Thu | Jul 7, 2022

UK peddling may hurt legitimacy of Commonwealth chief – Lib Dem peer

Published:Wednesday | June 22, 2022 | 12:12 AM
Lord Purvis of Tweed
Lord Purvis of Tweed
Iakoba Italeli (left), prospective candidate for the job of Commonwealth secretary general, and Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe in Kigali, Rwanda.
Iakoba Italeli (left), prospective candidate for the job of Commonwealth secretary general, and Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe in Kigali, Rwanda.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jeremy Purvis has warned that any attempt by the United Kingdom to unduly influence the outcome of the Commonwealth secretary general election may erode trust in the secretariat moving forward.

Referring to Boris Johnson's decision to back the candidature of Jamaica's Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith, Lord Purvis has also urged caution against the blurring of lines between British government policy and how the network of Commonwealth countries, as partners and equals, is managed.

“I'm anxious that any position of secretary general, if it's considered that one country, the UK, has tried to shape the agenda of who serves as secretary general, I think that limits their ability to have legitimacy across the whole of the network,” he said in a Gleaner interview on Tuesday.

The British prime minister has been accused by supporters of Commonwealth Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland of using backchannels to oust the former Labour minister in favour of Johnson Smith, who, they say, would be a passive replacement.

In his public endorsement of Johnson Smith just over a month ago, Johnson said “she has vast experience and support” to unite the Commonwealth.

Jamaica's Johnson Smith has denied being a proxy candidate likely to do the UK prime minister's bidding,

Johnson's opposition to Scotland's stewardship has been pillared by allegations of mismanagement within the secretariat, all of which have been flatly denied by the secretary general.

Lord Purvis conceded that the management of the Commonwealth Secretariat has been rocked by controversy.

“However, the times where the UK can determine who the secretary general is, are over,” he asserted.

He said that the strength of the Commonwealth is premised on its position that all 54 member countries are equal, and that there can be no outsize weight by the UK, Australia, and Canada, as foundation states, in determining who runs the secretariat.

“We can't set the agenda of the Commonwealth, nor can we determine who is the secretary general of it. But we, as equal partners, are able to have a position on how it is run – transparency, efficiency, accountability. So, on this issue, every single member has to make their own decision,” he said.

There has been strong opposition to an extension of Scotland's four-year tenure, which ended in March 2020 but was extended by two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It has been the tradition to allow for a second term, if requested by the incumbent.

However, Johnson, after canvassing Commonwealth heads of government, reported that consensus could not be reached on a second term for Scotland.

Jamaica's announcement of Johnson Smith's candidature in April, and Tuvalu's decision to field former governor general Sir Iakoba Italeli, have further threatened Scotland's reign, which had already been clouded by alleged breaches of tender requirements and procurement rules.

The latter issues have caused the suspension of discretionary funding to the secretariat by the UK, Australia, and New Zealand governments, crippling the organisation's ability to fund programmes beneficial to small island developing states.

The blowback is expected to impact Scotland's chances of re-election, with Italeli insisting that her departure from office will see a return of funding.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that Boris Johnson's tweet of endorsement for Kamina Johnson Smith was deleted. Johnson's tweet remains on his personal UK government account (@BorisJohnson). Checks had been initially made on the office of prime minister's account @10DowningStreet). We apologise for the error.

David Salmon and Kimone Francis