Columns -Thoughts from London

Mini- summit paves way for institutional reforms

By Neville de Silva

It was intended to be the first step in a Commonwealth initiative to push for the reform of such vital global institutions as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Personally I was somewhat sceptical about the influence of the Commonwealth in effecting critical changes that would not only reflect the contemporary scene in world politics but more importantly perhaps, a more equitable distribution of power and influence within them. Certainly the Commonwealth would probably be able to influence a restructuring of the UN to make it more responsive to current needs and the distribution of power.

The Commonwealth has 53 members representing the developed and developing world and numbers do matter when it comes to reforming the UN at the highest level such as the Security Council and the UN agencies. Since these decisions would be taken at the General Assembly level numbers count. But my doubts were with regard to the Bretton Woods twins, the World Bank and the IMF. Substantial, if not preponderant influence and power in these two financial institutions seems to me to lie outside the Commonwealth, with countries such as the United States, Japan, Germany, France and China all of which are of course non-Commonwealth members.

I remember that six or seven years ago there was a conference at the nearby Lancaster House where the independence of Zimbabwe was worked out which also discussed the Bretton Woods institutions, the need to change what was then and even now called the “architecture” of these institutions. The same basics were discussed. But very little seems to have happened in substantive terms to make these institutions more meaningful to the developing countries and to broad base their power and decision making.

I did raise this question with the Commonwealth’s new Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma after the press conference with the heads of governments or their representatives at the mini summit.

Unfortunately the press conference did not leave very much time for questions so I had to do so later as Mr Sharma was seeing off the Commonwealth leaders from Marlborough House. Sharma’s take on this made sense. He argues that many members of the Commonwealth are also members of other organisations, global or regional. As examples he would cite Asean, the non-aligned movement, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and similar groupings.

Some Commonwealth members are also members of one or more of these organisations and so straddle them. Through this intertwining of membership the Commonwealth could bring more influence to bear on countries outside its own sphere of influence as it were Sharma also pointed out that it was the head of the IMF that approached the Commonwealth on the question of reform. What is important to note here, Sharma said, is that the IMF itself is seeking ideas and collective opinion on the way forward and how it could better reflect today’s world instead of persisting with a system that emerged from the ashes of the last world war.

If one looks at the voting strength as a percentage of total votes of the top 21 countries with voting power in their own right, there are only four Commonwealth countries-Australia, Canada, India and the UK.. Collectively these four Commonwealth members have 11.11% of voting power. On the other hand, US alone hold 16.79% as a percentage of total voting strength, according to last year’s statistics.

Others holding votes are Japan, Germany, China, Italy and France. The rest of the world outside the top 21- that is some 165 countries- have 28.76%. Moreover, the managing director of the IMF always comes from Europe while the president of the World Bank comes from the US. So the top positions of the two Bretton Woods institutions are shared by the rich western nations.

Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Director of Economic Affairs of the Commonwealth Secretariat, later told me that UK and India have directors on the IMF board so the Commonwealth has a foot in the door, if one puts it that way. That might be comforting but the question now is to see that the mandate given by the Commonwealth leaders in Kampala last year on a proposal by British prime minister Gordon Brown is translated into a well thought out plan of action. For sure Gordon Brown is very committed to these changes and it is profitable to see that an influential member of the western world is leading the charge on behalf of the Commonwealth.

An Extraordinary Meeting of Commonwealth leaders is due to be held in New York in late September ahead of the UN general assembly sessions. Overall it was a wise decision by Sri Lanka to participate in the mini summit. Doubtless there were detractors who would have preferred if Sri Lanka and President Rajapaksa stayed out of it. There were those who are believed to have advised him not to attend even the Kampala Commonwealth heads summit last year saying that it does not serve much purpose.

Fortunately they have been proved to be wrong. For one thing this mini summit represented countries with widely differing situations- from small states to developing countries and emerging markets such as Malaysia. Their problems are sharply different. Countries such as the Maldives and Tonga have some problems as small island states, while Uganda, according to its President Yoweri Museveni, is a food surplus nation while we are a food importing one seriously affected by the global food scarcity.

Given the diversity of the Commonwealth- and obviously more diverse than that presented by the group that gathered in London- it was good that Sri Lanka got its oar in and presented the case of a country with a different set of problems. When that Plan of Action is being formulated we should be able to provide the necessary input that reflects the problems of Sri Lanka and other countries such as ours as it has participated in the inaugural. But it was not the summit itself that proved useful. It is also the interaction that occurred with other Commonwealth leaders. Consider for instance countries such as Tonga, Guyana Trinidad and Tobago. Sri Lanka has little to do with these countries, no trade worth talking about if we have any trade at all, and possibly some loose connection through belonging to the Commonwealth and other organisations that cut across continents.But these countries have votes in the UN. One cannot be certain how they voted at the recent election to the UNHRC, probably left it to their ambassadors at the UN to decide. What they know of the Sri Lanka situation is mainly through the media, and western media at that, or through hearsay which may or may not paint an accurate picture of some of the problems such as the terrorism Sri Lanka is forced to confront. Years of neglect in engaging sufficiently with these countries at least at the multilateral level often leaves us bereft of support when we need it.

The interaction outside the meeting room allowed President Rajapaksa to give his side of the story to some of the leaders who were not adequately acquainted with the situation at home.

He told me so when I met him later at an hour long meeting. Engagement was also possible at other levels where foreign minister Bogollagama met up with other ministers who had accompanied their leaders to the summit or with their officials and also with British ministers and parliamentarians. The problem of course is this kind of interaction and its positive consequences cannot be quantified and successful diplomacy is seen in some tangible form only much later.

The question now is whether the dialogue that has been going on for the last few years at the multilateral and bilateral levels through the Commonwealth and with the British government would be continued with the same vigour and the same nuanced approach in the years to come. One does not have to be clairvoyant to anticipate developments in Sri Lanka in the coming years that would need to be explained at both bilateral and multilateral levels with sensitivity and understanding given the growing emphasis in the West on human rights and media freedom. With the almost wholesale changing of the guard at our diplomatic mission in London at a critical time, as some of the British MPs who spoke with President Rajapaksa were to remark to him, one only hopes that the successors will be up to the task.

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