The next Commonwealth Secretary General

In November 2015 the Commonwealth will have to choose a new Secretary General. The position, once occupied by high-profile globally known figures, has in recent years lost much of its lustre as the organisation has become less central as its office holders have failed to rise to the vital international role the body could play.

It seems, too, that the organisation has lost its moral compass, and as a consequence its importance, and with it, its relevance to many Heads of Government, as evidenced by their declining attendance at biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM).

In this context, for some, the Commonwealth reached a low point in 2013 when, despite widespread protests, the present Secretary General decided to proceed with holding CHOGM in Sri Lanka despite extensive Commonwealth and international criticism of that country’s human rights record against its minority Tamil population.

There is now the opportunity for the Commonwealth to change direction and for the Caribbean, if it is so minded, to play a central role in that process.

That is if the region is able to come together behind one well-qualified, strong and experienced candidate able to turn the organisation around, who has the capacity to provide a new form of leadership, and inspire its staff whose low morale and drift needs addressing as a matter of urgency.

Although there appears to be no written rule by which any part of the Commonwealth is able to attain the most senior position in the institution, it has up to now been generally accepted that the post rotates between regions. This means that, assuming the candidate proposed has the right qualities, the next Secretary General should come from the Commonwealth Caribbean.

The role, which was last held by the Caribbean up to 1990 by Sir Shridath Ramphal, requires the incumbent to protect the Commonwealth’s values; to represent the Commonwealth publicly; and to manage the Commonwealth Secretariat. In reality, however, much depends on the manner in which this is interpreted, the candidate’s vision, and their ability to achieve results through a mix of diplomacy and brokered consensus.

The name of the Caribbean’s nominee for the post of Commonwealth Secretary General is expected to be decided on December 8 in Havana in the margins of the Cuba-CARICOM Summit. As a consequence, over the last months the region has been giving informal consideration to the Caribbean individual best able to undertake the role.

There are three potential Caribbean candidates.

There is Baroness Patricia Scotland whose name has been put forward by Dominica and is supported by Barbados and Belize; seemingly in the latter case on the basis of a trade-off in relation to another key international post. Although Dominica born, her candidacy has taken many by surprise as her career has been in London in the law and British politics, most recently being Britain’s Attorney General under its last Labour Government. Although well liked as a person, her candidacy is described as ‘tainted’ by a number or influential regional political and academic figures. This is because she is widely regarded as Britain’s candidate for the role, and damagingly there is also the view that she forfeited Caribbean trust when she supported Britain’s decision to invade Iraq and, it is said, she did not do enough to support the region as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister.

The second candidate is the diplomat, consultant, academic and commentator, Sir Ronald Sanders, who is now believed to have the support of seven Caribbean nations. Nominated by Antigua’s Prime Minister, Gaston Brown, he has by far and away the broadest Commonwealth experience and background, having played a key role in Commonwealth affairs over many years including in the Eminent Persons Group that reported in 2011 on the future direction and reform of the organisation. Unusually, he is well known across the region because of the sometimes forthright views expressed in his syndicated column. He is also well regarded in both the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ Commonwealth and has published many papers on the organisations future.

The third Caribbean candidate is an academic and politician, Senator Bhoe Tewarie. As Trinidad’s candidate and the Republic’s Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development, he appears to have only emerged as a result of some in the country wishing to deny the candidacy to another Trinidadian, who is a regionally and internationally respected senior politician. Senator Tewarie in comparison is little known in the Commonwealth and appears to have little relevant experience.

Whoever finally becomes Commonwealth Secretary General in 2015 will be taking over at a moment when the global strategic order is changing, and there is a growing belief that with the right leadership and vision, the shared values that bind the Commonwealth will again become of global significance.

For this reason, when the Caribbean comes to decide, it would do well to select a candidate who is in touch with regional sentiment, can engage with the detail, has a known world view, is able to relate to all of the nations of the Commonwealth large and small, and who is prepared to redefine its role as a stronger, more resilient and progressive organisation.

It is already late in the day. Whoever is selected has very few months in which to campaign globally for the position.

Beyond the Caribbean there are Commonwealth views emerging that if the region does not put up a credible candidate who can obtain the support of both the larger and smaller member nations, other less able candidates will emerge from Africa or elsewhere, and the Caribbean’s opportunity to encourage and participate in the process of global change will be gone.

At issue is whether Caribbean Heads of Government have the courage to see that by proposing a candidate who has clear views, is experienced and is delivery and results oriented, it will be taking a step that would not only be popular on the street, but can propel the region, its values, and the need to recognise smallness and vulnerability, into a position of international prominence again.

For the Caribbean, this is an opportunity to look ahead at a time of rapidly changing global geopolitics and relationships. It is a one-off chance to offer as a candidate the best qualified individual to rebuild an organisation whose time has come again.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at