Menna Rawlings CMG

Menna Rawlings

British High Commissioner to Australia

Part of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting UK in Australia

17th April 2018 Canberra, Australia

The Commonwealth: Passing the baton

This month is all about the Commonwealth. We are on the cusp between the end of the (fantastic) Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, and the start of the Commonwealth Summit (also known as CHOGM – Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting) on 16-20 April, when the baton will be handed, metaphorically, to the UK as host nation.

As a career diplomat, I’ve spent more than half my working life in Commonwealth countries – the UK, Kenya, Ghana and now Australia. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect on whether the Commonwealth still matters and is relevant; and I’ll come back to that. But one experience in particular sticks in my mind as encapsulating the close emotional ties that exist between Commonwealth countries.

The year was 2005. I had just arrived in Ghana as Deputy High Commissioner, when news broke of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London. Sadly, there was a Ghanaian woman among the dead – Gladys Wundowa, who had moved to London with her husband, Emmanuel, decades previously. But she was coming home to Ghana to be buried, accompanied by Emmanuel and their teenage children. And I was going to her funeral.

I will never forget that day. The funeral took place in a remote village in the deep Ghanaian countryside, a land of green fields, rolling hills, dusty red roads snaking away into the distance, and small villages. Thousands of people attended, including musicians and dancers, family members and dignitaries. I was asked to speak, and focused on our shared values as two Commonwealth nations, and how we could work together to fight the bitter extremism that had killed Gladys and 51 other people.  Somehow I felt instantly at home in that village, connected to Emmanuel and his family by invisible threads that pulled us together, creating empathy through the pain. We spoke the same language, in more ways than one.

I have felt those threads again over the last two weeks, in a far more positive setting, thanks to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Watching extraordinary displays of sporting brilliance by so many athletes, from 71 constituent Commonwealth nations and territories, I again saw the connections between us that transcend nationality, gender, geography, religion and ethnicity.

This sense of connection is what the Commonwealth means to me. At a time of turbulence and immense technological change, it feels as if our unique global network based on shared history, language, legal systems and values, matters more, not less, than it did in the past. I feel this personally; but everyone who has witnessed the Games will have seen the easy camaraderie that exists between all Commonwealth nations – the things we don’t have to explain to each other; the lack of simultaneous translation needed in our interactions; our passion for sport; and an attachment to fair play and the rule of law, on and off the pitch.

Of course, I get challenged regularly by Australians and others on – yes: but what is the Commonwealth for? What has it ever done? Part of me rails against this, believing that the relationships themselves matter most, and we can lean into those in a fragmented and difficult world. But I can nonetheless point to impact: historically: the Commonwealth’s role in ending apartheid in South Africa; more recently, an ambitious statement on climate at the 2015 CHOGM in Malta which paved the way for the Paris Climate agreement a few weeks later; and today (for example), the work on CVE (countering violent extremism) – which aims to avoid radicalisation at source, to prevent future atrocities and more of those funerals in far-flung villages.

But of course there is scope for more. That’s why this week’s CHOGM matters – and not just because it’s the biggest meeting of world leaders the UK has ever hosted. Those threads will be in evidence again, but so will the opportunity to revitalise the institution and achieve real world impact in dealing with complex 21st century challenges – such as protecting our oceans and reefs, boosting girls’ education globally, and building the resilience and sustainability of small island states – be that in the Pacific or the Caribbean.

So I’ll be cheering for CHOGM – less noisily than at the Games and at distance; but with an expectation that the Commonwealth’s greatest opportunities lie ahead. I hope the diversity, vibrancy, commitment and youthful exuberance we’ve seen on Gold Coast will weave its way into the summit corridors in the UK, to renew those global connections and reset the agenda towards a common future.

London, over to you.

About Menna Rawlings

Her Excellency Menna Rawlings CMG is the British High Commissioner to Australia. Menna joined the FCO in 1989 and has served in a wide range of Diplomatic Service roles. She…

Her Excellency Menna Rawlings CMG is the British High Commissioner to Australia. Menna joined the FCO in 1989 and has served in a wide range of Diplomatic Service roles. She was most recently a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Management Board as HR Director. This followed postings to Washington DC, Ghana, Israel, Kenya and Brussels. In London, she has served as Private Secretary to the Permanent Under Secretary as well as in Press Office and the Africa and EU Directorates.