Thursday, April 25, 2024
HomeOpinionCommentaryHow many heads make a CHOGM?

How many heads make a CHOGM?

By Richard Bourne

How many Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) will attend the Samoan meeting in 2024? Or will this be the first occasion when only a minority of leaders come to what will have to be restyled a ‘Commonwealth Governments’ Meeting?’

The new secretary-general, scheduled to be elected at Apia in October 2024, must take a forensic look at what has been happening to attendances by heads, as compared to deputy presidents, foreign ministers or high commissioners to the UK. Broadly speaking there has been an erratic decline in the 21st century from the 35 who came to Coolum in Australia in 2002 to the 29, out of a larger number, who made it to Kigali in 2023.

The lowest turnout so far was in Colombo (27) when many governments were concerned in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war. The highest (46) was in London in 2018 when a post-Brexit state was pushing Commonwealth ties, and many leaders appreciated that this might be their last chance to see Queen Elizabeth.

Recent articles by Richard Bourne:

There is evidence too of a parallel decline in the attendance of front-rank ministers to the sectoral ministerial meetings for example, of finance ministers whose ‘Trinidad terms’, agreed at a meeting in Port of Spain, played a key role in persuading the world to write off the unpayable debts of developing countries in the 1990s. The 21st century has seen an end to the Commonwealth tours of these meetings, typified by finance ministers gathering now in the US on the edge of the World Bank and IMF meetings. Health ministers, who had met in New Zealand in 2000, now meet briefly in Geneva on the fringes of the World Health Assembly.

In the case of heads, there can be extenuating circumstances – illness, an election or a hurricane. But it is striking that heads from India, Sri Lanka, Zambia and Barbados have each missed half of the ten meetings so far this century and Australian prime ministers, whose country hosted the Coolum and Perth meetings, missed a couple. Arguably the worst attender was Paul Biya, perennial president of Cameroon, 91 in February, who only managed to get to one – in nearby Abuja in 2003.

One of the strangest listings as a head of government was Sir Iakoba Italeli in 2013, then Governor-General of Tuvalu; he was the candidate to be secretary-general in 2022 in Kigali but pulled out to facilitate the re-election of Patricia Scotland to allow her to serve the remainder of a second term.

Some will argue that the presence of heads is no longer critical to these Commonwealth meetings, where so much of the work is done by officials, the ‘retreat’ is short and often tantamount to an extra executive session, and High Commissioners and other representatives have been casting their straw votes in polls which lead to the ‘unanimous’ election of a new secretary-general. Public opinion everywhere is hostile to international jollies, especially hard to afford for small states with straitened budgets.

Yet something more is at stake. It looks as though, for busy leaders with pressing domestic and international commitments, the agenda is too wishy-washy, the follow-up too feeble, and a Commonwealth outing too marginal to justify another flight. When fewer leaders show up to fleeting meetings, the person-to-person rapport between themselves, the secretary-general, and a sense of the Commonwealth as a valuable contemporary tool, withers too. Lengthy meetings lasting many days, with relaxed retreats and schmoozing on a golf course, are ancient history. The Commonwealth today is being written off as analogue hangover in a digital world.

Only a secretary-general, backed by an able and empathetic staff, can give all leaders unavoidable reasons to turn up.

Richard Bourne is an Emeritus Member of the Editorial Board of The Round Table.

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Opinions expressed do not reflect the opinion of the editorial board.]



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Caribbean News

Republic Bank breaks ground on Rodney Bay City Centre Investment Project

The first phase will be the home of RBEC regional headquarters and a new Rodney Bay Branch for the bank’s Saint Lucian customers. ...

Global News

IMF launches new regional office in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) will open a new regional office in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to enhance the partnership...