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McKinnon Speech: Advancing Global Citizenship

Speech by the Commonwealth Secretary-General Rt Hon Don McKinnon

“Advancing Global Citizenship: The Role of the Commonwealth”

Royal Society of Arts, Scotland, Glasgow 14 October 2004

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me begin by telling you something startling about the Commonwealth as it is known in parts of the world, even here in some corners of Glasgow. It doesn't exist. It is anachronistic. It is dead.

That should cause no controversy when I say that, but it will. It will be uncomfortable for those who still view the organisation through the comforting prism of what it used to be. What I mean is that the British Commonwealth was left behind with the last century, even if the term still lingers on. Today, we are no more the British Commonwealth than the United States is the British USA. It's hard to believe at times when one reads the papers, here or internationally. My home is in the South Pacific, and countries like mine, and indeed the rest of the Commonwealth membership, have moved forward even if some editors have not.

This is not to say that Britain does not have a special role given its place in our organisation’s history. And we remain grateful for Britain’s continuing generous support.

But I am here this evening to talk to you about the modern Commonwealth - a global partnership of governments and citizens where everyone is equal in the eyes of everyone else. None are more equal than others. It is unique and it is inherently positive in outlook. And these are the sorts of reasons why governments and individuals seek to join it. I am here to talk in particular, about the role of the modern Commonwealth in advancing global citizenship. I'm also very pleased to be with you to celebrate the RSA's 250th anniversary - all the more so since I have recently become a Fellow of the RSA myself. I would like to thank the RSA – Scotland and in particular your Honorary Chair, Ann Packard for inviting me to speak to you tonight.

The 4th Century BC marked the beginning of a period of deep crisis in the Greek world. The Greek city states had, until then, provided citizens with a sense of security and belonging. But with the rise of new empires, they came under increasing threat, leaving people feeling lost and disoriented.

It is no coincidence, then, that the notion of “Cosmopolitan” – or “citizen of the world” – first appeared during that period. In an environment where the foundations of the city state were becoming eroded, people were looking to the wider world for a sense of stability and order.

Today also, being a “citizen of the world” is becoming increasingly relevant. Our interconnected world is bringing people ever closer together. Events taking place in one part of the world can have wide-ranging effects on everyone’s life.

Financial markets collapsing in one region of the world can trigger a recession in another region. The decision to lower interest rates in one country could mean less buying power for pensioners in another. And the pollution we produce can affect the living standards of people in faraway countries.

More and more, people talk about “global responsibility” and “global citizenship”. But what do we mean by that?

At face value, “global citizenship” is an intriguing notion. Originally, a citizen was someone who lived in a city. And “citizenship” defined the rights and obligations that came with living in a city and, by extension, a country. But “global” refers to the entire world. How can you be a citizen, not of a country, but of the entire world?

“World citizenship” doesn’t give you any rights. If you claim that you’re a “citizen of the world”, no one will give you a passport. And you can’t be put on trial because you’ve been a bad global citizen.

But in fact, global citizenship is less about who you are than about what you do and your outlook on the world.

It means, for example, being concerned about the human rights of our fellow human beings. It means being concerned about the fact that, this morning, 150 million children did not go to school, because they have no school to go to and that, tonight, one out of five people will go to bed with an empty stomach.

Being a “global citizen” also means being aware of the fact that our decisions as consumers can sometimes have an important impact on the lives and livelihoods of people in other parts of the world.

It means asking questions about the food we eat and the clothes we buy: where were they made? Under what conditions? Are the workers getting their fair share of the profits?

Our world has experienced globalisation in the areas of trade, finance, communications, even, to some extent, culture. But we have yet to develop a sense of global identity that matches this new global environment.

This is not to say that local, regional or national forms of identity should be abandoned. But globalisation will only bring peace and shared wealth if, alongside the globalisation of trade and markets, we develop a sense of global solidarity.

And this, I believe, is where the Commonwealth has a special role to play. International solidarity works better when it is based on a sense of common belonging.

Today, I would like to talk to you about the role the Commonwealth can play in the world as a global family of nations. I would like to describe how the Commonwealth can help develop a sense of global responsibility and encourage us to look at ourselves as global citizens.

In particular, I will outline the work of the Commonwealth in the areas of consensus building, democracy and the fight against poverty.

1. The Commonwealth: a global family

The Commonwealth of Nations as established in 1949 is a global forum for sharing ideas, exchanging knowledge and establishing a cultural dialogue among equal partners.

This form of global exchange happens every time a Nigerian engineer goes to Bangladesh to help on an irrigation project. It happens every time a student from Canada spends a year at the University of New Delhi on a Commonwealth Scholarship. It happens every time Commonwealth election commissioners meet to discuss ways of making democracy more effective.

