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The original worldwide web
Speaker: His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Thursday, 10th March 2011 at 6.30 PM
To my good friend John Hall the Dean, to the Chapter of Westminster Abbey, and to you all – my warm thanks for your kind invitation to join you tonight.
I am greatly honoured to be giving the 2011 One People Oration, here in this place of spiritual and national treasure.
I think that – in this particular place – I may legitimately refer to the fact that, over the years, carpenters have had their place in history...
2000 years ago, one of them, Joseph, a Nazarene, loved his betrothed so much that he was, I quote, ‘minded to put her away privily’.
This was, of course, to spare Mary from the opprobrium which would be levelled at her when people learned that she was with child.
I source those words from a remarkable book which this year celebrates its 400 year anniversary: an anniversary special to this very building, in that parts of the King James Version were rendered right here, in the Jerusalem Chamber in this Abbey...
... which makes my next connection all the more far-fetched, in recalling the great boxing commentator, Harry Carpenter...
It was he who gave us the immortal line: ‘Get in there, Frank!’
He did so when he abandoned any sense of neutrality at the ringside, while relaying Frank Bruno’s world championship heavyweight fight with Mike Tyson in April 1989.
But tonight we are especially thankful for another Carpenter – the Archdeacon and later a forerunner of John Hall as the Dean of Westminster: this time Edward Carpenter. He it was who foresaw these lectures in 1965, in the cause of encouraging the people gathered here to think, I quote “not only of all Christian people, but of all mankind”.
‘To think of all mankind’ .... That, ladies and gentlemen, is to be a Commonwealth person ... and, indeed, ‘to think of all humankind’. We say so, not just because one half of humanity is female, but because that half of humanity bears considerably more than half of its problems.
Two-thirds of those out of school worldwide are girls; and two-thirds of those who are illiterate, or out of work, or living with HIV/AIDS, are women.
The place of women in our societies – and their role as ‘Agents of Change’ – is a theme which we will explore just four days from now, on Monday 14th March, when many of us will return to this Abbey.
We will come together for the multi-faith Observance which, in various forms, has been held here on Commonwealth Day, for nearly 50 years now.
For those of you who do not yet know the Observance, it is indeed a great occasion – a feast for the eyes and ears, and a true nourishment to the soul. Wonderfully and creatively conceived by the Abbey, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Council of Commonwealth Societies, there is music and dance, testimony and scripture.
Just a few years ago, we even had gymnasts somersaulting down the aisle...
Almost all of the 54 member countries of this Commonwealth – and almost all of its faiths – are represented at the Observance.
From Her Majesty The Queen ...
... to visiting Heads of Government ...
... to Commonwealth friends of old ...
... to Commonwealth acolytes new, in the form of the many hundreds of schoolchildren who pack these pews ...
.... we all experience something of the indefinable magic of this very special association.
So these are my topics today.
How does the Commonwealth ‘think of all mankind’?
How has it done so, and how will it continue to do so?
And my text tonight comes not from the Bible, or from any of the great preachers who have stood in pulpits in this Abbey.
It comes from the Head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty The Queen, who gave us the vivid image of the Commonwealth as “the original worldwide web”.
I shall first reflect on what those words mean when we look backwards at the past, and when we look round about us in the present.
And I shall then look forward to how the web of old is upgrading to become a new, dynamic and truly interactive body – nearly 62 years young, a body that was built in the 20th Century, but which is custom-made for the 21st.
The Queen chooses her words well, so they merit attention.
How often does one hear that the Commonwealth is a relic of empire, and a thing of the past?
Let me turn back on our detractors, by saying that they simply must know where we have come from – they must know our ‘origins’ – because I have always maintained that what we are is as significant as what we do.
Two years ago, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the London Declaration in April 1949.
Eight countries were present at the outset: the old Commonwealth in the form of the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon (as it then was).
India held the key to the meeting: Nehru arrived here in London in the wake of his country’s new independence, after it had – at long last and at great cost – dispensed with colonial rule.
