Wed | Apr 8, 2020

Editorial | No return to old Commonwealth

Published:Monday | February 17, 2020 | 12:12 AM

At their summit in Barbados in a week’s time, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders must clearly articulate their vision for the Commonwealth, including how they expect the organisation to serve their interests, and whether its current secretary general, Patricia Scotland, can deliver on their ideals.

If they have lost confidence in Baroness Scotland, or believe that she is now too badly damaged to be effective in the job, they should be measured and thoughtful about choosing a successor, rather than being railroaded into an embrace of any candidate proposed by the old dominions.

For, whatever mistakes she may, or may not have made, there is a sense in many quarters that there has been a campaign, orchestrated by people high in the British establishment, and executed by that country’s right-wing tabloid press, to hound her office since she assumed the post in 2016.

We may be accused of bias, for this newspaper, in 2015, strongly supported Baroness Scotland’s candidacy for the posts, but we did so because we believe she was the best person for the job. For, while she operated at high levels in British politics, serving the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, she was born in Dominica to a Dominican mother and Antiguan father, and had maintained a close relationship with the Caribbean. She championed causes that were important to this region.

British tabloids, however, have caricatured Baroness Scotland as an incompetent manager with grand personal tastes, who frittered Commonwealth resources on things that benefited her lifestyle and pleasures. She, however, now faces more serious charges.

A report commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat, and done by its external auditors, KPMG, says Baroness Scotland circumvented competitive tendering rules in 2016 to provide two consulting contracts to a firm, KYA Global, owned by her friend and fellow Labour peer, Lord Patel of Bradford. It suggested that KYA was, at the time, insolvent.

Baroness Scotland has, through her lawyers, rejected allegations of wrongdoing, insisting the contracts were awarded “on the basis of … (KYA’s) proven track record in change management consultancy”, which was an urgent requirement when she came to office. “This decision was wholly justifiable and SG Scotland was advised that this complied with the procurement procedures that were in force at the time,” the statement said.

However, Britain, Australia and New Zealand have since cut off funding to the secretariat, while Canada, another member of the old Commonwealth, has not resumed disbursements it suspended in 2013, despite the entreaties by Baroness Scotland since she took up the job.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told Commonwealth leaders, including, presumably, Jamaica’s Andrew Holness and his CARICOM colleagues, to drop Baroness Scotland. He has been encouraging the candidacy of Somali-born Kenyan lawyer and politician Amina Mohamed.

In the absence of better particulars, especially with respect to Baroness Scotland’s defence, we make no comment on KPMG’s conclusions, except to concur that the controversy itself could cause reputational damage to the Commonwealth, which is an issue that heads of government of the 54-member club must weigh seriously ahead of their June summit in Rwanda. But CARICOM, as a group, should head to that summit with an aligned position.

GREATER RELEVANCE

That is why this issue, and the future of the Commonwealth, more broadly, should find its way on the agenda for their Barbados meeting.

While the Commonwealth lost its way in the age of globalisation, it has the potential for new and greater relevance, in a world where Donald Trump’s America is undermining multilateralism, which has been an essential insulation for poor and emerging countries – as are most of the Commonwealth’s members – against arbitrary behaviour of the rich and powerful. But even the rich Commonwealth nations have an interest in a predictable, rules-based international order.

And although the Commonwealth is no immediate replacement for the European Union, its members have the potential to help ease some of the pressures that is likely to be faced by a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Any redesign, and management, of the Commonwealth can’t be left to the few, no matter the heft of their purses, or even if they are expert marionettists.