Putting democracy at the heart of our common future
The theme of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM)—"Towards a Common Future"—was announced recently by British Prime Minister Theresa May on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York. The theme will form the basis for discussions at next year's Commonwealth Summit, the biennial meeting of Commonwealth leaders last hosted by the UK in 1997. The timing could not be more auspicious, coming against a backdrop of Brexit and a UK pivot towards a "wider world" foreign policy. Expectations are running high for a successful Summit which it is hoped will renew and revitalise the UK's trading relationship, amongst other areas, with the Commonwealth family while raising the bloc's profile in the UK, especially amongst young people who are mostly unaware of the nature and benefits of belonging to one of the world's oldest political associations.
In a 2015 poll of British schoolchildren conducted by the Royal Commonwealth Society, only 7 percent could identify a Commonwealth flag; only 23 percent could correctly select three Commonwealth countries; and only 50 percent could correctly identify the Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth.
With approximately 60 percent of the Commonwealth's 2.4 billion citizens across its 52 countries currently under the age of 30 years, the importance of young people identifying with the Commonwealth and embracing its values is now urgent and pressing. This is why the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) has led the way through its innovative CPA Roadshows for young people which visit schools and universities across the Commonwealth with Parliamentarians to discuss the importance of democracy and to give voice to the views of young people.
According to Prime Minister May, the Summit will pursue an ambitious agenda focused on realising a more prosperous, secure, fair and sustainable future for all Commonwealth citizens. Importantly, at a time when trust in government and public institutions is falling, the challenge for Commonwealth leaders will be to lift the Commonwealth Summit from just another international junket into a dynamic, empowering global force for good that captures the imagination of all citizens, is transformative of Commonwealth values for their benefit, and which champions change for the marginalised and excluded in our societies while celebrating inclusion and diversity in all its forms, whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, cultural or sexual orientation.
The high-water mark of the Commonwealth, proudly standing against the scourge of apartheid in support of its peoples, needs to be reignited again in the 21st century, with the Commonwealth positioning itself strongly and unequivocally beside its citizens in the fight against climate change, inequities and inequalities that cause so much poverty and injustice in our societies, especially in our small and vulnerable states which make up over 30 of the Commonwealth's 52 nations.
At a time when several of our core Commonwealth political values including democracy, rule of law and the separation of powers are under attack across many Commonwealth countries, it is vitally important that the upcoming Summit and resulting outcomes help to galvanise the efforts of civil society, ordinary citizens, the young and old, women and men, academics, Parliamentarians and governments to come together in support of democracy as a central tenet of our common future. A keen focus on realising the development outcomes of the Summit will be essential to renewing and revitalising the credibility of the Commonwealth in the minds of ordinary citizens, many of whom have been left behind by globalisation and yet to feel the tangible benefits of belonging to this longstanding "sleeping beauty" of a political association, especially if the Commonwealth is to survive for future generations.
Central to realising the Summit outcomes is the key role of Commonwealth Parliaments. Parliaments are unique institutions sitting at the centre of a network of accountability that reaches into the executive and other branches of government, the political party system and to the public. No two parliaments are the same as each will reflect their own unique historical evolution, but what all parliaments have in common is a capacity to strengthen democracy by acting as powerful agents of change for the improvement of their nations.
In our Commonwealth, it is the role of parliaments and our elected representatives to forge, develop and implement the Summit outcomes which should align themselves with the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals. These goals underscore the importance of the close relationship between democracy and development. As the former UNDP Administrator Helen Clark has stated, the principles which underpin the new development goals go directly to the importance of active, effective, honest and fair governance at all levels, and lying at the core of a flourishing democracy are the values of good governance. As a guarantor of democracy itself, parliament has a duty to represent the people it serves—and it discharges this responsibility by being an inclusive, accountable, open and transparent public institution.
The run up to the UK Summit in April 2018 will be marked by a number of important Commonwealth gatherings showcasing the potential of the bloc as a global force for good by placing the importance of citizens at the heart of its mission rather than governments.
The first of these important gatherings scheduled for early November will see the Parliament of Bangladesh hosting over 600 Commonwealth Parliamentarians at the CPA's 63rdAnnual Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference.
Critical issues affecting every aspect of the lives of our Commonwealth citizens will be discussed with the ambition of deepening democracy and reaffirming a collective commitment to create a fairer Commonwealth that promotes good governance and protects fundamental freedoms as we move towards realising a common future.
Akbar Khan is the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA).