Published On: Tue, Jun 27th, 2006

Diversity, Identity and Multiculturalism

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In a speech at the Royal Commonwealth Society, on 26 June, FCO Minister, Lord Triesman spoke of the challenges facing the Commonwealth: ‘As we look to the challenges of the 21st Century, we must remember the lessons of the past. In a globalised world the Commonwealth cannot go it alone.’ The Minister went on to say: ‘The people and governments of the Commonwealth must help address the big issues facing the world. The Commonwealth does have a comparative advantage in many niche areas, including Diversity, Identity and Multiculturalism. It must exploit these at all levels.’

Following is the full text of speech:
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to open this International Meeting of the Royal Commonwealth Society. This year is a particularly special year for two reasons:

The first because later this week HM The Queen, Head of the Commonwealth and RCS Patron will formally open the Society’s magnificent new premises here.

And the second is because you have chosen as the theme of this year’s meeting ‘Diversity, Identity and Multiculturalism’. This theme is central to our different societies and to the Commonwealth itself, with it’s unique diverse cultural heritage – as we see here today with Presidents, officers and representatives of at least 35 branches or societies from around 22 Commonwealth countries and territories. Some of these branches have long and distinguished history – I know that the Montreal branch recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. Others including Ghana, Brunei, Cameroon, Uganda, Nigeria and Pakistan have only recently been born, or given a new lease of life, strengthening and diversifying the Society further.

Diversity and Youth

Those of you who’ve heard me speak before know I’m fond of saying that, if the Commonwealth did not already exist, it could not be invented. The spectrum of nations involved, ranging from some of the wealthiest on the planet to some of the least well off, from some of the largest – both geographically and in terms of population – to some of the smallest, really is a unique blend.

And through a common language and through shared values the Commonwealth are also able to explore a diverse range of issues from politics to culture, from development to sport.

In recent years increased trade, investment and migration have further enhanced already strong links between Commonwealth nations. Having travelled widely within member countries I really do believe that the people of the Commonwealth care a great deal about each other – mainly as friends but sometimes as rivals: as they were this year in Melbourne during the Commonwealth Games, when the reputation of the ‘friendly games’ reached a new level. And while I’m talking about sport may I wish those Commonwealth nations still in the World Cup the very best of luck – especially England – and commiserate with those soon to depart for home. And particular congratulations to Australia and Ghana who, for the first time ever, have reached the last sixteen.

The vigour of the Society’s international network further attests to one of the unique strengths of the Commonwealth I’ve mentioned – that it is not just an association of free and sovereign governments but it is also an extensive network of professional and civil society organisations.

And it is a Commonwealth of young people. The majority of the Commonwealth’s 1.8 billion are under the age of 25. That is why I am pleased to see so many young participants at this International Meeting – demonstrating their commitment to the Commonwealth and their desire to be involved in the Commonwealth’s work. Without the support of the next generation, the Commonwealth, by definition, will have no future.

And I am delighted that the young delegates have been able to take forward the work of Project Nkabom, launched in 2004, further exploring ‘Diversity, identity and multiculturalism’, the themes of this meeting. I hope that your visits to Belfast, Cambridge, Bristol and Newcastle have illustrated how varied British society is. I trust that your experiences have been rewarding and I look forward to hearing more about your work.

The Nkabom Project is an excellent example of young people coming together to explore new ideas and making a real difference. Similarly I was pleased to hear of the tremendous energy and contribution shown by delegates at last year’s Commonwealth Youth Forum held in Malta. Young people were responsible for arranging and developing the agenda, holding discussions on the principal issues and co-ordinating the logistics. Important themes such as good governance, networking for development and sustainable livelihoods were discussed.

Challenges Past, Present and Future

Commonwealth nations have never shirked a challenge. Nothing illustrates this more than the collective stance against minority rule in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The collapse of the regimes in Rhodesia, Namibia and especially of apartheid South Africa caused the Commonwealth to re-think its role. With hindsight, this began with the adoption of the Harare principles in 1991 which outlined the Commonwealth’s core values and beliefs. This, in turn, led to a refocusing of efforts on the twin goals of “democracy and development’ via the Millbrook process in 1995 which created the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.

In recent years the Commonwealth has been robust with member states who fall short of its core democratic values and principles, suspending Nigeria, Fiji and Pakistan following military coups and taking a robust stance against Zimbabwe. Indeed I think I’m right in saying that the Commonwealth is unique amongst international organisations in that it actually suspends members who don’t come up to scratch. And while I know some think this sounds overly harsh, it is the case that Nigeria, Fiji and Pakistan have all done enough to satisfy the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group that they should be allowed to rejoin the Commonwealth family. And I for one am glad to see them back.

As we look to the challenges of the 21st Century, we must remember the lessons of the past. In a globalised world the Commonwealth cannot, as some mistakenly suggest, go it alone.

There can be no return to what some see as the good old days. The Commonwealth is not, and was never intended to be, an alternative to international organisations such as the UN or the World Trade Organisation or regional political and economic groups such as the EU or AU. Rather, in today’s world, the Commonwealth must increasingly work in partnership with international organisations, something Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon has acknowledged.

Looking ahead 2009 will mark the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the London Agreement of 1949, founding the modern Commonwealth. This will provide a first-class opportunity to look to the future, with all its possibilities, in the light of shared experiences and a common understanding of what has been collectively achieved.

There has been increasing recognition that the modern Commonwealth is ideally suited to meeting some of the principal challenges of today. I suggest this is especially the case when it comes to “Diversity, Identity and Multiculturalism’.

One of the new Commonwealth mandates agreed at the Valletta CHOGM concerned tolerance and respect. Both the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Foundation are working with civil societies and governments to develop ideas to promote greater tolerance, be it religious or secular. The Commonwealth has also long been active in promoting gender equality, as outlined at the Commonwealth meeting of Ministers responsible for Women affairs in Fiji last year.

Some suggest that the future of international relations lies less with blocs and alliances and more with global and informal networks. The Commonwealth, as both a formal grouping of governments and an informal network of associations and peoples, can help fulfil both roles.


In today’s global world the Commonwealth cannot plough its own furrow. The people and governments of the Commonwealth must help address the big issues facing the world. The broad picture will be painted in many different fora such as the UN and the WTO. But the Commonwealth does have a comparative advantage in many niche areas, including Diversity, Identity and Multiculturalism. It must exploit these at all levels.

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