Europe

Is the Commonwealth of Nations still relevant?

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Speaking with SBS News to mark Commonwealth Day, Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland shares why the group of 53 nations is still important today.

It is a question Baroness Patricia Scotland has been asked hundreds of times in her two years as Commonwealth of Nations secretary general.

But she believes the group of 53 nations remains relevant today.

"We have so much in common. We share the same language, the same parliamentary structure, the same common law and the same values,' Baroness Scotland said. 

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Secretary General on the future of the Commonwealth Games
Secretary General on the future of the Commonwealth Games

Speaking with SBS News to mark Commonwealth Day, the annual celebration of the organisation which was formally constituted in 1949, Baroness Scotland said it has been boosted by the Brexit vote as Britain looks for partnerships away from the European Union.

"The United Kingdom made it really clear that they wanted to take advantage of Commonwealth Trade. It's potentially cheaper, better, easier for us to trade with each other," she said.

There will be more change coming to the Commonwealth.

When the Queen passes away, the position of Head of the Commonwealth will become vacant.

But it is not a hereditary role, meaning Prince Charles will not automatically succeed his mother.

A recent BBC report suggested some nations are lobbying for a democratically elected figurehead, with a high-level group meeting already discussing the process.

But Baroness Scotland insists that is not the case.

"I'm afraid that's one of those classic cases of misinformation. That is absolutely not on the agenda for the high-level group and I don't know how that story got legs but it has no basis in fact," she told SBS News.

"The only thing I can say is that this issue is one for the heads of government and they'll decide. I know there's a lot of speculation about it."

A former UK attorney-general and member of the House of Lords, Baroness Scotland's two years as secretary general have not been without controversy.

There were reports of extravagant spending on the refurbishment of her official residence and suggestions some Commonwealth leaders are unhappy with the way the secretariat has been governed.

She insists changes have been made.

"We understood that people wanted a greater degree of clarity in terms of what the outcomes are. The Commonwealth has always been really good at working with our member states. But one of the things perhaps we haven't been good at traditionally is articulating how good that work has been," Baroness Scotland said.

The recent return of The Gambia to the Commonwealth fold has been seen a positive step for the organisation.

Baroness Scotland says the door remains open for Zimbabwe to re-join, should its government commit to improving human rights in the country.

"We're hearing some really promising noises. Countries have to make an application to re-join," she told SBS News.

"But I have noticed with real pleasure that suggestions are being made that after this new election anticipated this summer, that this might be something that will happen."

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Secretary General on Gambia returning to the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe possibly coming back
Secretary General on Gambia returning to the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe possibly coming back

The Commonwealth Games remain the highest profile event the organisation is associated with, but their purpose has been questioned amid waning interest from some countries.

“I think they're amazingly important. The Commonwealth is a family. People talk about the games being the friendly games because that's what they are," Baroness Scotland said.

While preparations for the Gold Coast games are on track, the 2022 edition saw Durban withdraw to be replaced by Birmingham.

Concerns there will be no bidders for 2026 are premature, according to the secretary general.

"I don't want to give away any secrets, but I understand there's already a healthy anticipation that someone's going to step up for the next games," Baroness Scotland said.

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