The Commonwealth comes alive and visible by the efforts of thousands of individuals who, through their knowledge and expertise, help each other to grow. These networks and partnerships contribute to a global dialogue in which citizens from every part of the Commonwealth benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience of the world.

This is possible because, as Commonwealth citizens, we share a common identity, common values and traditions, and we speak the same language.

But when I say we speak the same language, I do not mean English pure and simple. We speak the same language of our institutions: the political institutions, education systems, administrative, legal and customs structures.

When an Australian businesswoman lands in South Africa, for example, she finds herself in a familiar environment: she speaks the language, understands the government structures, and instantly recognises commercial institutions and business practices. In other words, she can ‘hit the ground running’.

From Botswana to Nauru, from Canada to Guyana, Commonwealth schoolchildren are able to connect in a special way, not only because the institutions are the same, but because their school experience and their outlook on the world are often very similar.

This community of spirit which runs through the entire Commonwealth has, of course, its roots in history. The Commonwealth, as you know, evolved out of the history of the British Empire to form a partnership of sovereign states.

As John Darwin said in his chronology of the end of the British Empire, “The British ‘empire’ was a constitutional hotch-potch of independent, semi-independent and dependent countries, held together not by formal allegiance to a mother-country but by economic, strategic, political or cultural links that varied greatly in strength and character.”

This, among other things, is what makes the Commonwealth unique: it is both very diverse, including a multiplicity of religious and cultural groups spread across every continent and ocean in the world, and it is strongly united around common principles and shared traditions. It also includes countries that were under French, German and Portuguese rule.

The Commonwealth is not only an organisation of governments, it is a community of people who share the same values and aspirations and come together to form partnerships and build alliances. It is a community of equals, based on a common sense of identity and belonging. It is, in this sense, an international organisation “with a soul”.

2. Building consensus

Another asset of the Commonwealth is its capacity to bring about consensus among a diversity of nations.

In a world where there is a multiplicity of actors, it is crucial that every voice is heard. As long as we only hear part of the story, we are only going to get part of the solution. And no global problem can be solved by ignoring the voice of the poor and the vulnerable.

This is why the decision-making process best suited to our interconnected world is multilateralism.

The Commonwealth is a network that cuts across networks. Any consensus reached within this diverse group has an excellent chance of winning support more widely, and this has been proven in more than one instance.

One example is the Commonwealth Statement on Terrorism issued by our leaders shortly after 9/11. It is worth emphasising that this statement does not merely condemn acts of terrorism. It established that any member country which supports terrorists is in violation of the fundamental values of the Commonwealth and has no place in our organisation.

Since then, the Secretariat has been developing model legislation and implementation kits to assist member countries with the adoption of appropriate counter-terrorism measures.

This shows that the Commonwealth, which embraces a broad diversity of countries – rich and poor, large and small, island and land-locked – can offer a real alternative to unilateral forms of decision-making.

Decision-making in the Commonwealth is by consensus. There are no majorities and minorities, increasing the commitment of all to the agreements reached on issues of common concern. This inclusive process means that everyone is party to the final decision and no one is left out in the cold.

3. Human rights and democracy

Consensus also strengthens our commitment to common values. This is very important, particularly when human rights are concerned.

When we hear about human rights abuses in faraway countries, we are, of course, shocked and we feel sympathy for the victims. But we sometimes also take comfort in the fact that those abuses are taking place thousands of miles away. That should not be a source of comfort. We are all threatened when the rights of a fellow human being are being abused.

When a woman is tortured because of her political beliefs, when a journalist is put in prison because he told the truth, when a child is forced to work instead of going to school, when a man is denied a job because of the colour of his skin, it’s not somebody else’s business. It’s my business, it’s your business, it’s everyone’s business.

Human rights are our common good. We all have a personal interest in defending them. That’s why the Commonwealth is serious about defending human rights and democracy.

It doesn’t just claim to be committed to the protection and promotion of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, good governance, equality for women, sustainable development and universal access to education. It actually does something about it.

The Commonwealth’s shared values and principles are outlined in a Declaration adopted by CW leaders in 1991 in Harare.

But our leaders felt that it was not enough simply to declare their commitment to a set of fundamental principles. They thought it was important to show that the Commonwealth actually lived up to these principles.

So in 1995, they decided to set up the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Declaration (CMAG). This “democracy watchdog”, which consists of nine Foreign Ministers, is empowered with measures to deal with serious or persistent violations of the Harare Principles.

There are plenty of examples to show that the Commonwealth does not merely pay lip service to its fundamental political values.

In 1995, Nigeria was suspended from membership but has since rightfully returned to the Commonwealth family and was the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in December last year.

Sierra Leone was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth in 1997; it too was subsequently reinstated.

Zimbabwe was suspended following flawed elections in March 2002, until it chose to withdraw from the Commonwealth in December last year.

