World attention will again be focused on the Commonwealth from today to Sunday as the 54 countries in this movement spanning the five continents hold their biannual summit in the small Mediterranean Island of Malta.
For Sri Lanka this summit is of special significance. The last summit was held in Sri Lanka from November 15 to 17, 2013 and the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose regime fought long and hard for the prestige of hosting this summit, took the chair with pride and confidence. But last year in November -- which author Dinesh Weerakkody in his latest book describes as the month of the “The Great November Revolution” historic scenes were enacted for the revolution to be translated into a miraculous victory for Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election on January 8. Thus President Sirisena also took over the Chair of the Commonwealth for more than 10 months. On Thursday he flew to Malta to handover the chairmanship to the small island’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
Though some analysts cynically dismiss the Commonwealth as a showpiece or relic of the British Empire, the Magna Carta or the Great Charter of the Commonwealth is not only impressive but also has the potential to turn it to one of the most powerful intercontinental movements in terms of aid, trade and investments, economic, cultural and other important dimensions of co-operation.
In terms of principles, the Commonwealth is expected to work as a trusted partner for all Commonwealth people as a force for peace, democracy, equality and good governance, a catalyst for global consensus-building and a source of assistance for sustainable eco-friendly development and poverty eradication.
The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states spread over every continent and ocean, sharing ideas and experiences, skills and know-how, and a common language. Its two billion people, who account for nearly 30 per cent of the world’s population, are found in Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe and the South Pacific. They are of many religions, races, languages and cultures.
These values are expressed in two landmark declarations: The Declaration of Commonwealth Principles -- a consensus reached at the Singapore summit in 1971 and the Harare Commonwealth Declaration on which consensus was reached at the 1991 summit in the capital of Zimbabwe. The Harare Declaration covered important areas such as gender equality, equal access to education for all, sustainable development and protection of the environment.
Though the modern Commonwealth began in 1949, with the London Declaration, the idea took root in the 19th century. In 1867, Canada became the first colony to be transformed into a self governing ‘Dominion’, a newly constituted status that implied equality with Britain. Canada is still a Dominion but happily the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week his cabinet would follow the Commonwealth principle of gender equality. We hope other countries also would willingly and voluntarily adopt this principle.
Today’s summit venue Malta is an archipelago including the islands of Malta, Gozo, Comino, Comminotto and Filfla. Located south of the Italian island of Sicily between Europe and North Africa, it has been occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and latterly France and Britain. Independence from Britain was achieved in 1964. The latest population figure is 423,282.
According to the British newspaper, The Guardian, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron in his keynote speech at the summit is expected to call on leaders to find ways to combat terrorism and tackle extremism. Mr. Cameron wants discussions to focus on methods to stamp out the “poisonous ideology” of extremism and ways in which Commonwealth countries could work together on defeating terror groups.
We hope the dialogue will focus on the peaceful resolution of this and other conflicts such as climate change by addressing the routes or the injustices from which the conflicts arise.