The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC, Secretary-General of The Commonwealth of Nations since April 2016, began the 26th IISS Fullerton Lecture on Friday 4 November by highlighting the significant role that Singapore had played in the development of the Commonwealth. The first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was chaired by then-prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew in 1971. The core beliefs enshrined in the Singapore Declaration, set out at that meeting, continued to reflect the principles espoused by the Commonwealth today. She reflected that at her recent meetings with Singapore’s leaders, they continued to reaffirm their commitment to the Commonwealth.
The strength of the Commonwealth was reflected by the depth and nature of its composition, Sec-Gen Scotland told the gathering of 160 diplomats, officials, scholars and businessmen. The Commonwealth represented approximately one-third of the world population and included all the cultures of the world across its 52 member states. Sec-Gen Scotland likened the Commonwealth to a ‘family of nations’, clarifying that it was in fact a ‘network of networks’ in the way that it brought together a range of organisations, civil-society movements, professional groups and individuals working towards the common goal of peace and stability. She reflected how the theme chosen for the organisation in 2016, ‘An Inclusive Commonwealth’, aptly reflected its uniqueness: ‘The sense of affinity and kinship such as that engendered organically through the many levels of Commonwealth connections should be nourished, cherished and valued.’
Sec-Gen Scotland highlighted the promotion of sustainable development as a policy priority. She reflected that the Commonwealth had been able to extend its influence beyond its member states and a recent area of success was in tackling climate change. The consensus agreed upon by the member states of the Commonwealth in its Statement on Climate Action was eventually adopted at the Paris Climate Conference. By adopting a collective partnership model and innovative thinking, the Commonwealth was exploring regenerative methods to reverse climate change, particularly through the use of technology. Sec-Gen Scotland highlighted bio-mimicry technology as having particular potential. She looked forward to the Commonwealth sharing such ideas at the Marrakech Climate Change Conference later that month.
Another aspect of sustainable development that the Commonwealth had actively dealt with was in the economic empowerment and engagement of young people. Member states displayed considerable will to strengthen their democratic and socio-economic institutions in order to open up more opportunities and freedom for all. Sec-Gen Scotland argued that the Commonwealth held a particular advantage in achieving such goals since its shared pathways, common institutions and culture offered many opportunities. She provided the example of bilateral trade between Commonwealth member states, which tended to cost, on average, 19% less than similar trade activities between other country pairings.
Sec-Gen Scotland opined that the common language, law and institutional frameworks of member states could be further leveraged to develop shared approaches to tackling challenges and tapping into opportunities. She outlined how the Commonwealth was developing practical solutions to handle corruption and working to ensure that the principle of equal rights for women was embedded in legal frameworks and ensured across every level of political and economic activity. She concluded that the Commonwealth had proven that when it chooses to do so, it is able to make a significant contribution to the world’s efforts towards sustainable development.
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union and its implications for the Commonwealth featured prominently in the question and answer session. Dr Tim Huxley, Executive Director of IISS–Asia, queried what the challenges and opportunities for the Commonwealth might be in light of Brexit. Latif Asad ul-Iqbal of the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies suggested that Brexit might be a reflection of dissatisfaction with globalisation and asked if a more inclusive globalisation movement could be developed. In response, Sec-Gen Scotland explained that Commonwealth member states had benefited from having the UK as a bridge into Europe. In the future, the relationship between the UK and other member states of the Commonwealth could be reconfigured. This could offer huge opportunities as member states negotiated new relationships. To this end, an inclusive globalisation movement could be one where structures and systems were developed to manage its aberrant consequences, while the benefits were shared more equitably.
Dr Antony Yee from the Royal Commonwealth Society of Singapore invited Sec-Gen Scotland to consider the potential of youth and their influence on the future. Sec-Gen Scotland remarked that she had many interactions with highly inspirational young people. She added that the Commonwealth offered a platform where youth of diverse backgrounds could interact to imagine a more creative future.
Report kindly provided by Gullnaz Baig, Gerald Segal Research Programme scholar, IISS–Asia.
Patricia Scotland, QC is a lawyer by profession. She became the first black woman and youngest woman ever to be appointed Queen's Counsel. She was the first black woman to be appointed Deputy High Court Judge, Recorder, Master of Middle Temple, and since the post was created in 1315 the only woman to be Attorney General for England and Wales.
As a British government minister, she undertook major reform of the criminal justice system, including the introduction of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act. During her term of office from 2003–2007, crime in England and Wales was reduced to its lowest level since 1981. During this period she chaired the Inter-Ministerial Group on Domestic Violence which collectively worked together to reduce domestic violence by 64% and led to a £7.5bn reduction in the economic cost of domestic violence in England and Wales. In 2011 Patricia Scotland returned to private practice at the Bar through which she continued to share her expertise on constitutional, civil and criminal justice reform, human rights, public and family law, gender equality, diversity and corporate social responsibility.
This event was chaired by Dr Tim Huxley, Executive Director of IISS–Asia. It took place in the Straits Room at The Fullerton Hotel, 1 Fullerton Square, Singapore.