Every account of that meeting points to the trepidation with which it was approached.
An old alliance, born of empire, could very easily have crumbled, dismissed either with rancour or with indifference.
It was a tribute to the capacity for enlightened and collective thinking – evident then and evident now – that it transcended any smallness in its thinking.
Before he flew to London, Nehru said this to the Lok Sabha, the Indian equivalent of the House of Commons:
‘If you approach another country in a friendly way, with goodwill and generosity, you will be paid back in the same coin, and probably the payback will be in even larger measure. ... We join the Commonwealth because we think it is beneficial to us, and to certain causes in the world we wish to advance.’
Nehru, perhaps, also had an underlying vision, to encourage further decolonization in other continents – in a responsible way, and a way which maintained collective ties and allegiance.
The result in London was a visionary statement after three days of intense negotiation, agreeing on voluntary, ‘free and equal association’.
It was one of the greatest acts of statesmanship of the last century: a watershed between the past and the future.
If I have praised Queen Elizabeth II’s way with words, then I must praise King George VI, who on 28th April 1949 called an unprecedented audience with the eight Commonwealth leaders who had just signed the London Declaration.
I recall the three words that the King used.
He praised the leaders for their ‘adaptability’, for their ‘wisdom’, and for their ‘toleration’.
If we were to choose the three words that have marked the Commonwealth since its inception, would we choose any different?
The qualities he commended then, are happily still with us.
So the British Commonwealth had faded into history; and the Modern Commonwealth was born, and a new global era of internationalism was inaugurated by this very organisation.
I have often said that it was the Commonwealth which, with the old world dying and the new one rising, introduced to the world the idea of an international community.
Part of the value of the Commonwealth for new nations – and particularly small ones – was that it introduced them to this larger world, and gave them a seat at the global table.
It gave them a voice, a presence, an identity, and a collective belonging.
The Commonwealth bestrode the whole world.
I cannot adequately stress the importance of this ‘free and equal association’ – of countries large and small, rich and poor, island and land-locked, home to people of every creed, on every continent and in every ocean – to our collective existence and destiny.
We are the image of the world itself.
One could say that the Commonwealth defies logic: of course we see the logic of global organisations, but what is the use, people ask, of a body without legal statute or mandate or planned architecture, which evolved without a founding charter of intent?
We may ask of the Commonwealth what we sometimes ask of God, that if it didn’t exist, would we feel the need to invent it?
It is my contention that the idiosyncrasies of this association make it the ‘special organisation’ that it is.
It is an organisation of its times, whose time had come in 1949 as the harbinger of a new era of a vast and diverse family of nations seeking equality as a human community.
It is one that has grown, and cannot be manufactured.
Its lack of outward or ‘hard’ power gives it the moral authority of its inner strength.
Its flexibility keeps it current, while it has remained remarkably steady in its awareness of its enlightened and humanist core.
It is a Commonwealth of four things.
It is firstly the ‘Commonwealth of Values’ – not just protecting but more importantly promoting the human rights, the rule of law and the democratic principles and practices which it believes are at the core of legitimate and fulfilled societies.
It is secondly the ‘Commonwealth of its Times’, moving – over six decades – with the need to address the ever-changing challenges of its members.
It is thirdly the ‘Commonwealth of the Vulnerable’, whose first priority is the poorest, the smallest, the most vulnerable countries – and, within them, the poorest, and the most marginalised and vulnerable of people.
And it is fourthly the ‘Commonwealth of Partnership’ – partnering both ‘within’ and ‘without’, sharing its wisdom and best practice across its networks, and exercising what I sometimes call a ‘wisdom function’ for the world.
Before returning to ‘the Values’, ‘the Times’ and ‘the Vulnerable’ – and still in the context of The Queen’s memorable phrase – let me briefly dwell on ‘Partnership’, because it speaks to the other two words in The Queen’s memorable phrase: ‘worldwide’, and ‘web’.
The Commonwealth is, in itself, a worldwide presence.
Within itself, it unites continents.
