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Together we can
I thank the organisers of this conference for the invitation to deliver some remarks to close what, I am sure, has been an informative and thought provoking event for all its distinguished participants. It is for me more than a pleasurable coincidence that this final session is being chaired by my friend and colleague, Sir Shridath Ramphal, with whom I have toiled in the vineyards of Caricom and the Commonwealth, and in virtually every international battlefield for over 40 years. Any discourse on Caricom and the Commonwealth must begin with the realisation that our community desperately needs a flow of oxygen to keep it alive. There is not a single voice; political, academic, of scribe or eminent player in the transformation from Carifta to the creation of a single market in the community, which has not expressed fear as to the imminent threat which face our regional movement today. I know of no one who with malevolent intent has set out to destroy or dismantle Caricom. But the community faces the danger of benign neglect simply because there is a failure by the political directorate, the private sector, the social partners and our scholars to step boldly forward and demonstrate by positive action that we dare to care. Without this, the plant will wither and eventually die.
As to the Commonwealth, that unique family of nations, will atrophy unless its raison d’ e’tre is grounded, not by the sentiment of past historical relationships, but in finding and pursuing a beneficial partnership between the 54 member states and establishing a distinctive role on the burning issues which constitute the global agenda of today and the foreseeable future. No one can dispute that the collective responsibility of Caricom and the Commonwealth does not begin with the challenges of the 21st century, even though the imperative of such responsibility has become more acute in a world beset by shifting centres of power, by different kinds of power, and by the critical importance for countries, such as ours in Caricom, to devise a strategy that will sustain us in this new global setting. Even in a world of frequent, rapid and at times cataclysmic change, the exercise of collective responsibility between Caricom and the Commonwealth, need not begin from scratch. Decades of co-operation between the two organisations on some of the crucial issues that confronted the world should have adequately prepared us for deeper and closer collaboration in the period that lies ahead. I need hardly remind a group as distinguished as this of the pioneering work undertaken by the Commonwealth in providing expert studies on a range of issues that, at the time, threatened global economic stability.
The issues tackled by those expert studies, informed the work of the United Nations and the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. They included the North-South Dialogue; the shape of a new international economic order; commodity arrangements and the Common Fund; industrialisation; protectionism and market access; economic recession; debt problems and financial institutions. Significantly, in 1988-1989, they embraced climate change, desertification and global warming. This was way ahead of its time and it left an international legacy which assumes great significance today, as the effects of pollution and rising sea levels threaten both our economic production and our human habitats.
Incidentally, on almost all of those expert groups, at least one Caribbean person was an active contributor— drawing on the greatest strength of our one Caribbean—that is our combined intellectual capacity. We all know well that it is in the fight against racism—particularly in Southern Africa—that the Commonwealth made the political mark for which it is well renowned. First, in Southern Rhodesia, ruled by a white-minority regime that disenfranchised and disadvantaged the majority black people of the country; none should doubt the influence of the Commonwealth in transforming white dominated Southern Rhodesia into a Zimbabwe of one-man, one vote.
And, second in South Africa where apartheid was overturned, Nelson Mandela freed from his long imprisonment, and majority rule established. What we established in the Commonwealth, at that time, was a lesson we had learned earlier in the negotiations between the then European Economic Community and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group. It is that together—militarily weak and economically disadvantaged as we may be—developing Commonwealth countries could wield sufficient influence to make a defining difference. The challenges of the 20th century were markedly different from those that we confront today but, at the time, they raged with all the urgency of now. They required no less creativity, unity and tenacity than the challenges we face in this second decade of the 21st century.
And, here I put down my first marker: Caricom countries met the challenges of the global community in the 20th century through unity amongst themselves and by forging common cause with others. We did so in many organisations, and especially so in the Commonwealth. To put the matter with unmistakable simplicity, Caricom countries are not best served by venturing out on their own to strike a deal here or there with this or that one bloc organisation or country. We are much better off by doing so collectively; negotiated by the best brains we can jointly assemble and by bargaining with the full gamut of the collective resources within our region. None of us should believe that autonomy and independence constitute irreversible and unassailable gains for relatively small and powerless nations.
