Nabeel Goheer shares a cheerful moment with Commonwealth Secretary-General and President Kagame

Nabeel Goheer, Assistant Secretary-General at the Commonwealth Secretariat, explains his role promoting the common values and principles of the Commonwealth, and how this will be achieved at this year’s CHOGM in Kigali

The Commonwealth of Nations was born on 26 April 1949. The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka) decided to form an association of ‘free and equal members’ for the ‘pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’. The Commonwealth Secretariat was established in 1965 ‘as a visible symbol of the spirit of cooperation which animates the Commonwealth’. In the last seven decades, the association has grown almost seven-fold. It has 54 members now. Other than the Secretariat, there are two more intergovernmental associations, as well as eight associated and 80 professional organsiations. In essence, it is a system of 54 governments, and 88 parliamentary, professional, civil society, and private sector networks. It is spread across five continents, represents 2.5 billion people, and has a combined GDP of approximately £8trillion.

I work for the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is the principal organ of the system (like the UN Secretariat in New York), and based in London. Our job is to promote common values and principles, facilitate dialogue for consensus building and cooperation, advocate for and influence global mechanisms (in line with the agreed Commonwealth positions), and ensure system-level coordination and coherence (where possible). As the Assistant Secretary-General, my role is to support the Secretary-General in providing leadership to the system and the Secretariat, represent the organisation externally, facilitate dialogue and consensus building in the governing boards, facilitate system wide coordination, and supervise a department that is responsible for Secretariat’s strategy, portfolio management, evaluation and learning, strategic partnerships, as well as technology and innovation.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is held every second year. This year, it will take place at Kigali in Rwanda. CHOGM is a time when the entire Commonwealth system comes together. The last meeting was in London in which 46 heads of government, 49 foreign ministers, 10 members of the UK royal family, and 5000 delegates participated. Four for a (Youth, Women’s, Business and People’s) were held before and alongside the official meeting. Their outcomes were presented to leaders. In addition, Commonwealth parliamentary and professional networks made presentations to senior officials of member states. The then Foreign Secretary of the UK (now Prime Minister) along with other Foreign Ministers, also met with 90 or so Commonwealth organisations to learn about their work, appreciate the value of this unique network, and to provide direct guidance.

The upcoming Kigali CHOGM was delayed for a year due to the ongoing pandemic. It is now scheduled to be held in the week of 21 June, 2021. The entire Commonwealth system is focusing on the theme – Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating and Transforming. There are five sub-themes that are – Governance and the Rule of Law; Sustainability; Health; Youth; and, Technology and Innovation. These sub-themes are being discussed by senior government officials, participants of four forums and accredited organisations. Their proposals will be considered by Foreign Ministers and leaders at Kigali to make policy decisions and to forge common positions. The following paragraphs provide a Commonwealth perspective on these topics.

Governance and the Rule of Law provides the context for the reaffirmation of the Commonwealth’s fundamental values. As popular demands for democracy, tolerance, inclusivity, equality, and prosperity increase globally against the rise of nationalism and threats to multilateralism, the Commonwealth must continue to show global leadership as a values-based organisation in line with its Charter. The Kigali CHOGM will coincide with the start of the last decade for the delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals. Ensuring peaceful, just, and inclusive societies anchored in strong institutions will create a conducive environment for attaining this agenda. Such a commitment to good governance requires transformational leadership that is accountable and transparent, and that prioritises citizen engagement. At CHOGM 2021, the Commonwealth will reiterate and provide leadership on these core Commonwealth values by building on achievements in governance and the rule of law.

Sustainability is an overarching theme, encompassing ‘Trade and Environment.’ In light of the global economic recession brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, this sub-theme recognises that the Commonwealth cannot continue doing “business as usual”. The Commonwealth must realign its resources and efforts towards a more sustainable model that is centred around people and the environment. Since adopting the Langkawi Declaration on the Environment in 1989, Commonwealth Heads of Government have continued to advocate for multilateral solutions that support member countries in meeting commitments under national, regional, and international frameworks such as the Paris Agreement, the Montreal Protocol, and Kigali Amendments. The Commonwealth is proud of outcomes achieved in this area, which include its collective contribution to the ambitions of the Paris Agreement at the CHOGM 2015 (Malta) and the adoption of the Commonwealth Blue Charter at CHOGM 2018 (London). CHOGM 2021 is expected to build on progress and bolster the Commonwealth’s global leadership in this area.

Health is a standalone sub-theme. It has been adopted following the devastation wrought by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Since the announcement of the pandemic by the World Health Organisation in March 2020, Covid-19, it has claimed approximately three million lives worldwide (as of 13 April, 2021). Countries, rich and poor, were not prepared to deal with this pandemic, raising questions about the state of public health systems. The highly infectious nature of the coronavirus also highlighted the importance of having coordinated responses nationally, regionally, and globally, noting our interconnectedness. Information and experience sharing among countries remains key in strengthening public health policies and systems.

Youth has been a focus of Commonwealth action since 1970s. Two out of every five citizens of the Commonwealth are under the age of 30. The Commonwealth has a track record of advocating youth empowerment on the global stage while supporting the participation of young women and men at all levels of decision-making, including through national youth networks. Progress achieved so far includes: dedicated support to member countries in mainstreaming youth in national policies for the past 40 years; supporting youth-designed and led networks, of which there are currently nine including the Commonwealth Youth Council, the official representative voice of more than 1.2 billion young people in the Commonwealth; the creation of a globally accepted measure of youth development, the Youth Development Index; advocating for the professionalisation of youth work, and sport for development and peace. Kigali CHOGM will highlight youth entrepreneurship and employment – issues that affect a significant number of member countries and pose a threat to young people’s ability to realise their full potential.

Our job is to promote common values and principles, facilitate dialogue for consensus building and cooperation

Technology and Innovation is a cross cutting subtheme. Though the fourth industrial revolution has contributed to closing major access gaps related to information, knowledge, services and business, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the digital divide that still exists. To be future-ready, the Commonwealth must continue to prioritise access to ICT for all, including through a gender and equity lens, in national development plans as highlighted by Heads in the 2018 Communiqué. National development plans must prepare citizens, especially young people, with the skills necessary to adapt and fully benefit from a secure cyberspace. Additionally, the Commonwealth must show leadership in the use of innovative practices and cutting-edge technology that ensures its relevance in the 21st Century.

Let me conclude by sharing my experience of attending and helping convene CHOGMs. My story starts from Port of Spain in 2009. I participated as a UN system official as the UN Secretary-General had been invited to join the meeting. I recall that the summit started the process of revitalising the Commonwealth system and network. Perth CHOGM in 2011 was interesting where the diversity of opinions in the family tested the limits of dialogue and consensus building. Colombo CHOGM in 2013 was another test of resilience. The association passed the test as a majority of members stuck to a Commonwealth’s core value of ‘respect and understanding’. Malta CHOGM of 2015 brought hope with consensus on climate change and commitment to renewal. London CHOGM of 2018 was able to set a new direction. Kigali is going a step ahead and focusing on delivery. The Commonwealth’s journey of excellence continues as it is providing new models of network multilateralism and systemic leadership by example.

London CHOGM 2018: Assisting Foreign Secretary Johnson in the Foreign Ministers Meeting