Pakistan was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth following a military coup in 1999. The suspension was lifted last May, in light of progress in Pakistan’s democratic reform. The country remains, however, on CMAG’s agenda.

The Commonwealth has been a trailblazer in this regard and CMAG remains the only mechanism of its kind among international organisations. It is encouraging that other bodies – such as the African Union, the Pacific Islands Forum and La Francophonie – now seem to be moving in the same direction.

4. Solidarity for the poor

As citizens of a globalised world, we cannot ignore abuses of human and democratic rights, no more than we can ignore the poverty, hopelessness and despair that affects our fellow human beings.

We should do everything we can to tackle global poverty. We should do it primarily for the sake of the 1.2 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day.

But we should also do it for the entire world. It is in all our best interests to tackle poverty because poverty is one of the biggest sources of instability and conflict in the world today.

Indeed, research suggests that lack of economic opportunity lies at the root of most conflicts over the last 30 years – ahead of ethnic, political or ideological issues.

If there were 100 people in the world:

15 would own 80% of the wealth; the other 85 would share the remaining 20%

18 would have no access to clean water

20 would live under $US 1 dollar a day

50 would live under $US 2 dollar a day

This situation is not only morally scandalous. It is, quite simply, unsustainable and it will make the world a more dangerous place.

So what must be done?

One of the most effective ways of tackling poverty is through increased trade. But trade will only work for the poor if it is fair.

For many years, developing countries have been told that the only way to prosperity was through trade liberalisation. But while poor countries have heeded this advice and removed many of their trade barriers, many developed countries failed to reciprocate.

In precisely those sectors where developing countries have a comparative advantage, such as agriculture and textiles, developed countries have protected themselves through both tariff and non-tariff barriers, and extensive systems of domestic subsidies resulting in dumped exports.

We all know that the single greatest thing advanced nations could do to help developing countries would be to give them access to their markets. According to Horst Köhler, the former Managing Director of the IMF, himself: “protectionism in industrial countries is the core problem in the fight against poverty.”

The World Bank has estimated that a deal to open up rich countries’ markets to poor nations could lift up to 144 million people out of poverty by 2015.

Today, rich countries must realise that opening their markets to the developing world and lowering trade subsidies is in everyone’s interest. First, phasing out subsidies would reduce real cost of products to consumers in the developed world. Second, the money governments would save on subsidies could be invested in health, education and public services and could also translate in lower levels of taxation.

And third – perhaps most importantly – cutting subsidies and allowing developing countries to trade their way out of poverty would bring more stability to the world. Living in an interdependent world, we must recognise that tackling global poverty is not only a moral imperative, but also a political one. We can’t make the world more stable and more secure if we don’t start by making it more just.

Last July’s World Trade Organisation deal is a step in the right direction and there are clear signs that both the US and the EU are moving to end agricultural subsidies. But many hurdles must yet be overcome for the Doha Development Round to deliver. Let me highlight two of them.

First, we must make sure poor countries have the means and the capacity to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by trade liberalisation. Freedom to trade is essential. But it’s not enough. For small and vulnerable economies, the capacity to trade is every bit as important.

And second, we must provide assistance to countries which are dependent on trade preferences to cope with the phasing out of such arrangements in the current Doha Round of World Trade negotiations. If help is not given, trade liberalisation will not bring new opportunities to developing nations. Instead, it will contribute to further marginalise them.

Commonwealth Finance Ministers rose to the challenge in a practical way when they met in St Kitts and Nevis last month. They agreed on an innovative solution – a fund targeted at the private sector to help absorb the shock of the transition phase. The fund will provide a safety net for those who risk losing their livelihoods and will help producers and exporters to diversify and develop more competitive industries.

The Commonwealth also helps by providing trade experts to countries that need them most. We are currently working with the European Commission on a 17 million euros “Hubs and Spokes” project to provide firmer foundations in developing countries for trade negotiating.


The Jamaicans have a saying: “your life is long, but you’re careless”. This, I feel, is a very apt description of the world we live in today.

Over the past decades, we have witnessed extraordinary progress in science, technology and medicine. To our jaded eyes, sending someone to the Moon is no big deal anymore, and people in the west are getting used to the idea of living until they are 100 years old.

But we are careless. Desperately careless. Careless with this very valuable planet of ours. Our world is technologically advanced. But it seems we have lost our moral compass. Our world is as barbaric today as it was 2,000 years ago – perhaps even more.

We can change this, though. Through real commitment, strong partnerships and a determination to change the future, we can help create a better life for everyone on the planet.

We must see each other as equals. We must work together as equals. Some of us may have to give something up. You will not see a peaceful world when people are starving. That is where the modern Commonwealth - today’s Commonwealth and tomorrow’s, is playing its part.


© Scoop Media

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