See the strength of the Commonwealth bloc in sub-Saharan Africa, and how in 1995 and then in 2009 it further brought in Mozambique and Cameroon, and then Rwanda – countries which wanted to join, and which were welcomed by their Commonwealth neighbours, and the wider membership.
Imagine the synergy between, for instance, our 12 Caribbean members and our 11 Pacific ones – mostly small, developing, island states set in large seas.
Small states the world over - landlocked or sealocked - experience all of the same vulnerabilities, but also have the same potential for diversification and the tapping of human resources.
The Commonwealth also includes some of the world’s largest countries, both in size and population, Asia in its vast expanse, and the emerging economies of the future.
Beyond its borders, too, the Commonwealth unites continents and has a worldwide presence.
As I said, it internationalised the idea of the emerging world community.
While the UN often reflected the world’s polarities, the Commonwealth joined hands around the world.
When Commonwealth Finance Ministers first conceived the ideas of bilateral debt relief in 1987 and multilateral relief in 1997, they were adopted by the world.
We can legitimately take credit for starting something that has now led to well over $100 billion of debt relief, in nearly 30 countries around the world.
When the Commonwealth developed its unique debt management software, it shared it with the world: some 65 countries now use it, including China, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.
When the Commonwealth pioneered model Recruitment Protocols to manage the flow of teachers and health workers from the developing to the developed world, it made them global products which are now used in the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation.
In the wake of 9/11, we gave the world our draft anti-terrorism and anti-moneylaundering laws.
When – with the World Bank’s willing support – we pioneered the Science of the Small State, we made it global.
The examples are numerous.
Two of the more recent ones come from the 2009 Heads of Government Meeting in Port of Spain, when our leaders were for the first time joined by non-Commonwealth leaders in the form of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen.
On the eve of the Copenhagen summit on climate change, we issued an impassioned statement of belief and intention, from a quarter of the world’s countries, many of whom face the very real and existential threat of climate change.
We pushed for a special $10 billion start-up fund – to help developing countries adapt to the impact of carbon imprints to which they have contributed virtually nothing, while bearing so many of the consequences.
The idea was accepted in Copenhagen and beyond.
Another example of the Commonwealth on the world stage came last June when, at the ground-breaking invitation of Prime Minister Harper of Canada, I flew to Toronto with the Secretary-General of the Francophonie, to meet Mr Harper, a fortnight before he hosted the G8 and G20 summits.
We did so on behalf of the one Francophone country and the five Commonwealth countries which are members of the G20, but also on behalf of all our members which are not represented at the G20 table.
Our message was one of inclusiveness, and sensitivity to those in need.
The G20 represents 10% of the world’s countries and 90% of its GDP: yet our belief is that its task is to be the ‘T20’ – the global trustees who always remember and never forget the 90% of the world’s countries which generate the remaining 10% of its GDP.
We lobbied the meeting on the need for innovative sources of development finance ...
... on the role of women in development (including a call for half a million more midwives to counter the shameful global scandal of half a million women dying in childbirth every year) ...
... and we also made a special plea for small states needing climate change finance to meet their existential challenges.
The results were seen in both Summit communiqués, and in the creation of a Development Working Group in the G20, with which we are now working closely.
So the Commonwealth remains a ‘great global good’ – the first words which escaped me when I was elected to this position.
As we are still looking backwards and round about, before we look forwards – what of the word ‘web’?
Think of webs, and most people think of the spider’s web.
But this is not quite the metaphor which fits the modern Commonwealth – not least because we always talk about a Commonwealth with no centre and no periphery.
As I said, the British Commonwealth has lapsed into history – and while our offices may be here in London, we are as much a Malawian as a Malaysian as a Maltese Commonwealth.
Instead, the Commonwealth’s centre is its culture of shared values and freedoms.
These values course along the lines of its web; they are the gossamer thread which binds it.
And the web itself is an extraordinarily intricate lattice of like-minded people, doing like-minded things – adding strand after strand to the web that was created 60 years ago.
Because the Commonwealth is not just about governments...
