When Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth’s secretary-general, met Sen. Hugh Segal during a June visit to Ottawa, the Canadian politician thought it was for a chat about the 54-nation group, of which he’s an outspoken proponent. Instead, it was a discreet job interview. Last week, Sharma announced Segal was one of 10 members of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG), tasked with setting out “decisive recommendations on how to strengthen the Commonwealth” and ensure it “remains relevant to its times.”
The EPG was created by Commonwealth leaders because of “anxieties about stasis in the secretariat” that runs the organization, Segal explains. “There is a tendency to tilt toward the non-provocative.” So a diverse group of grandees, including a former Malaysian PM, a Pakistani human rights lawyer and a former Australian judge, have until the next leaders’ meeting in October 2011 to figure out how to stop the drift and retool the Commonwealth to be bolder and more relevant.
While the EPG has been given a broad mandate for reform, Segal doesn’t see the co-operative Commonwealth morphing into a group that utters military or economic threats. Currently the biggest weapon in the voluntary organization’s arsenal is public shame. It suspended Fiji last year after its leaders refused to hold free elections, while Pakistan was blackballed several times during military dictatorships.
In the end, what political leaders want is a more energetic Commonwealth to emerge from the process, ready to command a bigger presence on the world stage. They aren’t alone. Last Tuesday, Queen Elizabeth II told the UN that “the Commonwealth [has] the opportunity to lead.” It is up to Segal and his colleagues to figure out how.