Everything you always wanted to know about the Commonwealth

But were too afraid to ask

An archaic hangover from our empire-building days, or an economic lifeboat in our post-Brexit future? As athletes head to the Gold Coast for the Games, we ask what exactly is the Commonwealth? Linford Andrews, a South African diplomat with the secretariat (and major fan of acronyms) sets the record straight.

What is the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth is an association of 53 member states and we work to build consensus and understanding across our membership on a number of important global issues. These can vary from trade issues, countering violent extremism, constitution reform, youth empowerment or the protection of human rights. Our resources are relatively small but our strength lies in that we have access at the highest levels of government.

Are you part of the government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

If I may clarify one thing, the Commonwealth Secretariat is not to be confused with the FCO. We are a fully independent agency. The UK is a member of the Commonwealth – one of 53 member states. We have our global headquarters here in London and offices in Geneva and New York, providing facilities to a number of small states who are unable due to having their own permanent missions at the UN.

How are you funded?

From member states. On occasion a member state will provide extra resources for specific projects, for example, election observation or CVE – countering violent extremism.

Any connection to the Commonwealth Games?

The Commonwealth Games Federation is an independent body that runs the Games. The Secretary-General attends the opening but more importantly she will be at the Commonwealth Sports Ministers Meeting which is held in the margins of the Games. One of the key areas of our work is what we call SDPs – Sport for Development and Peace – that’s working in particular with young people to foster positive interaction and empower them to become positive influencers in their own communities.

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Commonwealth Games 2014. Image: Graham Campbell/Flickr

So what does the Commonwealth actually do?

The Commonwealth is involved in supporting member states in things like removing trade barriers and helping states to manage debt to create prosperity. Each member state of the Commonwealth has an equal voice on key issues of common concern so we offer a voice for small states on the global stage. Another initiative is the Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform, or OCCJR, offering a mechanism whereby countries can access model laws, model legislation in a whole range of different areas. All our work, whether it’s trade, CVE, ensuring that legal systems are just, fair and clear, or youth empowerment are all about supporting our member states in preventing conflicts.

With the UK leaving the EU, will our relationship with Commonwealth countries become more important?

One of the things the Commonwealth has is the ‘Commonwealth advantage’. When it comes to trade, it’s been proven that there’s trade among Commonwealth member states is approximately 19 per cent cheaper than if they’re trading externally with non-member states. The work we do promotes inter-Commonwealth trade, working on the removal of trade barriers. The African Continental Free Trade protocol has been signed by 44 countries, this in itself creates a lot of opportunities. Nineteen African states are members of the Commonwealth so there is a confluence of interests there.

Could Commonwealth membership give the UK access to the African free trade agreement?

As Britain negotiates going forward, it certainly offers a platform on which to build.

Could anyone join the Commonwealth?

Any country can freely express its interest to do so. There has been some interest expressed by various countries, but they would need to take the process forward. In many cases it hasn’t been done for various reasons.

Some members have poor records when it comes to human rights, for example homosexuals could be stoned to death in Brunei. Can the Commonwealth help introduce reforms?

Obviously there are some issues. There are a number of human rights issues, LGBT and the death penalty, where there’s no consensus across the membership, but what we do is we work closely with human rights commissions in our member states to try and build their capacity. It’s all behind-the-scenes work to promote and advocate Commonwealth values, and a slow-drip exercise. Hopefully over time through our advocacy and influence we could affect some key reforms. Nelson Mandela once famously said, and it’s one of my favourite quotes of his, that “the Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity”.

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Linford Andrews outside the Commonwealth Office.

South Africa was only welcomed back into the Commonwealth in 1994 with the election of Mandela. Did the Commonwealth help end apartheid?

In the 1980s we had the Eminent Persons Group, the EPG as it’s called, and the leaders of Nigeria and Australia were involved in trying to advocate positive change in South Africa. It is partly their contribution that eventually led to the changes that took place in South Africa.

When there is Trump describing whole parts of the world – many of them probably Commonwealth members – as ‘shithole countries’ how is the role of diplomacy changing?

Diplomacy has always been important, now more than ever. Whatever leaders want to say, the myriad of global issues we are now facing, whether climate change or countering violent extremism, you have to get leaders around a table to talk. But leaders should also feel that they can talk quietly behind the scenes as and when it’s needed to resolve issues. Megaphone diplomacy has a place but it doesn’t necessarily achieve objectives. It isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it. You can deliver difficult messaging, you do it in such a way that you still have someone on the other side of the table listening to you. This is how you build influence.