It is also about the 90 or so Commonwealth non-governmental organisations around the world – from Commonwealth businesspeople and parliamentarians, to Commonwealth lawyers, educationalists and journalists, to Commonwealth dentists and librarians, and almost all life in between.
The ‘web’ they represent keeps them in regular touch, sharing ideas and best ways of doing things, coming together over shared challenges and shared aspirations.
And the network goes much further still, into individual lives.
Major patterns of intra-Commonwealth migration have seen to that; as have our 25,000 Commonwealth scholars; as have flagship events like the Commonwealth Games (the so-called ‘Friendly Games’), or the annual Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
So, too, have major events like the People’s Forum, the Youth Forum and the Business Forum which take place around our Heads of Government Meetings – there is great energy and ebullience in these meetings, as much at party time as in plenary session.
Just two weeks ago, I attended a Commonwealth Small Business workshop in Chandigarh, India.
I met nearly 100 people from 30 countries – all absorbing information and sharing ideas on promoting small business competitive culture in their countries.
This is the power of the Commonwealth web – and also its interconnection.
Think again of the spider’s web: if – like a dewdrop – an idea lands, it should reverberate and be felt everywhere.
And the integrity and endurance of the whole rests upon the strength and connection made by every thread.
Thus far I have looked backwards and round about, in reflecting on The Queen’s description of the Commonwealth as ‘the original worldwide web’.
Let me now look forward at what I believe the technical experts call ‘Web2.0’, which I shall represent as the upgraded and interactive Commonwealth community as it enters the second decade of the 21st Century, building a new paradigm of partnership.
In referring earlier to ‘the Commonwealth of its Times’, I was making the point that we will always be breaking new ground: the work does not stand still.
The world and its needs move too fast for us to rest on any laurels.
From decolonisation to small states to debt to migration to HIV/AIDS to climate change to urbanisation, and particularly in serving our women and our young people, we have moved and will continue to move with our times.
So I shall now look forward, guided by those three same words given to us by The Queen.
First, I pick up the word ‘Original’, and look forward.
I said that our Commonwealth origins – and our continuing Commonwealth coherence – lie in our collective values.
These reflect the democratic journey on which all our member countries are embarked, and they have been refined and deepened over time.
Most recently, when our Heads of Government met in 2009 in Port of Spain, they were set down in a document called the Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles.
The word ‘Affirmation’ is apposite, because next Monday, at the Commonwealth Observance, a number of witnesses will lead the entire congregation in making what we call ‘Affirmations’, of shared conviction and aspiration.
But at that same Port of Spain meeting, our Heads recognized that their collective democratic aspirations needed both deeper and wider application.
We can and should do better.
Wherever I go, I sense that the Commonwealth of Values must be seen to be more active, and more vigilant, in turning its words into actions.
In this, some of you will be familiar with the work of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (or CMAG) – a rotating group of nine Foreign Ministers, with its focus on peer review and guardianship of the Commonwealth’s values and principles.
It has taken stands on what we term the ‘serious or persistent violation’ of those values and principles.
In its 15 years, seven countries have been on its agenda, of which five have been suspended.
Our Heads of Government have now asked CMAG to go further – beyond the unconstitutional overthrow of governments – into what they have termed ‘the full range’, of possible violations.
So this year, CMAG is aiming to move in that direction, and also to strengthen its scope to engage: being critical where it must be, but also engaging positively with offers of assistance.
It will do so in the cause not just of defending - but also of promoting - the political values which we cherish.
Our nature, remember, is always to support, to encourage, to affirm; to use quiet not megaphone diplomacy.
Some of you may also know that our independent Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (set up by Heads to offer new thinking) have discussed the options to reinforce and lift the bar of adherence to the rule of law.
While we must of course await the outcomes of Heads’ discussions in Perth in October, it is clear that there is momentum for us to be ever more practically serious about protecting and promoting our values.
It is clear that more of our member countries should be able to receive Commonwealth support.
This is our brand strength, in building the capacity and governance to entrench the democratic culture.
