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Commonwealth taboos set for virtual outing

Covid-19 has put paid to the 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. But could a virtual summit give a more open debate?

Image of the Mall with Commonwealth Flags displayed
How are countries across the Commonwealth coping with Covid-19 and how will the world change in its wake?

How are countries across the Commonwealth coping with Covid-19 and how will the world change in its wake? As the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol bring Britain’s relationship with its imperial history and the slave trade into the spotlight, what should be the response to reparations for slavery and colonialism? And what does the continuing struggle for LGBT+ rights say about attitudes across the Commonwealth?

These topics and several others will be debated at Taking Stock of the Commonwealth, a major online conference taking place next week on 24 June (8am–8pm). It will bring together international academic experts, high commissioners, journalists, LGBT+ rights activists, and politicians from New Zealand, North America, India, Africa, the Caribbean and the UK to explore the Commonwealth’s future.

The conference has been organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. It will be held in the middle of what would have been the week of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which was due to open on 22 June in Rwanda.  

While the Covid-19 crisis has meant that the Rwanda summit can no longer go ahead, this virtual conference – free and open to all via Zoom – will continue to facilitate debate and contribute to the public visibility of the 54-member association.

Representatives of governments, the official Commonwealth and civil society organisations will be welcome to participate, but Taking Stock of the Commonwealth is entirely unofficial in nature. This will enable participants to touch on some of the more difficult questions that meetings of the inter-governmental Commonwealth tend to avoid. 

“The last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which took place in London in April 2018, was overshadowed by the Windrush scandal,” says Professor Philip Murphy, ICWS director. “The recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests have brought the issues of the marginalisation of BAME people back into the limelight. As such, it’s appropriate that we revisit the Windrush scandal, and we’re delighted to be joined by Guy Hewitt who, as the high commissioner of Barbados to London, played a leading role in shaming the British government over its handling of the affair at the time of the 2018 summit.”

The conference also offers a chance to work against the grain of the official Commonwealth, doing away with the rather bland and unproductive character of recent CHOGM meetings. High on its agenda will be investigating how contemporary issues across the world are still shaped by the legacies of empire. 

Its six 90-minute thematic panels will consider attempts to overturn colonial-era laws criminalising homosexuality, campaigns to obtain reparations for slavery, colonial human rights abuses, threats to democracy and freedom of expression. Leading experts exploring these issues at this timely event include Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies and author of ‘Britain's Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide’, a major study of the reparations question.

“I have been overwhelmed by the response to my invitations to take part in the conference,” adds Professor Murphy. “Each of its panels represents a really interesting combination of expertise from academics, politicians and activists from around the Commonwealth. Rather than giving set-piece papers or presentations, speakers will be encouraged to engage in a discussion with each other, and this will be opened up to enable those attending online to pose comments and questions.”

Other confirmed speakers include: 

•    Amelia Gentleman (The Guardian) 
•    Professor Robert Patman (University of Otago, New Zealand) 
•    Suan Ee Ong (Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore)
•    Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta (former vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, and former president of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi) 
•    Professor Sanjoy Hazarika (Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi) 
•    Professor Shakuntala Banaji (The London School of Economics and Political Science) 
•    Kayode Soyinka (Africa Today Group publisher)
•    Dr Sue Onslow (ICWS) 
•    Mahua Moitra (member of parliament for the All India Trinamool Congress party) 
•    Professor George B N Ayittey (president of the Free Africa Foundation, Washington DC, and emeritus professor of economics)
•    Dr Juanita Cox (ICWS)
•    Caleb Orozco (executive director and founding member of the United Belize Advocacy Movement) 
•    Gabi Calleja (chair, Malta Gay Rights Movement)
•    Steve Letsike (co-chair, South African National AIDS Council)
 
Taking Stock of the Commonwealth will be held remotely via the Zoom internet platform on 24 June, 8am–8pm. Its sessions will be recorded and made available on the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ website.