No regional consensus on Commonwealth Secretary General post

The only Caribbean national to hold the post of Commonwealth Secretary General was the former foreign minister of Guyana Sir Shridath Ramphal, who served for 15 years from 1975 to 1990.

And this week, when leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) hold their annual conference here, they do so against the backdrop of what is shaping up to be a very competitive race, involving three Caribbean candidates, for the top post at the London-based Secretariat.

Interestingly one of the three candidates – Sir Ron Sanders – is Sir Shridath’s son-in-law.

However, after missing out on two previous opportunities to decide on a “consensus” regional candidate, well-placed sources say the Commonwealth race may now be “out of the Caribbean’s hands entirely”.

“Everybody is doing their own thing and spending a lot of money,” one source said in reference to the race in which Antigua has entered former diplomat Sir Ronald;  Dominica, the former UK attorney general Baroness Patricia Scotland,  who was born on the island; and Trinidad and Tobago, its Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs, Dr Bhoe Tewarie.

So far, little has been heard from Tewarie, who is the most low-keyed of the three candidates, but both Sir Ronald and Baroness Scotland have released detailed brochures outlining why they are the most suitable candidate for the job.

Both have also been engaged in extensive campaign, including travel to several Commonwealth states.

The Barbados summit comes against the backdrop of two previous leaders’ summits in Cuba and the Bahamas, which have been described as “missed opportunities” for the region to settle on a single candidate.

Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

As the current Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma arrived here for tomorrow’s CARICOM summit, Sir Ronald told Barbados TODAY Sharma’s successor should be “someone who has fought in the diplomatic and negotiating front line for small states and who has not only the sensitivity to their plight, but the knowledge of their circumstances born of experience”.

“As a negotiator for small and vulnerable economies with the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and bilaterally with the governments of the US, UK, EU Commission and china, I have gained knowledge and appreciation of the challenges facing small states. I have learned how to overcome them.”

He believes the Commonwealth Secretariat must become a machinery for strong and effective advocacy in light of the challenges facing small island developing states like the Caribbean.

“Development assistance is drying up; terms of trade are worsening; access to concessional financing has virtually disappeared,” Sir Ronald noted.

“This is occurring at a time when climate change and sea level rise are threatening the existence of some small states and materially affecting the economic life of others. In these circumstances, it is urgent that the causes of small states be advocated strongly and effectively in the Commonwealth and the wider international community.”

His opponent, Baroness Scotland, is pledging to focus on some of the social issues facing the 53-member grouping, as well as greater cooperation among states.

“One of the major things that I’d like to see is the five regions of the Commonwealth coming together to work more creatively in partnership, because I think we have a lot to give each other.

“If you look at the future there’s a huge potential opportunity in relation to our youth, by 203060 percent of the Commonwealth population should be under the age of 30. That is a challenge but it is also an opportunity.

Baroness Patricia Scotland
Baroness Patricia Scotland

“So youth and how we deploy our young people, how we craft a future for them is a pivotal issue of importance,” she told Barbados TODAY.

Baroness Scotland said she will also focus on women’s empowerment within the Commonwealth, particularly the issue of domestic violence.

“I would really like to do much to reduce the level of violence. During the period when I was a government minister we managed to . . . significantly reduce domestic violence by 64 percent and we saved 7.1 billion in economic costs,” she said.

But one pressing issue which the next Secretary General will have to focus on is raising the profile of the Commonwealth.

According to Sir Ronald, small states should not allow the Commonwealth to “wither and die”, as it remains crucial to their development.

“No other organization provides the chance for the Head of Government of a small Caribbean state, for instance, to meet to meet the Head of Government of Britain, Australia, India and South Africa as an equal to discuss frankly and openly his/her country’s challenges and opportunities.

“Small states need the Commonwealth to be vibrant and effective so that it can advance their interests,” he said.

Baroness Scotland said she has been discussing with various leaders their aspirations for the Commonwealth, as “many people have been saying what is the Commonwealth for, has it passed its sell-by date and I think it hasn’t.

“But there is real opportunity for us to partner together and to help each other develop and deliver real change,” she stated.

However, Baroness Scotland’s nomination by Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit was not without its share of controversy.

While she was born in Dominica, she migrated to the UK with her family as a young child. She pursued her career in the UK, and went on to become the country’s first female attorney general.

Critics insist she is not suitable for the post of Secretary General, on account of her not having lived and worked in the Caribbean and therefore not being familiar with the critical issues affecting the region.

In dismissing those charges, Baroness Scotland stated: “I grew up very much a Caribbean child in the United Kingdom and throughout my career I have dedicated myself to things in my region.”

“I was called to the Bar in 1977 in England, and I was called to the Bar in Dominica, and in Antigua in 1978 because my father is Antiguan and my mother is Dominican.

“And actually it’s been very hurtful to find that after living my whole life – I’ll be 60 years old this year – having lived my whole life as a Caribbean Dominican person, to have that questioned now has been very surprising,” she said.

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