The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) – is mostly made up of Presidents and Prime Ministers – takes place once every two years and is a rare opportunity for leaders of the highest level to discuss global and Commonwealth issues.
Having previously taken place in a variety of locations from the United Kingdom to Zimbabwe, this year – which is the 60th anniversary of the Modern Commonwealth – the meeting took place in Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain from 27 to 29 November.
With 34 Heads of State or Government present, Queen Elizabeth II, the Head of the Commonwealth opened the meeting which saw Rwanda welcomed as the 54th country to join the Commonwealth family.
Speaking of Zimbabwe and looking forward to the potential return to the Commonwealth, Heads of Government welcomed the Global Political Agreement on power-sharing in Zimbabwe and expressed the hope that this would be implemented faithfully and effectively.
Other issues discussed in the meeting included the staple matters of the Commonwealth such as Human Rights, Trade and the World Economic Situation, as well as more contemporaneous issues such as Terrorism and Climate Change.
Particularly focusing on Climate Change, Commonwealth leaders recognised that member states are entering an intense phase with the need to prepare their economies and societies for climate change. It was pointed out that particular emphasis should be placed on supporting small states and the least developed countries to advance strategies and policy frameworks on adaption and towards carbon-neutral and climate resilient countries.
Issues at the meeting are discussed in a private, informal setting known as the ‘Retreat’, designed to encourage full and frank exchange of views, with decisions being reached by consensus.
In the past, Africa has often featured heavily in these meetings with contemporaneous issues dictating which country and which issue has been discussed.
South Africa in particular has been a frequent subject of discussion. As apartheid became an increasingly contentious issue, South Africa was discussed at the meeting in March 1961. During this meeting, the leaders agreed that racial equality was a cardinal principle of the Commonwealth, and this assertion obliged apartheid South Africa to withdraw its application to the Commonwealth.
South Africa was also discussed in the 1977 and 1981 meetings as their policies were criticised for perpetuating the interrelated problems of Southern Africa and for attempting to destabilise its neighbours. The subsequent Gleneagles Agreement discouraged sporting links with South Africa.
1985 saw the Commonwealth Accord on Southern Africa demand the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and agree a range of measures to put pressure on the Pretoria regime. Progress was reviewed in 1986 in London and strong economic sanctions backed by intensive efforts to obtain international support were decided upon.
Pressure for change in South Africa was increased in the 1987 Vancouver meeting through the Okanagan Statement and Programme of Action; and in 1989 the ‘Southern Africa: The Way Ahead’ statement was issued aiming to maintain pressure on the Pretoria regime and to bring peace and democracy to South Africa.
Finally in the 1995 meeting in Auckland, South Africa was welcomed back as a member. Having resolved its past issues, this meeting saw the end of the vast coverage of South Africa in Commonwealth discussions.
Other African countries have also been the frequent subject of Commonwealth discussions. Zimbabwe’s independence was discussed in 1979 as Heads of Government confirmed their commitment to majority rule on this matter.
Zimbabwe hosted the 1991 meeting where significantly, the Harare Commonwealth Declaration was issued. Commonwealth action was later determined for Zimbabwe in 2002 and was affirmed in 2003 as Heads of Government pledged to encourage and assist in the process of national reconciliation. This ultimately resulted in Zimbabwe withdrawing from the Commonwealth.
Rhodesia featured in the 1966 meeting – the first to take place outside of the United Kingdom – as a committee was set up to review UN sanctions against Rhodesia and a training programme was launched for Rhodesian Africans. Later that year, the UK heeded the Commonwealth sentiment and announced that Rhodesia would not be granted independence without majority rule.
Namibia was discussed in both the 1975 and the 1981 meetings pre-empting its independence and membership to the Commonwealth, as well as ensuring that its right to self-determination be respected.
Nigeria also went through a difficult time with the Commonwealth, after being suspended in 1995 for a serious violation of the Harare Declaration’s principles. It was, however, welcomed back to full membership in 1999 following democratic elections earlier in the year.
Mozambique and Uruguay had relatively brief appearances in these meetings as the former became the Commonwealth’s 53rd member in 1995, and the latter’s need for a successful outcome in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations was discussed in 1993.
Africa has also had a positive role to play in the Commonwealth discussions as Nigeria’s diplomat and former Foreign Minister, Chief Emeka Anyaoku was elected as the third Commonwealth Secretary-General in 1990.
The next CHOGM will take place in Australia in 2011. Sri Lanka and Mauritius will hold the meetings respectively in 2013 and 2015.