Another Caribbean national has made international history! Today Dominica-born Patricia Scotland QC, Baroness Scotland of Asthal was elected by Commonwealth leaders during the Heads of Government conference in Malta as the first female Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Today’s electoral victory for Baroness Scotland was the culmination of a long drawn out candidacy race which saw her vying against another distinguished Caribbean son of the soil, Sir Ronald Sanders. Baroness Scotland was nominated by Dominica, the land of her birth, and her nomination was supported by Barbados and Belize. Renowned diplomat, Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua & Barbuda’s ambassador to the United States, was nominated by Antigua & Barbuda and enjoyed most CARICOM countries’ support. The third distinguished candidate in the race was Botswana’s Ms. Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwambe, former Deputy General of the Commonwealth.
Baroness Scotland was born in Dominica in 1955 and moved to the UK with her family when she was only three years old. She has had a long and distinguished legal career as a barrister and jurist. At only 35 years of age she became the first black and youngest female Queens counsel in 1991. She was created a peer in 1997.
She has held several ministerial posts in the UK including becoming the first female Attorney General of England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2007 (later Advocate General of Northern Ireland). During her tenure several reforms of the British criminal system were undertaken including the introduction of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act.
She was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron as Prime Ministerial Trade envoy to South Africa in November 2012. She is the founding patron of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence.It is therefore not surprising that in 2008 she was named by the Guardian newspaper as the most powerful black female Briton. Baroness Scotland is married and is the mother of two sons.
Baroness Scotland will be the second Caribbean national to have held the post of Secretary. The first was Sir Shridath Ramphal of Guyana. The Secretary General of the Commonwealth is the head of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The Secretary General is elected in a closed meeting by the Commonwealth Heads of Government and is allowed to serve a maximum of two four year terms.She will officially take office on April 2016, succeeding incumbent Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma.
Baroness Scotland’s bid for CARICOM support of her candidacy was not without controversy. Many commentators interpreted the inability of CARICOM states to reach a consensus on a single regional candidate as yet another sign of increasing fragmentation within the region. Though Baroness Scotland holds dual Dominican and British citizenship, some commentators in the region were of the view that Baroness Scotland’s almost exclusive British upbringing and career meant she was not a “true” Caribbean candidate but a UK candidate, which may compromise her loyalty to the region.
The other candidate Sir Ronald Sanders had enjoyed the majority of CARICOM states’ support. He has had a long history of service to the region in a variety of capacities, including serving on the Commonwealth Eminent Person Group and was seen by many in region as the ideal choice as someone with his hand on the pulse of the issues facing the region. There were concerns about whether Baroness Scotland had done enough in her career to represent Caribbean interests and whether, as someone who has spent almost her entire life in the UK, could be the advocate the Caribbean needs to represent its interests and those of small states.
In spite of these concerns, there is no doubt that Baroness Scotland has had a long and distinguished career as an attorney and in public service and will bring a considerable breadth of knowledge and experience to the post at a time when there are concerns about the declining prominence of the Commonwealth on the world stage and questions about its geopolitical relevance and role today. The Commonwealth is not a trade bloc or an organisation per se but a voluntary association of 53 states, most of which were former British colonies. Together the Commonwealth comprises 33% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s countries united by shared values, historical links and a common language. A recent Commonwealth report also reveals the growing importance of intra-Commonwealth trade.
A Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group was re-established in 2009 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’. Pursuant to this mandate, the Group formulated the “A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform” in 2011 which put forward several recommendations for reform. The Commonwealth Charter, the first recommendation of the EPG, was inaugurated in 2013.
Small states, such as those in the Commonwealth Caribbean, comprise more than two-thirds of the Commonwealth’s membership. They face many unique challenges, including growing marginalisation of their economies, trade preference erosion, high indebtedness, vulnerability to natural disasters, and the impacts of climate change. The Commonwealth has played an important role over the years as a collective voice advocating in various multilateral fora for recognition of issues which are particular concern to small states.
Of specific interest to Caribbean states and small states in general are the recommendations in the EPG Report which speak to promoting development, empowering small states by strengthening their capacity and resilience, dealing with their high levels of indebtedness and action on climate change and existential threats. Each of these recommendations has emphasised the key advocacy role to be played by the Secretary General. For instance, the recommendation was made for the Secretary General to establish High-Level Advocacy Missions to engage in dialogue with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank in order to make progress on several issues.
As the incoming Secretary General Baroness Scotland is poised to play a key part in reforming and redefining the Commonwealth’s role in the twenty-first century, including furthering and enhancing its work as a forum for cooperation on issues of development, human rights and democracy and as a mechanism through which small states can have their voices heard.
It would be remiss of me if I did not conclude by expressing how excited I am as a young Caribbean woman about Baroness Scotland’s election, just like I am whenever I see examples of Caribbean women both at home and in the diaspora making their imprint on the world stage. I congratulate Baroness Scotland on her election and wish her a successful tenure!
Further information on Baroness Scotland may be found here.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.