The shadow of globalisation is as long as its grip is strong, and it carries within it the potential—if not the intention—by the powerful to make client-states of the weak and vulnerable, opening them-up as markets; assuming once again control of their factors of production; and reducing them to a state of dependency that comprises their autonomy. All the countries of Caricom are affected by external events that have debilitated our development and impinged on our capacity to formulate national policy in sovereign isolation. As each of them turn individually to external agents—be it international financial institutions or countries—a greater slice of our autonomy is relinquished and our space for independent policy making becomes even more constricted. We need a stronger Caricom, not a weaker one, if we are to preserve the gains of cultural identity, political autonomy and strong local participation in our economies that we have struggled to achieve. This is no time for a retreat into myopia, or the blind alley of isolation. And we should be clear. The problems we face in strengthening Caricom will not be addressed simply by agreement on the appointment of a Secretary-General, urgent though that is. There are fundamental issues that demand urgent attention. In the course of this conference, you have already discussed some of them such as governance. They should now include establishing priorities of Caricom’s work; identifying the resources with which to implement that work; and putting in place effective machinery for actual implementation of the decisions repeatedly taken to advance the cause of our Caribbean civilisation and the well-being of its people. But, above all, what is required is a new and unwavering commitment to regionalism. For, without that strong commitment—and it has to be a commitment by all governments—everything else will be undermined, under-resourced and ineffectual.
Let me make it clear. I have always held the view that Caricom is “a community of sovereign states.”
In arguing for a renewed commitment to regionalism, I do not call for political union; what I call for is the pooling of that very individual sovereignty of each of our nations in relation to those issues where we clearly derive an advantage by acting collectively in ways that have legal effect and are implementable both in our domestic and regional jurisdictions. Unity is not union, but our peoples unity has always been the foundation for our development. It is that unity which Caricom now needs. Unity of vision; unity of resolve; and unity in implementation. But to reach such unity, our people need to travel in a strong and interconnected vehicle. And so, I lay down my second marker in these closing remarks: The collective responsibility in the 21st century will not be achieved by Caricom unless its governments, its private sectors, and its civil societies transform it into a strong, cohesive and coherent organisation that delivers collective good for their peoples. Turning now to the Commonwealth. I venture to assert that of all the multilateral organisations of which the countries of Caricom are members, none is as important to the advancement of our interests in the international community as the Commonwealth. Why do I say this?
To begin with, none of our countries could afford to have a representational presence and conduct productive diplomatic relations with nations as far away as Australia and New Zealand; as distant as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; as remote from us as the islands of the Pacific; and even with countries in the Mediterranean and Africa. The Commonwealth provides that opportunity. It is relatively inexpensive but nonetheless effective diplomacy.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Conferences (CHOGMS) allows leaders of our 12 independent Commonwealth Caribbean countries to put forward our concerns, challenges and problems to 42 other Heads of Government from every continent of the world in an intimate and personal way. The same observation is true for the many Commonwealth ministerial meetings that are held on issues of finance, law, health, education, and climate change to name a few. If each of our Caricom countries individually and all of them collectively were to attempt diplomacy iin 42 nations, we simply could not afford it. The Commonwealth provides us with that reach. And, let us never forget what the Commonwealth represents: Its members are over 20 per cent of the Organisation of Islamic Countries; more than 25 per cent of the United Nations; over 25 per cent of the G20; nearly 40 per cent of the World Trade Organisation; just under 40 per cent of the African Union; and 60 per cent of the South Asia Association for Regional Co-operation. There are a multitude of regional and or other organisations of which Commonwealth countries are members and in which they could act to promote the concerns of their member states.
Those organisations include the European Union, the North American Free Trade Association, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the African Union, and the Association of South-East Asian nations to name a few. In the past, the Commonwealth has assisted the countries of Caricom in dealing with global issues of great importance to many of our economies such as the struggle with the OECD in its attempt to hobble the Caribbean off shore financial sector with its Harmful Tax Competition Initiative. The Commonwealth has also done pioneering work on small and vulnerable economies which has had an effect in the United Nations system. This has more recently been adopted by the World Trade Organisation in seeking flexibilities in the treatment of small economies during the current Doha Round of global trade negotiations. It has made a determining impact in influencing multilateral organisations, such as the IMF and World Bank in debt relief and UN bodies in climate change. Caricom countries have also been direct recipients of technical assistance in a variety of fields that have aided our development in broad terms through the provision of experts by the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation.
Against this background, it can be seen that the Commonwealth is of considerable value to Caricom, and it is important for the two organisations to take on collective responsibility in the 21st century.
