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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

A time of growing confidence for the Commonwealth network of countries

Nations are returning to the group and agreements are being forged

The Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey in London earlier this year. Courtesy of Picture Partnership / Westminster Abbey
The Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey in London earlier this year. Courtesy of Picture Partnership / Westminster Abbey

The Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey this month marked the beginning of a remarkable Commonwealth season. This is the largest inter-faith service in the UK, orchestrated by the Royal Commonwealth Society, a leading civil society organisation. The service saw the largest turnout of the UK royal family since the last royal wedding and was the first Commonwealth event attended by Meghan Markle. Other guests of honour included the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, as well as the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland. They enjoyed a display of performances from across the globe, including a Maori choir, Ghanaian drummers and dancers and the UK pop star Liam Payne. There was an award-winning spoken word performance by Jaspreet Kaur from the Asian community in East London and a reflection by Dr Andrew Bastawrous, an eye surgeon who turned a smartphone into an examination tool in order to combat avoidable blindness in developing countries.

The next landmark event will be on the Gold Coast of Australia for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in early April, which will be known for its community focus, utilising the soft power of sport to recognise the first nation indigenous people as part of the Reconciliation Action Plan. The games themselves will bring together some of the world’s top athletes from more than 70 countries and territories.

Looking at the world in a global context, authoritarian regimes are on the rise. Freedom House, the Washington DC think tank, points to a 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The Commonwealth network of countries, in contrast, represents an integral part of the rules-based international order, with the emphasis on democracy, rule of law, human rights and the civic space, as set out in the Commonwealth Charter.

It is also a time of growing confidence for the Commonwealth network, with countries such as The Gambia recently rejoining, and the hope that Zimbabwe won’t be too far behind. The Commonwealth brings together countries which in most part speak English, share the common law system and have parliamentary institutions, most having been part of the British Empire. However, other countries have expressed an interest in joining including East Timor, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan.

At the pinnacle of the Commonwealth sits the heads of government meeting, which takes place biennially. This year the summit will be held in London on April 19 and 20, chaired by Mrs May. This meeting will be the largest ever single gathering of heads of government outside the UN. The expectation is that each of the 53 Commonwealth Heads of Government will attend. That includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and the new South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. It is an extraordinary achievement to bring together so many heads of government in these uncertain times. They are likely to reach agreement on issues as diverse as the promotion of trade and investment, gender equality and youth empowerment. The leaders will also support initiatives to sustain the oceans and enhanced cooperation to strengthen cyber security.

This will not only be an event of great political significance, but there’s every expectation of traditional British glamour. Queen Elizabeth II will host banquets, receptions and bilateral meetings for all the leaders at venues such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, a forest conservation project in the Queen’s name run by the Royal Commonwealth Society, will also be discussed at the summit. So far some 35 of the 53 countries have committed indigenous forests in her majesty's name to preserve them for future generations.

For 2018 and beyond, the Commonwealth network is the one to watch.

Dr Annette Prandzioch is chief operating officer of the Royal Commonwealth Society