In less than a week, the Rwandan capital of Kigali, will play host to the Commonwealth Heads of government meeting or CHOGM. Between meetings, the delegates, and other guests, will undoubtedly want to explore their surroundings, and meet more of their hosts. The CHOGM acronym has already entered the Rwandan lexicon, but as they welcome their guests, what should ordinary Rwandans know about it?
Despite its appellation, the various nations of the commonwealth, maybe represented by either heads of state, or heads of government.
The meetings are biennial, rotating by invitation, among member countries. The Kigali meeting will be the 26th, since the first CHOGM in Singapore, in 1971.
Like all CHOGM meetings, the Kigali meeting will be based on affirmation, or reaffirmation of the member states’ shared core values, which include promotion of Democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism, and promoting world peace.
These principles were agreed in the Singapore CHOGM, in 1971, and reiterated in the Harare Declaration, agreed in the Zimbabwean capital in 1991. Alongside the agreement in Singapore, the Harare Declaration, is regarded as the most important document that makes up the uncodified constitution of the Commonwealth.
Within these principles, each CHOGM has a theme, conceived by the host nation, which becomes chair-in-office, for two years, until a handover to the next host nation. The theme in Kigali, is Delivering a Common Future: connecting, innovation and transforming. Under the main theme, are usually sub themes, like Governance and rule of law, ICT and Innovation, Youth, Environment and Trade.
The meetings aim to find a common position on major issues affecting member states, and the world beyond them. Past meetings have for instance, discussed issues ranging from how to end apartheid rule in South Africa, military coups in Pakistan. Where possible a common statement, which becomes the position of the Commonwealth is issued.
Representing a population of over 2 billion people, from every continent, the Commonwealth is potentially, a strong voice globally, and its deliberations should carry beyond their own countries, into the rest of the world.
The general structure of the meetings, is that the executive sessions, when the heads of government gather formally, are the most high profile. Most major decisions however, are made at the more informal, closed meetings, which have come to be known as retreats.
Only the heads of delegations, their spouses and one other person, are eligible for these sessions. In the past, it has been at these secluded meetings, not accompanied by their advisers, that the heads of delegations, have resolved the most thorny issues.
Around the meetings, are fringe meetings, of organisations regarded as part of the “commonwealth family.” These are civil society organisations, which exist to serve and advance the principles of the commonwealth.
They range from the little known Soroptimist International, Commonwealth group, to The League for the exchange of Commonwealth Teachers, Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, the list is long.
The Commonwealth of Nations, generally known as the Commonwealth, was formed at the half of the twentieth century. The end of the first World War, saw many former British colonies began to seek self governance.
Weakened from a war that decimated its youth, sapped its energy, and swallowed not only its resources, but those of its imperial dominions, Britain bent with the wind. But if it could not retain its empire by force, it would try and stoop to conquer.
Through what was then known as the British Commonwealth of Nations, Britain intended to retain influence over its now increasingly self governing dominions.
What would be the new imperial project, was outlined in the Balfour Declaration, in 1926. Named after the then Lord President of the Council, Arthur Earl of Balfour, the declaration in effect granted autonomy to former colonies, which were agitating for self determination.
As President of what is one of Britain’s four great offices of state, Balfour presided over the 1926, Imperial Conference of the British Empire, the forerunner to today’s CHOGM.
The declaration proclaimed the United Kingdom and the Dominions to be, “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
The Balfour declaration did not however, contain the push for ever greater decolonisation, as might have been hoped, and the inevitable change was recognised, through the London Declaration of 1949.
The London declaration was solely to accommodate India’s independence, and adoption of a republican constitution, but it set a precedent that nations could be independent, sovereign states, and part of the commonwealth. It also became clear that the days of “Imperial Conferences” were over.
By the 1960s, it had become clear that the Commonwealth had to evolve into an association of independent, sovereign nations, or cease to exist. The formation of CHOGM was a response to such a realisation.
Rwanda’s membership of the Commonwealth, from 2009, is in many ways, a clear indication of the success of that transformation.
As former colonies of Belgium and Portugal respectively, Rwanda, and Mozambique, joined the commonwealth, as independent sovereign nations, judging membership in the interest of their nations.
Both countries are members of regional organisations, South African Development Community (SADC), and the East African Community (EAC), where their neighbours are members of the Commonwealth. It made sense to join the organisation.
Britain remains a singularly important member of the Commonwealth, and the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth 11, continues to be head of the commonwealth. The 96 year old, who has just celebrated her platinum jubilee, 70 years, on the throne, has cut down on her foreign engagements, and will be represented in Kigali, by her heir apparent, Charles, Prince of Wales, who will be accompanied by his wife, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall.
Where the government used to direct the affairs of the Commonwealth, member nations insisted on the establishment of a Secretariat.
The Secretariat, which is based in London, is the main intergovernmental agency, and central institution of the Commonwealth of Nations. Its Secretary-General, currently, Patricia Baroness Scotland of Asthal, is elected by CHOGMs.
Alongside the Secretariate, is the Commonwealth Foundation, whose responsibilities are to coordinate civil society organisations, and advance citizens’ participation in Democracy and development, of their respective nations.