One highlight for the society was the successful launch of The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy (QCC) initiative. In her opening address, Her Majesty referred to her delight in receiving a dedication of rainforests and environmental projects in her name, for the benefit of future generations. The Prime Minister of Malta, the Hon. Dr Joseph Muscat, also welcomed the initiative. This initiative is being led by the society in partnership with the NGO Cool Earth and The Commonwealth Forestry Association. The first seven early adopters of the QCC initiative are the UK, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Belize and Zambia. The goal is to link all 53 Commonwealth countries in a canopy of sustainable forest and indigenous vegetation conservation projects by CHOGM 2018, which will be hosted in the UK in the first half of that year. This is a seminal and timely project, particularly in light of global attention on climate change following the talks in Paris in December 2015 at COP 21.
The society’s engagement with environmental protection was also reflected in its partnership with the International Sustainability Unit at Clarence House on the Prince of Wales’s Commonwealth Environmental Photography Awards ‘Out of the Blue.’ Entries were received from some 50 Commonwealth countries, with the overall winner, Ashley Wee from Canada, awarded her prize in person by HRH The Prince of Wales at the Maritime Museum in Malta. The key initiative of the awards is to increase awareness of the pivotal value of the world’s oceans and the blue economy.
The society participated and ran sessions in the Youth and Womens’ fora, the latter being a new forum to the CHOGM gatherings. The society sponsored delegates to attend these fora from the active Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network established in Malta last May, as well as delegates to the People’s Forum in the form of the Commonwealth Equality Network which furthers LGBTI rights. This helped to consolidate programmes successfully run by the society on gender equality, including child, early and forced marriage, and LGBTI rights.
The society was able to ensure media coverage of its diverse activities during CHOGM week by working with the Civil Society Media Hub that provided media assistance to non-governmental organisations at CHOGM as well as covering the work of the society. This CHOGM ‘first’ will, it is hoped, establish a forward-thinking legacy. While most of the media in attendance was focused on the leaders, foreign ministers and government agenda, the society’s media hub assisted smaller organisations by sending out news, media releases and video footage on the numerous non-governmental activities at CHOGM, thereby raising its profile and creating some attention for the many other issues facing the Commonwealth. Coverage of the Youth, People’s, Women’s and Business Forum would not have been publicised throughout the Commonwealth had the media hub not been there. Media releases, interviews, including with Secretary-General elect Baroness Patricia Scotland, and coverage were sent to the society’s 800 or so media contacts across the Commonwealth, as well as to those of both the Foreign Press Association and the Commonwealth Journalist’s Association. Broadcasters such as Sky News, SBS and ABC Australia all used media and footage issued by the media hub.
The society’s social highlight was an evening reception on the Friday of CHOGM week, attended by the President of Malta, UK Minister of State Hugo Swire MP, High Commissioners, representatives of numerous Commonwealth-accredited organisations and members of the Maltese establishment.
At governmental level, 33 of the 53 Commonwealth countries were represented by their Heads of State. The Maltese host government succeeded in launching the initiatives of a Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, Commonwealth Trade Financing Facility (signed by Mauritius, Sri Lanka, India and Malta as anchor investors) and the Commonwealth Small States Centre of Excellence. The more substantial agreements were the creation of a Countering Violent Extremism Unit to be located within the Commonwealth Secretariat, with governments including Australia and the UK pledging significant funding for the next five years, and a strong intent to negotiate a legally binding resolution to the COP 21 Paris climate change negotiations. In addition to the usual negotiated communiqué, a much shorter statement was issued summarising the leaders’ discussion, a key aim of the Maltese government before CHOGM.
The coming years present a golden opportunity for the modern Commonwealth. 2016 is a year in which Her Majesty The Queen celebrates her 90th birthday and Her enduring support for the Commonwealth will come to the fore. Malta is the Commonwealth Chair in Office for the next two years followed by the UK, which will host CHOGM 2018. Malta, followed by the UK, will both hold the EU Presidency in 2017. This presents a unique opportunity, with the same two Commonwealth countries in the EU troika and both successive Chairs in Office of the Commonwealth, to facilitate two leading global networks to work together on interests of global importance. There is much work to be done. The issues of climate change and sustainable development, building resilient societies and countering violent extremism, and upholding the rule of law and anti-corruption are all important agenda items for this coming period, and challenges in which the society will be keen to play its part.