovations that aim to improve lives and opportunities in the developing world through the use of grants and risk capital.
According to a statement, the partnership will allow the secretariat to use GIF’s existing due processes for sourcing, evaluating, and investing to compile a portfolio of investments in the bloc, which will be managed by GIF. The target size for funding initial investments will be 25 million pounds — more than $35.8 million.
Finally, U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt pledged Monday to provide 20 million pounds in additional support to 10 Commonwealth countries in the global fight against trachoma, a bacterial eye disease and the leading cause of permanent blindness. Trachoma affects more than 52 million people across 21 Commonwealth countries, despite being entirely preventable through antibiotic treatment and surgery.
Highlighting the U.K.’s current track record on trachoma, Mordaunt said during an opening session that “four years ago, 8 million people were at risk of trachoma and now no one is. This further commitment will mean millions of people across the Commonwealth will receive vital sight-saving treatment and we will be on course to eliminate this ancient and avoidable disease.”
Oman, Morocco, Mexico, Cambodia, and Laos are also now trachoma free, with another six countries believed to be close to elimination.
The program is part of the U.K.’s 360 million pound commitment made in April 2017 to provide 1 billion treatments for people at risk of neglected tropical diseases, such as trachoma and guinea worm, and will be implemented by Sightsavers and the Fred Hollows Foundation.
Caroline Harper, CEO of Sightsavers, told Devex the collaboration “will significantly boost” elimination efforts in Kenya, Kiribati, Nauru, Nigeria, Pakistan, Solomon Islands, Tanzania, Tonga, and Vanuatu.”
“It will also enable Papua New Guinea to develop its first full Trachoma Action Plan, which outlines the course the country will take to finally eliminate trachoma as a public health problem. Crucially, there is a two-year timeframe to deliver the aims of this fund. This urgency is required to stop more people in the Commonwealth going blind needlessly,” she said.