Sustainable capacity- and institution-building is at the heart of the Commonwealth contribution, in the work we are doing across our membership, strengthening bodies such as human rights commissions, electoral commissions, judiciaries, civil services, ombudsmen, and more.
Second, I return to the word ‘Worldwide’, and look forward with it.
The Commonwealth should remain a wellspring of wisdom for the world.
It is a facet of globalisation that borders are easily crossed, within and outside the Commonwealth.
So our task is to promote the good movement and to restrict the bad, and to remain globalists in outlook.
This is why, for the first time, we are creating a position to explore and promote strategic alliances with like-minded and supportive partners, to enlarge our global imprint.
Some of you may have seen the quarterly magazine, now in its sixth edition, which is pointedly called Global.
It aims to offer to the world global analysis, including from a Commonwealth perspective.
Across the board, we should see ever more globalisation of our work, with new partners in our member countries and the wider world.
This will not have the effect of spreading us too thinly – rather, it will spread our inclusive perspectives, and our positive reach, far and wide.
For instance, as we continue to press for a rules-based global trade deal, we will extend our current work in training trade negotiators from Commonwealth countries, to those of all needy countries in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific regions.
I mentioned our work with the G20 and its Development Working Group before: nothing could be more worldwide in its application, and already the Commonwealth Small States Economic Resilience Index is in use by that Group, and by the World Bank.
Similarly, our longstanding advocacy and support to women and young people is increasingly shared far and wide.
It needs to be: for who can have failed to notice the numbers of women and of young people we have seen demonstrating on our television screens in the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’?
That is why we develop and market our work in tapping the entrepreneurial potential of young people.
Our approach is holistic: it involves the identifying, the educating, the training, and the mentoring of young entrepreneurs.
It also involves seeking support beyond government sources, from international finance institutions, regional organisations, banks, and businesses.
Last year saw successful models of ‘character lending’ in India and Kenya multiplying in those countries, and we are spreading the message to other member countries.
And the year also saw us finding new ways of securing what we call ‘gender-responsive investment’, to fund women entrepreneurs.
It is a service we offer to the world.
Third in this matrix of words, I return to the word ‘Web’, and look forward.
How do we ensure that our Commonwealth networks old and new, are strengthened?
There are several ways, and the greatest of those is what we call ‘Commonwealth Connects’.
This builds on our belief that information and communication technology is a transformative ingredient both of democracy and development.
‘Connects’ is an ambitious project, which can really mean that the Commonwealth holds hands around the world, connecting people, ideas and aspirations.
In essence, it will be a monumental website – part-Google, part-Wikipedia, part-eBay, part-Facebook.
It aims to do three things, as an internet gateway ...
To inform, as a massive repository of information and best practice.
To connect, as a huge address book linking key players across the world.
And to transact: partnerships and business deals will come from it.
The project is well underway, and aiming for a launch of three initial windows – one for youth, one for enterprise, and one for democracy – in time for CHOGM in October.
The monumental web that is ‘Connects’ can tie together all our mini-webs – those businesspeople, parliamentarians, lawyers, educationalists, journalists, dentists and librarians I mentioned, and many more.
A component strand that is particularly dear to me is the new Network of Commonwealth Election Management Bodies which met for the first time last year, and which will share much of its best practice electronically.
Credibility of our elections is the biggest service we can render to our citizens. The catastrophic consequences of failed elections are all too frequently before us.
Another of our webs which we can strengthen by technology is our network of small states.
This, I should say, has now found expression in the creation of a Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva as from this month.
A week ago, I was there to welcome its first tenant, in the presence of supporters.
We trust it will emerge as the hub of small states activity and profile-building – and thus of equitable international relations – in the crucial areas pursued in Geneva such as trade, human rights, health and labour.
They say that the sky is the limit, and of course it is communications done in the sky by satellite - and underground by cable - that will propel us ever upwards in making the best of our networks.
The Commonwealth was a network of networks in the 20th Century, which found 20th Century ways of meeting, sharing and transacting.
Now, in the 21st Century, the Commonwealth is using technology to remain a contemporary and dynamic web of networks.
Friends of the Commonwealth, may I end where I began, with Edward Carpenter’s exhortation that we are to think “not only of all Christian people, but of all mankind”?
And here, may I quote my esteemed predecessor as Secretary-General, Sir Sridath Ramphal of Guyana, who gave this One People Oration in 1988.
In it, he reflected on man’s landing on the moon, 19 years earlier.
He wrote this:
‘As man stood on the moon and looked at earth, what he saw was oneness; one planet earth, not the separate worlds we strive so hard to sustain.
How petty, from that vantage point, are the divisions of race and tribe, of creed and country, which remain central features of the ‘civilisation’ we boast of, in our vanity.’
Eloquent words as always, for a powerful idea, of the value of our shared humanity, and its latent enemy: what Sonny called the ‘vile curse of otherness’ – that force which makes us see others as different, and as worse than ourselves.
He even quoted the rock-star Sting, whom even I have heard of ... : ‘One world is enough – for all of us’.
Now I happen to give this lecture in a place of Christian worship, but my message would as well be said in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or indeed in a public house or a shopping centre or a stadium.
It concerns so many of the things I have spoken of tonight – and especially that four-fold Commonwealth of Values, Commonwealth of its Times, Commonwealth of the Vulnerable, and Commonwealth of Partnership.
It was Nelson Mandela who, when he brought South Africa back into the Commonwealth in 1994, said that ‘the Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity’.
We are home to all – to people of every language, every ethnic background, every faith.
The Commonwealth treasures its religious traditions, and it also puts them in context.
In the wake of the 9/11 killings in the US, our Heads asked us to look at some of the causes of the fractures in our societies, and with making recommendations as to how we can mend them.
What followed was a seminal report, of value not just to the Commonwealth but to the world.
It was produced by a Commonwealth Commission chaired by Amartya Sen, and entitled Civil Paths to Peace.
I warmly commend it to you.
It stressed that we have ‘multiple identities’, not just religious ones.
It argued that humiliation is to grievance what salt is to wounds: it adds insult to injury for oppressed people, leading to frustration and violence.
It built a case that ethnic or religious identities are rarely the root causes of conflict: people fight, it said, to wrest empowerment or maintain hegemony.
The Economist magazine commended it for, I quote, ‘some nuggets of very tough-minded thinking about the dangers of putting people into neat boxes – and the cynical way in which ethnic or tribal warlords or nationalist and religious zealots always try to shoehorn people into simple, unchanging categories because it suits their political purposes, and keeps conflict on the boil’.
The report went much further in focusing on the areas in which societies can concentrate their efforts to build respect and understanding.
It found that the crucibles of debate – the anvils on which societies are forged – are young people, women, education and the media.
All of these are areas in which we in the Commonwealth have purchase, and sway.
So the Commonwealth stands tall and sees far, and always, ultimately, returns to its principles, to its values, and to its shared humanity, and to the search for practical engagement and outcomes.
We espouse the Southern African notion of Ubuntu, that ‘I am, because you are, because we are’.
I recall talking at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies a few years ago, and asking how different can we be, if the following is our guide to ideal conduct?
Muslims say: ‘no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself’;
Christians say: ‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you’;
The Jews say: ‘what is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man’;
Hindus say: ‘do naught unto another which would cause pain if done to you’;
Sikhs say: ‘treat others as you would be treated yourself’;
Buddhists say: ‘hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful’.
All, in other words, preach the love of neighbour, and this is the tenor of the words that you will hear again when the Commonwealth comes back here to the Abbey next Monday, for the Observance.
As we celebrate ‘the original worldwide web’ and the way it has evolved, let us always return to the humanity and affirmation which underpins it.
The Commonwealth is home for all, and can be for the good of all.
It makes the whole world a neighbourhood.
This lecture is the One People Oration, and we in the Commonwealth are One People.
The Commonwealth does indeed tell us how to ‘think of all mankind’.