On 30 June 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the future of the Commonwealth. The debate will be sponsored by Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative). Lord Howell is honorary president of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Commonwealth and a former president of the Royal Commonwealth Society.

1. The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth is a free association of sovereign states made up of the UK and many of its former dependencies. It has no formal constitution or bylaws, and members have no legal or formal obligations to one another. All members commit to the development of “free and democratic societies” and the “promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all the people of the Commonwealth”.

Although the Commonwealth’s roots are linked to the British Empire, today any country can join. It currently has 54 members. In 2009, Rwanda became the most recent country to join the organisation. It is one of two members—the other is Mozambique—that do not have historic links to the UK. Former French colonies Togo and Gabon have expressed interest in joining the Commonwealth, and Zimbabwe, which withdrew in 2003, began the process of re-joining in 2018.

The Commonwealth’s membership contains both advanced economies and developing nations. It has an overall combined population of 2.5 billion people, with more than 60 percent of the combined populations of member states aged 29 and under. The combined gross domestic product of Commonwealth countries in 2021 was US$13.1tn and is estimated to reach US$19.5tn in 2027.

Queen Elizabeth II has been the head of the Commonwealth since ascending to the throne in 1952. The role is a symbolic one with no fixed term. In addition, the Queen is currently the sovereign (head of state) of 14 members of the Commonwealth in addition to the UK.

2. Background to the summit

Every two years the leaders of Commonwealth countries meet at CHOGM. The Commonwealth has described the meeting as its “highest consultative and policymaking gathering”.

2.1 Postponement and new date announced

The 26th CHOGM was due to take place in Kigali, Rwanda, in June 2020. However, in April 2020, the Commonwealth announced that the meeting would be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On 23 September 2020, the Commonwealth announced that it had agreed a new date for the meeting. It was planned for the week of 21 June 2021. However, in May 2021 the Commonwealth announced that the summit would be postponed for a second time due to the pandemic. Commenting on the decision to postpone the meeting, Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Scotland of Asthal said that while it would have been helpful for member states to discuss issues arising from the pandemic, “we must be mindful of the huge risks large meetings pose to all”. Similarly, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, stated that the decision to postpone CHOGM for a second time had “not been taken lightly”.

In January 2022, President Kagame and Baroness Scotland announced that CHOGM would take place between 20 and 25 June 2022.

2.2 Agenda

The Commonwealth has confirmed a theme for the 2022 meeting: ‘Delivering a common future: Connecting, innovating, transforming’. It also said leaders would “discuss how to deliver the things which were discussed at CHOGM 2018 in London”.

In 2018, the CHOGM theme was ‘Towards a common future’. Following the London meeting, the leaders adopted a communique. This set out a series of political commitments and practical actions that had been agreed to. These commitments included:

  • strengthening democratic institutions and building peace
  • promoting gender equality and inclusion
  • action on climate change and oceans
  • sustainable use of resources
  • commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention
  • preventing and countering violent extremism and human trafficking

The organisation also published a leaders’ statement. This statement recognised the role of Queen Elizabeth II in “championing the Commonwealth and its peoples”. Additionally, it stated that the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, would be the next head of the Commonwealth. The role of head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary, with Commonwealth leaders having agreed to Prince Charles’s future role.

The statement also highlighted some specific issues that leaders had discussed and agreed on. For example, it stated that climate change posed a particular threat to small island developing states (SIDS), several of which are Commonwealth members. It said that there was a need for urgent change to enable these countries to build resilience to climate change.

Concerns have been raised about Rwanda’s human rights record. In June 2022, 24 human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, wrote an open to letter to Commonwealth leaders to ask them to “speak up” on human rights in the country.

2.3 Commonwealth leadership positions

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the current Commonwealth chair-in-office. This role represents the Commonwealth at high-level international meetings. It also reinforces the ‘good offices’ role of the Commonwealth secretary-general. The term ‘good offices’ refers to the Commonwealth’s conflict prevention and resolution work.

The role rotates every two years, with the leader of the Commonwealth country that hosts CHOGM assuming the role. President Kagame will become chair-in-office at CHOGM 2022.

