Questions and Answers
What is the Commonwealth?
The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 countries from all regions of the world that developed out of the British Empire. Its members include countries large and small, with diverse ethnic, cultural and religious heritage. The combined population of all the Commonwealth countries is about a third of the world’s population. The Head of the Commonwealth is Queen Elizabeth II, but its day-to-day operations are led by a secretary general and a small secretariat.
Membership in the Commonwealth is voluntary and based on agreement and adherence to basic values and principles such as good governance, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
What we, the members of the committee, find truly unique about the Commonwealth is the network of hundreds of affiliated organizations that it maintains, such as the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Royal Commonwealth Society, which connect people across the world.
What is the Commonwealth Charter?
As part of its efforts to renew and revitalize the Commonwealth, leaders agreed to establish a Commonwealth Charter that would consolidate the principles contained in previous Commonwealth declarations into a single document that is not legally binding. Commonwealth leaders decided that the charter’s text, dealing with the values and aspirations of the member states, would be agreed to in 2012 following a process of national consultations across the association.
How can the “Charter” renew the Commonwealth?
Throughout our committee meetings, we heard from witnesses that the charter will be what the Commonwealth people make of it. While many witnesses endorsed the idea of a charter, some also expressed concern that the eventual purpose and objective of the charter was unclear.
The Commonwealth-wide consultation process is an opportunity to “renew” the Commonwealth and to clarify and define what it is we want the charter to be. It is our hope that through the ongoing negotiation process the mission and the mandate of the charter will become clearer and ultimately the document will be more representative of the values and aspirations of Commonwealth people.
In your consultation, what efforts did you take to reach out to stakeholders in Canada?
Given the short timeframe we had to conduct the study, we thought that it would be most efficient to hold our meetings in Ottawa and to utilize the Senate of Canada’s committee hearing process. In doing this, we reached out to stakeholders in Canada and abroad already involved in the Commonwealth and welcomed testimonies in person and by videoconference. While we did not receive requests from witnesses to testify, the committee approached people from a variety of backgrounds, including those working in government, civil society and in Commonwealth-affiliated organizations, who have a deep understanding of Commonwealth issues. The committee also publicized its hearings online and on television to share its proceedings with to all Canadians.
One of the committee’s recommendations is that the Minister of Foreign Affairs continue the dialogue with Canadians which our study began. This could involve welcoming online submissions on the department’s website or by using social media to ensure that Canadians remain engaged throughout the charter negotiation process.
Ideally what should the Charter strive for?
One of the core messages we heard during our study was that the charter cannot be all things to all people. Witnesses expressed that the charter should seek to highlight the Commonwealth’s key strengths, or comparative advantages, as well as its fundamental values and aspirations. In doing this, we heard that a succinct charter could have immense value for the Commonwealth by becoming the singular source on what the association stands for.
These messages are reflected in the committee’s report. We think that the charter should strive to be an inspirational document that clearly and concisely lays out the Commonwealth’s core values. The charter could also be an important tool for strengthening the Commonwealth’s capacity to promote democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. Overall, as we recommended in our report, it is important that the purpose and objective of the charter be clearly defined. Only then can we truly say what the charter should strive for.
What was the timeline for the study?
The timeline for this study was short. In the 2011 CHOGM Communiqué, leaders agreed to establish a charter in 2012, following a process of national consultations and a series of meetings by Commonwealth officials and ministers, the first of which is set to take place in London, England, in mid-April 2012. Canada and other Commonwealth countries were asked to provide comments and recommendations on the charter for this meeting. We hope the minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will find our report useful in their ongoing negotiation of the charter’s text.
Canada was, to our knowledge, the only country that began its consultations in Parliament. Given the time constraints we faced, the committee determined that the Senate committee hearing process was a good way to kick-start dialogue amongst Canadians on the Commonwealth and the idea of a charter.