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The Commonwealth’s approach to conflict prevention is marked by respect, impartiality and discretion. This means its work often flies under the radar, but no less important argues Tres-Ann Kremer, Adviser and Head, Good Offices for Peace at the Commonwealth Secretariat, in the latest edition of Overseas

Landing in Zambia last September, I thought about the importance of the mission I was about to begin. It was my first assignment since being appointed advisor and head of Good Offices and Peace at the Commonwealth Secretariat. I was there to support the work of Professor Ibrahim Gambari, the Nigerian scholar and diplomat that Secretary-General Patricia Scotland appointed as her special envoy to facilitate a national peace dialogue.

Just weeks before the Secretary-General herself had visited the country and met with President Edgar Lungu, and the main opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, who was in prison at the time. Working with the government, opposition parties, civil society, religious bodies and a number of other stakeholders, she was able to negotiate a commitment from leaders to engage in forward-looking political dialogue and to address issues of common interest ahead of the next election in the country.

Since this commitment from the leaders and Mr Hichilema’s release from prison, the Commonwealth’s Good Offices has continued to work with a wide range of stakeholders in the country.

By the end of my mission, Professor Gambari was able to conceptualise a national mechanism that will include key individuals, groups and bodies, and will oversee and monitor the progress and implementation of the dialogue.

This is just one example of the importance and effectiveness of the Commonwealth’s conflict prevention and Good Offices role, which involves working primarily with leaders and aims to promote Commonwealth political values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law; enhancing efficiency; transparency; and accountability in governance through the effective separation of powers among the three branches of government- parliament, the executive and the judiciary.

Indeed, the post-Cold War era brought with it unprecedented threats to peace and security, a surge in popular demands for democracy, tolerance and prosperity, a dramatic increase in intra-state conflicts and a concomitant increase in demand for, and acceptance of the Commonwealth’s good offices engagements.  Consequently, a succession of “Special Envoys” have been appointed by Commonwealth Secretaries-General to assist member countries with internal disputes and potential conflict situations. We believe this is a testament of the Commonwealth’s high stature and the calibre of expertise it can call upon to provide political and technical advice through the deployment of Special Envoys and Advisers.

When Lesotho had its first coalition government in 2012, the deployment of Commonwealth Special Envoy Rajen Prasad of New Zealand, who has in-depth knowledge of coalition governance in a mixed-member proportional parliament, was instrumental in supporting a broad-based dialogue and consultations on coalition governance, and identifying pathways for critical areas of governance reforms.

These kinds of efforts are underscored by the Commonwealth’s ability to understand and respect sensitivities, historical circumstances, legal tradition and local culture, and to enable dialogue in difficult political situations. The Commonwealth will only intervene when it is invited to do so and has the consent of the member country involved.

Much of the intergovernmental organisation’s conflict prevention and good offices work is predicated on the access granted to the Commonwealth, and in particular the Secretary-General, as well as on the sense of trust the organisation enjoys, flowing from its sensitive approach in dealing with member states and its desire to promote home-grown solutions that have the buy-in of a country’s citizens.

In problematic and contested situations, it is important that the Commonwealth is seen as a ‘helpful friend’ that is respectful, impartial and discreet and not a ‘strict authoritarian parent’. In addition, that it has the capacity to ensure the sustainability of its political efforts by supporting the country with appropriate and inclusive technical advice and capacity building programmes.

The Commonwealth’s focus on promoting strong political values has yielded significant results. Notably, it has created a conceptual framework which supports important aspects of democracy such as holding free and fair elections, enhancing the independence of the judiciary and strengthening national adherence to best practice in international human rights. 

The Commonwealth has been particularly successful in supporting elections, including through election observation and bolstering electoral management bodies.  The credibility it has built up in this field has created a valuable entry point for conflict prevention and good offices engagements and long-term partnerships in institution building activities.

Yet, the Commonwealth remains conscious that its good offices and conflict prevention capacity must continue to keep pace with the evolving nature of conflict and requirements of peace. The increasing power and decreasing accountability of traditional and non-traditional media and the rising strength and reach of civil society have ensured that international organisations are more accountable to how their values are upheld and perceived.

Under the leadership of Secretary-General Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretariat is in considering how it can use more sustainable approaches to peacebuilding, involving women, youth and marginalised communities. The restructuring of the Secretariat has been carried out with cognisance of the interconnectedness of the sustainable development goals to which all our member states are committed. We believe this multidisciplinary approach will be even more effective in enabling sustainable peace and accelerating prosperity in our member states. 

That said, the Commonwealth is a small organisation with limited presence - its resources and leverage do not match those of bigger and wealthier organisations or state actors. Perhaps the Commonwealth’s greatest advantage in the realm of conflict prevention and good offices is its ability to complement high-level political engagement with bespoke technical assistance. In this sense, it welds together development work and conflict prevention imperatives with specialist in-country knowledge, while preserving the valued trust of member states and citizens which allows it to effectively support them through the difficult situations they face.

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