Passing the baton

With CHOGM set to take place in Rwanda later this year, the UK Government’s Commonwealth Envoy, Philip Parham, reflects on the nation’s time as Chair-in-Office

As Commonwealth Chair-in-Office since 2018, the UK has tried to do four things:

  • lead, support, and encourage delivery of the commitments and aspirations set out by Commonwealth Leaders at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) in London
  • boost the voice of the Commonwealth in the international community
  • enhance the sense and practice of solidarity among Commonwealth members
  • reform and strengthen the Commonwealth institutions.


In 2018, leaders pronounced ambitions for fairness, sustainability, prosperity, and security. Here are just some examples of what we have done in each of those areas.

To build a fairer future in the Commonwealth, the UK’s Equality & Human Rights Commission has built up the network of National Human Rights Institutions in the Commonwealth, so that they can support each other through peer-to-peer learning, including an online learning programme on LGBT rights assisted by the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Rights.

Our Pacific Commonwealth Equality Project has helped our Pacific partners establish or strengthen National Human Rights Institutions. With UK funding, the Equality & Justice Alliance of NGOs has, among other things, provided technical assistance to governments on tackling domestic violence, hate crimes, discrimination, sexual violence, and online abuse. The Alliance has supported the government of St Lucia in fulfilling its reporting obligations under the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, developing progressive domestic violence legislation, and increasing parliamentary scrutiny and public engagement on new legislation.

We have funded the establishment of the Women Mediators Across the Commonwealth Network, which now counts 46 members in 21 countries. Through the UK Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the UK-funded Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy has supported the updating of the Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, and helped 12 parliaments assess themselves against them.

To build a more sustainable future, the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, funded by the UK and Australia, has helped to source $34million for 23 climate change projects in some of the most climatically vulnerable countries. And it is supporting development of 59 projects with a finance requirement of $650million in eight Commonwealth countries.

Our Commonwealth Marine Economies Programme is collaborating with Commonwealth island states in the Pacific and Caribbean to map and analyse their maritime economies, so that they can develop bespoke sustainable national maritime economy plans: these will increase prosperity and economic resilience, while conserving and enhancing maritime resources and biodiversity. Antigua & Barbuda have just launched their plan.

Also through the Marine Economies Programme, 13 Commonwealth island states are now able to undertake seabed mapping, monitor acidification and sea level rise, or collect tidal data. The mapping of 32 islands and atolls of Kiribati have enabled safe navigation for maritime trade, and catalysed a £30million World Bank and Asian Development Bank project. In Guyana, the shrimp industry has been revitalised sustainably with support from the UK Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture.

Under the Commonwealth Blue Charter, the UK and Vanuatu have co-led the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution. Thirty-four Commonwealth member states have joined the Alliance, committing themselves to practical steps such as banning the manufacture and sale of microbeads in rinse-off personal care products by 2021.

A £6million programme match-funded by the UK and Singapore has increased understanding of the impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems in South East Asia. Under the Blue Charter Fellowship programme, 20 researchers have been placed in Commonwealth universities to support the investigation of marine plastics.

This will be an opportunity for both continuity and for new endeavour to recommit to Commonwealth values

To build a more prosperous future, we funded the establishment of the Commonwealth Standards Network. This now comprises the national standards bodies of 50 Commonwealth members. By increasing awareness and adoption of international standards, it reduces non-tariff barriers and eases trade. Similarly, our Commonwealth Trade Facilitation Programme, with the World Customs Organisation and the UN Conference for Trade & Development, has helped 18 countries implement the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and so reduce the costs of trade.

The UK and South Africa have led the Digital Connectivity cluster of the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade & Investment – exploring how to develop digital connectivity in ways that will help us towards the target of $2trillion intra-Commonwealth trade per year by 2030. We have also supported Barbados’s chairing of the Regulatory Connectivity cluster.

Finally, to build a more secure Commonwealth future, we have taken forward the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration – helping Commonwealth partners conduct cyber security audits, identifying weaknesses and steps to address them. Forty Commonwealth countries have developed National Computer Security Incident Response Teams.

With UK support, the Commonwealth Secretariat’s team for countering violent extremism has provided training and built the capacity of several Commonwealth governments from Tanzania to Trinidad
& Tobago.

We have also funded work by the UK Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the UN Office on Drugs & Crime to tackle modern slavery – helping Commonwealth members strengthen legislation, increase parliamentary scrutiny and improve enforcement; establishing a network of parliamentary champions, and developing a handbook on legislating against modern slavery, human trafficking, and forced labour. Thanks to this work, Malawi, for example, has seen a clear increase in the numbers of victims rescued from modern slavery.


At the UN General Assembly in 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed UN members as Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth on behalf of its (then) 53 Heads of Government – the first time this had happened. In 2019, Commonwealth Trade Ministers, meeting in London under their UK Chair, issued a strong call for open and inclusive trade. Last year, Commonwealth leaders agreed a wide-ranging statement on the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic; Foreign Ministers issued a united call against racism; and the Commonwealth, for the first time, made a joint statement in the UN Human Rights Council.


We have encouraged awareness among Commonwealth members of each others’ needs and objectives in multilateral organisations, including candidates for international positions. We have arranged for Commonwealth members of the UN Security Council to discuss its business regularly with other Commonwealth members. The UK and others have supported the Commonwealth Permanent Joint Office in New York and the Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva, where we also fund trade and human rights advisers – enabling smaller members to protect and pursue their interests in international organisations.


Following reports by a High Level Group on the governance of the Commonwealth Secretariat and its collaboration with other organisations, we reached agreement among all Foreign Ministers on a set of reforms – to be endorsed by Heads of Government at their meeting this year.

CHOGM 2021

We look forward to the CHOGM in Kigali, where Rwanda will take over from us as Chair-in-Office. The theme is Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming. And the policy framework is: Governance & The Rule of Law; Sustainability (Economy, Trade, Environment); Health; Youth; Technology & Innovation.

This will be an opportunity both for continuity and new Commonwealth endeavour – for Leaders to recommit to Commonwealth values, the Blue Charter, the Connectivity Agenda and the Cyber Declaration; and to promote new initiatives which will help us build back better from the pandemic. Crucially, we will have the chance to boost momentum towards an ambitious and successful COP26 – demonstrating the real value of the Commonwealth’s free and incredibly diverse association of equal sovereign states united by the values and aspirations of its Charter.

Kigali, Rwanda

The largest city and capital of Rwanda, Kigali is home to more than 1.1 million people today, growing from just 6,000 people upon independence in 1962. Much of that growth has taken place since the end of the Rwandan Civil War in 1994, with large parts of the city rebuilt. The centre of the Rwandan economy, Kigali accounts for 42% of the country’s GDP. As well as CHOGM, the city also hosted the African Development Bank’s 2015 General Assembly and 2018 African Union summit.