Press reports have focused on the future of Baroness Scotland as the Commonwealth’s secretary general. Her first four-year term was due to end in 2020, with a decision on her reappointment due at the postponed CHOGM that year. However, the decision on whether to reappoint Lady Scotland for another four-year term was delayed until the next meeting.

In June 2020, the Times reported that Mr Johnson had written to Baroness Scotland to extend her contract until a full meeting of the Commonwealth could take place. However, the letter said that her contract would only be formally renewed for another full term if there was consensus among Commonwealth members at CHOGM.

In April 2022, the government of Jamaica announced the candidature of Kamina Johnson Smith, the country’s minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, for the post of secretary-general.

In May 2022, Boris Johnson announced that the UK would be supporting Kamina Johnson Smith’s campaign to be the next secretary-general. Writing on Twitter, Mr Johnson stated that Smith “has the vast experience and support to unite our unique family of nations and seize the opportunities ahead”. The announcement was criticised by the UK shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, who stated that the prime minister, in his role as chair-in-office, was “supposed to maintain neutrality and confidentiality”. Mr Lammy also argued that the move was “unseemly and divisive”.

3. Future of the Commonwealth

Many commentators have been speculating on the future of the Commonwealth, particularly what the future may hold for the organisation after Queen Elizabeth II’s reign comes to an end.

In the past year, six Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean have outlined their intention to become republics and remove Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state: Antigua and Barbuda; the Bahamas; Belize; Grenada; Jamaica; and St Kitts and Nevis. The moves follow the example of Barbados, which became a republic on 30 November 2021. The countries have stated that they intend to remain in the Commonwealth as republics.

On a tour of the Bahamas, Belize and Jamaica in March 2022 ahead of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were met with protests over Britain’s history of colonialism and calls for the royal family to apologise for it. Speaking at an event in Jamaica, Prince William stated that he wanted to express his “profound sorrow” over slavery, describing it as “abhorrent”. He added that it “should never have happened”. Following the tour, the prince acknowledged that the tour had “brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future” and that the future “is for the people [of the Bahamas, Belize and Jamaica] to decide upon”. He also stated that he and the Duchess of Cambridge had a “desire to serve the people of the Commonwealth”.

In an interview with Reuters in May 2022, Philip Murphy, professor of British and Commonwealth history at the University of London, argued that he thought the Commonwealth had “historically run its course” and that “what you’re really seeing now is the ghost of an organisation”. He said this was because:

The Commonwealth talks about the importance of promoting democracy, tackling climate change, tackling gender inequality […] But the Commonwealth isn’t necessarily a logical framework internationally in which to deal with any of those problems.

However, Mr Murphy expected the Commonwealth to survive after the Queen, although he suggested it would have a lower profile:

I think it will stagger on […] I don’t see the will to draw a line under it, and I don’t see who would really have the authority to do that. I think the danger is that it will just gradually become less influential, less important and less interesting to its citizens.

Meanwhile some have argued that, while the UK bears responsibility for the past enslavement of many African and Caribbean people, membership of the Commonwealth can bring benefits. David Denny, general secretary of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration based in Barbados, has argued that some Commonwealth member countries should “demand reparation” from the royal family and the UK government. However, he has also said that the Commonwealth continues to remain “beneficial” for many African and Caribbean nations due to the links it facilitates with countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Figures such as Lord Howell of Guildford have argued that the connectivity offered by the Commonwealth is the primary strength of the organisation. In a debate on UK–Commonwealth trade in July 2021, he said:

[…] in the age of networking and digital connectivity, the binding ties of a voluntary, non-treaty, global organisation such as the Commonwealth are sealed as much by enterprise and trade, civil society concerns and common everyday life and work interests as through government channels—indeed, even more so. This is of course what gives the Commonwealth today its vibrancy and brings it alive as never before […] it is the nexus of non-governmental organisations, professions, business interests, education at all levels, science, law and hundreds of informal links, not to mention sports connections and the enormous and expanding range of arts and cultural links of every kind, that are increasingly at the core of the Commonwealth. They are all areas where, nowadays, soft power is at its most telling and effective.

4. Read more

Cover image by Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on Flickr.