‘The Charter I will sign today, on behalf of you all, represents a significant milestone as the Commonwealth continues its journey of development and renewal … It will light the path of all those involved in the work of the Commonwealth, and of those who follow in our footsteps.’
HM Queen Elizabeth II, Commonwealth Day, 11 March 2013
The idea of a Charter initially came from the chair of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), former prime minister of Malaysia Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (who was a driver in the decision to create an Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN – Charter), a document that set out the governance arrangements, roles of principal Commonwealth agents, rights and responsibilities of members in that organisation.
Over the course of its deliberations, the EPG developed its thinking and agreed to propose a different kind of Charter for the Commonwealth. As noted in the final report from the EPG, ‘Such a Charter would establish a Commonwealth “spirit” – one that is shared by the people of the Commonwealth and their governments, and that would institute firmly the concept of a Commonwealth whose collective purpose is driven by the aspirations of its people’.
Accordingly, the very first recommendation of the EPG was as follows:
A ‘Charter of the Commonwealth’ should be established after the widest possible consultation in every Commonwealth country. Civil society organisations should be fully involved with national governments in the process of pan-Commonwealth consultation, including in the organisation of the process and assessment of its results. A task force should be appointed to analyse the findings of the national consultations and to make recommendations, on that basis, to Heads of Government. If the findings favour a Charter, the task force should be authorised to draft the final text.
A draft prepared by the Hon Michael Kirby was attached to the EPG report for consideration and, following a lengthy debate among Commonwealth foreign ministers on the eve of the 2011 Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the principle of a Charter was agreed, and the communiqué records the decision of leaders that:
[T]here should be a ‘Charter of the Commonwealth’, as proposed by the Eminent Persons Group, embodying the principles contained in previous declarations, drawn together in a single, consolidated document that is not legally binding.
Heads will agree to a text for the Charter in 2012, following a process of national consultations, consideration by a Task Force of Ministers drawn from all geographical groupings of the Commonwealth, and a full meeting of Foreign Ministers in New York in September.
Soon after the conclusion of the Perth CHOGM, the Secretary-General wrote to all Commonwealth ministers of foreign affairs; he invited member governments to undertake national consultations on the Charter and provide feedback by the end of March 2012.
This would enable the Commonwealth Secretariat to produce a revised draft reflecting this feedback for consideration by the ministerial task force, via a pan-Commonwealth meeting of senior officials, and thereafter by Commonwealth foreign ministers at a meeting in New York in September 2012.
To facilitate as many inputs as possible for what the EPG envisaged as a people-oriented consultation process, the Secretary-General decided to make the draft Charter available on the Secretariat’s website, inviting submissions directly from civil society organisations and individuals.
It was then the task of the Secretariat under the oversight of the Assistant Secretary-General to collate all the comments and produce a new draft for consideration of senior officials on 12-13 April 2012. This was a difficult task, as time was very short (especially as some submissions arrived late) and many were calling for a significantly different text. Reflecting on the comments received, the Secretariat made the somewhat bold decision to restructure the draft Charter entirely, and in a small team a new draft was developed, based more closely on the Commonwealth Affirmation approved at CHOGM 2009. The Secretariat was extremely mindful of the Heads’ decision that the Charter should be a consolidation of principles contained in previous declarations.
The Secretariat also circulated to all members the comments and suggestions received, whether through the national consultations, or by the Secretariat itself, so as to ensure that these would remain at the forefront of negotiators’ minds as they developed the Charter of the Commonwealth. And, indeed, many delegates and ministers made direct reference to these inputs during their subsequent discussions and negotiations.
The new draft was a success. Although various amendments were agreed in the ensuing discussions at the Senior Officials Meeting, Ministerial Task Force and Foreign Ministers Meeting, chaired by Deputy Secretary Gillian Bird and Foreign Minister Bob Carr respectively, the new structure met with overwhelming support.
Throughout the negotiation process, the Secretariat was also assiduous in providing sources for all the language used to assure that, except in the few areas where there was a consensus on new language, the text indeed was derived from previous declarations. At the same time, the Secretariat strove to ensure the language remained as accessible and least bureaucratic as possible, given the aim that the Charter should be a useful tool for spreading understanding of the Commonwealth and what it stands for across communities and especially among young people. Despite one hiccup at the end of the process, as one member required an extension of the deadline for the completion of certain administrative processes, the final draft, recommended by Commonwealth foreign ministers at their September meeting, was approved, through written procedure, by Heads of Government on 14 December 2012.