Choosing the Commonwealth Secretary General

Despite periodic statements suggesting that the Commonwealth as an institution no longer has the relevance once attributed to it, clearly there is, in the Caribbean as elsewhere, still a fascination with obtaining the position of Secretary General on the part of Caribbean governments. No doubt many governments may feel that the holding of the position by a national of their countries, brings not only a certain positive notoriety, but also enhances access to a wider, and more politically variegated world and what it has to offer.

In that context, by now we should not be surprised at the anxiety of this or that Caricom government to place one of their diplomatic or political stalwarts in the position, though it is probably the case, as demonstrated in the long tenure of Sir Shridath Ramphal, that what is to be gained more often than not really accrues to the Region as a whole, though the particular country from which the Secretary General derives, may feel it useful to bask in the diplomatic sunlight that the position casts.

Only recently, given the assumption that it was the Caribbean’s turn to have someone serve as Secretary General of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Secretariat, the competition for the position has been intense among the three persons nominated from the Region (by Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica). But by what seems to be common consent among diplomats involved in that arena, the selection of Patrick Gomes of Guyana, previously holding the post of Deputy Secretary General, was the most appropriate one.

At the Commonwealth level the potential for competition is wider, given that all countries are entitled to nominate a candidate, and it might well have been thought in Caricom that a narrowing of the candidates from within the Region – indeed the selection of one – might permit a more favourable chance of success. It is obviously useful not to split our votes from the very beginning.

But that seems not to be. And while we may remain fascinated by the apparent talent at our disposal, an assumption on our part being that one or other will eventually prevail from among the total number of contesting candidates, it may be that in concentrating on our regional navel, while simultaneously proceeding to split our collective vote, we may be forgetting the potential significance to us, as time goes on, of the large number of other developing countries whose support we may need in other spheres of our international endeavours.

And looking further down the line, we note that in the case of the appointment of a new Deputy Secretary General of the Organisation of American States, we seem to be proceeding in a similar fashion, with candidates from both Belize and Guyana being presented for that office.

What really can the Commonwealth and its Secretariat be used for, in terms of advancing the Region’s objectives, singularly and collectively, apart from securing certain levels of aid and technical assistance? Increasingly the larger regions of the globe seem to be concentrating on negotiating the institutional solidarity of their own areas, as they perceive the rearranging of global relations with new claimants aiming to exert influence over the wider international arena as regions and continents seek to come to terms with the globalization process, and its implications for global geopolitics.

In that regard, as is well known, one of the contributions which it is accepted, Sir Shridath made to the Caribbean’s international relations during his tenure as Secretary General of the Commonwealth, was to draw our own regional arena more and more to the attention of the newly emerging large states of both Asia and Africa. From the point of view of the difficulties of the present time, that task is hardly finished.

Ramphal’s contribution was built on ensuring a certain alignment of Caricom states with the wider geopolitical objectives of the African-Asian states, even when these appeared to diverge from the more traditional stances of our Region. The Commonwealth as an institution simultaneously located (in diplomatic terms) in those other spheres became an effective link and intermediary to our newly-emerging entities. And this process, in turn, gave Caricom a certain diplomatic recognition and strength beyond its limited geographical location and diplomatic resources.

In that sense, the Commonwealth arrangement was critical to providing our Region with the wider development concerns of the emerging African states, and in some measure also, in respect of the Pacific states, the potential for a certain solidarity with distant countries. And that, it can fairly be said, led, for example, to the diplomatic leverage that made Barbados the location of the first significant global conference, in 1994, focusing specifically on the array of states which we now refer to as SIDS (Small Island Developing States).

One of the ironies of the present competition among Caricom states for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s leading position, is that while a variety of candidates are being promoted and are soliciting the support of our states, little is known of their careers or orientations, with the exception of Sir Ronald Sanders whose opinions are regularly expressed in the regional media. Little is known of what they think they can do for us.

In this regard, in seeking to obtain the top job at the Commonwealth Secretariat, our governments have been functioning like private clubs, as distinct from agencies of the people whom their proposed appointees will be representing. Perhaps, to begin with, the Caricom Secretariat, an authoritative voice, should inform the media, in some detail, of the careers and areas of political and diplomatic focus which have been the competitors’ experiences. For indeed, little has been said by the governments promoting them, except within the closed circuits of their Caricom Heads conference.

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