The question may well be asked: “Collective Responsibility for what?” Some of the answers are obvious. They include the pressing issue of climate change and sea-level rise; food and energy security; the pandemic of HIV/AIDS that has caused the deaths of 32 million people throughout the world; religious intolerance that threatens to spark conflicts within states and between them; and most importantly; peace and security. Events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Sudan should prove to us—if ever we doubted it—that we, in the Caribbean, are not immune from conflicts elsewhere. The increase in oil prices resulting from these conflicts has escalated the cost of living in our countries, and threatens to heighten our debt burden, to adversely affect the tourism and manufacturing industries on which our people depend for a livelihood. With regard to HIV/AIDS, it has caused the deaths of 32 million people throughout the world. Approximately 33.3 million are living with the virus. And as The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has observed: “Commonwealth countries comprise over 30 per cent of the world’s population but over 60 per cent of people living with HIV reside in Commonwealth states.”
In per capita terms, the Caribbean Region is among the worst affected, and this has had a negative effect on our capacity for economic development as the flowers of youth are struck down.
My third marker in the presentation, therefore is that we need a strong Commonwealth as a vehicle to continue to advocate Caricom’s interests and concerns in the international community and to continue to provide technical expertise in key areas. We also need it as a rational voice in global affairs representing, as it does, one-third of the world’s people of every race and religion. Strengthening the Commonwealth must be an important part of the collective responsibility of Caricom and the Commonwealth in the 21st century. How do we strengthen it? At their conference in Port-of-Spain in November 2009, Commonwealth Heads of Government appointed an Eminent Persons Group of ten, including two Caribbean persons “to undertake an examination of options for reform in order to bring the Commonwealth’s many institutions into a stronger and more effective framework of co-operation and partnership.” It was heartening to learn that the group regards as its objective “to get the top decision makers in the Commonwealth to embrace change that will make the Commonwealth relevant to the lives of ordinary people.”
This will obviously include tackling disease and human resource development. Conscious of the shifting patterns of economic power in the world, I expect the group to be bold and suggest that strategic partnerships which extend beyond the private sector and Foundations within the Commonwealth, to forge broader alliances with similar organisations outside the Commonwealth and with governments such as China, Japan, Russia and Brazil. I expect the group to recommend that the Commonwealth identify those global issues in which its membership and diversity can best play a part. As chairman of the Ramphal Commission, I have already written Prime Minister Badawi to propose that migration and development be placed high on the Commonwealth agenda. In our call to the Commonwealth, the Ramphal Commissioners who meet right here on the Mona Campus next week, stated: “The Modern Commonwealth is a product of the migration of its peoples, and the wise management of this powerful, human force is one of the greatest challenges for development and governance in the 21st century.” Our commission contends that “issues relating to migration and development have now assumed universal significance and constitute challenges of a nature where the Commonwealth by its history and composition is ideally suited to chart a distinct course for the global community to follow.”
There is, in both Caricom and the Commonwealth, which should not escape our focus in any efforts to remodel or reinvigorate: our youth. Within the Commonwealth, 60 per cent of its people are below the age of 30. They are currently among the most exposed to the ravages of disease, poverty and social disorder. Crime and security, social and ethnic conflicts, the exclusion from the corridors of decision-making represent injustice and inequity which they will no longer accept with stony silence. Whether in Caricom or the Commonwealth, our youth must be involved and engaged as real partners as policies are formulated on economic development, social transformation and community building. Yes, we need to produce more young millionaires but never at the expense of future political leadership and those who will guide the future of Caricom, the Commonwealth and the World in which they have the greatest stake of us all. It is right that the Commonwealth should reinvigorate itself by embracing change. Unless Caricom is prepared to put into effect the changes which have for so long been evident, we will forever be left behind. A reignited Caricom must once again become a catalyst for change. We do not need another report or study.
The course was clearly plotted in Time For Action, which set out the priorities for Caricom; the financial resources and expertise that we need; the network of international contacts that it should establish and keep vibrant; and the strategic partnerships that it should construct and make viable in a changing international scene. We made a good start then, moved to a crawl but seem to have come to a full-stop along the way. Caricom requires a seismic shift to pull us from the brink and move forward once again. Who will lead the way for Caricom to be seen as what it is: a vital instrument for the collective development of our people through common purpose and joint action? It has to be promoted, not denigrated; it has to become more cohesive, not more disunited; it has to act, not lay supine. The future of our region and the well-being of our people depend on this. We who gather here on consecrated Caribbean soil must respond to the collective challenges we face.
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