Making the most of CHOGM

Tuesday, 17 April 2018 00:53 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Leaders from 53 countries around the world, including President Maithripala Sirisena, are gathering in London this week for the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which began its sessions on yesterday (16 April) under the theme of “Towards a Common Future”.

As ambiguous as the theme is, special attention will be given to areas such as prosperity, security, fairness and sustainability to achieve the common goals of the member countries. The meetings will also include forums that cover issues such as youth, women, business and civil society.

During his time in the UK, the President is scheduled to meet the British Prime Minister Theresa May as well as hold discussions with several other state officials who will be attending the meeting. He is also set to address the Commonwealth Business Council as well as deliver a keynote speech on sustainable development goals.

CHOGM will certainly offer Sri Lanka a chance to strengthen its positions in several key development areas, and facilitate meaningful and progressive change in areas that it is falling behind on.

Improving intra-Commonwealth trade is an important objective for the country. With the changes in Britain’s trading arrangements with other EU members coming into play, an opportunity may present itself to increase trade within the Commonwealth. Commodities like tea, rubber, spices as well as tourism are prominent in the trading that takes place within the Commonwealth, and Sri Lanka’s place among the trading nations can be duly strengthened.

Sri Lanka also needs to diversify in terms of trade in order to take advantage of the growing significance of trade in modern services. A forum of the Commonwealth leaders at the World Trade Organisation in order to examine regulatory barriers to the growth of the modern services trade may be a worthy suggestion during these meetings. Experts believe that the President’s address of the Commonwealth Business Council could even be made an opportunity to encourage business-to-business forums on modern services.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka should also renew its commitment to supporting better female representation in both business and government. Sri Lanka’s attempt at improving female representation in local government institutions may not have had the desired effect at the last election, but Sri Lanka still has an opportunity to improve its soft power on gender issues.

Sri Lanka must also use this opportunity to address issues pertaining to youth empowerment and equality. Youth unemployment is a problem that needs immediate attention as well as the need to involve the youth more deeply in policymaking and governance. Pertinent to Sri Lanka is the growing wave of racism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia, and the youth are a key factor in changing backward mindsets. Therefore, empowering them and encouraging their participation should be a key objective.

Sri Lanka can and should take a front seat in recommending more frequent youth leadership forums and a closer interaction with the CHOGM leadership in order to have their voices and opinions heard on a range of issues.

Among the various objectives the Sri Lankan delegation may have, CHOGM will also be a great chance for the Government to emphasise its commitment to democracy and media freedom in view of the events of Teldeniya and Digana, and the temporary social media restrictions that followed.

The President and his delegation must use this opportunity to strengthen the country’s position in the Commonwealth, and present itself in a new and progressive light with fresh commitments to democracy, not only before the international community, but also before the watchful eyes of the Sri Lankan public.