With the heads of Commonwealth countries meeting in London soon, Weekly speaks to Keith Rennie Allan, British High Commissioner to Mauritius, in his first interview in the country, about the relevance of the Commonwealth and the advantages of joining it. He also talks about the new momentum of the Commonwealth in the light of Brexit.
The heads of government of 53 Commonwealth countries are meeting in London between 16 and 20 April. What exactly is the aim of this initiative?
It is quite an important meeting of the CHOGM as we call it. The prime minister, Theresa May, is quite eager to take advantage of our chairmanship of the Commonwealth, for the time being, to make the organisation more relevant especially for younger people. So, we will have the heads of government of all 53 Commonwealth countries, the most recent being Gambia that has rejoined the Commonwealth and we are pleased that Anerood Jugnauth will be there as well with his delegation.
We have not heard about the organisation for a while. Why has it been so dormant?
It’s a great organisation with 1.3 billion people, which is a third of the world’s population. So it’s a wonderful grouping of countries with a shared history. As you say, maybe it’s drifted a little from one meeting to the next. The secretariat does great work, but maybe it has dropped a little especially with younger people who may not know what it is or what its relevance is.
And what is it?
The CHOGM meeting coming up this month has a theme of working for a common future within the organisation. It has four pillars; the first is working for common prosperity through boosting intra-Commonwealth trade, a more secure future, helping fellow member-countries combat security threats like drug trafficking and cyber-attacks, a more sustainable future… So this is obviously very relevant to Mauritius looking at climate threats and sustainability, a Commonwealth blue charter and a fairer future where we look at democracy and human rights.
As a young person who may be vaguely familiar with the Commonwealth organisation, what do I have to gain through my country joining the organisation?
We have Commonwealth youth associations that gather in different member countries. So there is a lot of exchanging ideas online and on social media. We are literally hearing voices from all over the world about what the youth want out of the Commonwealth. We had a Commonwealth Points of Light 2018 as well and the winner came from Mauritius and she has been recognised by Her Majesty The Queen. There are also programmes for volunteers to help underprivileged people and to combat poverty, so there are a lot of people that see the Commonwealth as a way to do that. As I mentioned, the Duke of Edinburgh scheme as well, which is popular in Mauritius, is part of that. So all these things are getting people interested in the Commonwealth again.
Is this new impetus related to Brexit?
I would not pretend that it’s not related. The UK is leaving the European Union – an organisation that we have a lot in common with and retain friendships with a lot of countries in – but we are leaving and so we will be much more global and international about our relationships. And there is the Commonwealth that we are a member of and we going to try to push and encourage it to see that it can benefit all our Commonwealth countries much more.
Will it open any new opportunities for citizens of member states?
I mentioned a prosperous future that’s supporting trade. A couple of statistics, the Commonwealth accounts for one-fifth of all global trade when you look at the UK, India, Canada, South Africa, Kenya and Mauritius. In 2016, trade was over £94 billion and that’s just from the UK alone. According to the experts, doing trade with intra-Commonwealth countries costs 90 per cent less than with non-Commonwealth countries. And then the new Commonwealth blue ocean charter will help Commonwealth countries such as Mauritius and Seychelles and not just Indian Ocean countries. It will include countries like the Caribbean, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago and small states. A lot more will be announced as the CHOGM comes.
You have been here a few months, and you have seen some of the most traumatic experiences at the head of the state. What is your opinion on that?
That’s an internal matter for Mauritius. The role of the president is of course a ceremonial one. So we have followed that and watched what’s happening. We very much support a transparent approach. Ultimately, it’s up to the government of Mauritius to decide what action to take.
Were you amused, shocked or surprised?
I was not amused of course. It’s not anything to be joking about. I felt for the people of Mauritius that all this was happening just before the 50th independence anniversary of independence. So that took a lot of shine off of it. Having that going on at the same time was unfortunate.
What is your reaction to the dispute over the British Indian Ocean Territory now before the International Court of Justice (ICJ)?
The prime minister knows how disappointed we were that the matter was taken to the United Nations instead of being resolved bilaterally. Obviously, we have a dispute over the British Indian Ocean Territory; that was already before I arrived last June. Mauritius decided to take the case to the UN General assembly and refer the matter to the ICJ. That had already been done. That course of action is moving ahead. While that is happening, there is nothing we can do and the Hague will continue in its deliberations and we will see what happens and what their non-legally binding opinion is at the end of the process.
When you say non-legally binding, you mean it will be irrelevant in changing the status quo?
It’s just a fact. Again we were disappointed that Mauritius took that action. We don’t believe it’s the right mechanism to resolve disputes like this. We will see what the opinion is at the end of the process. Until that happens, we submit our views on that as do other countries and we wait and see what the ICJ, that we respect, says.
It’s almost ironic that at this time Mauritius is participating in the CHOGM while all this is going on.
Obviously, we are pleased that the prime minister will be part of that process. We are all part of the Commonwealth family. It’s important that the prime minister is there and Mauritius plays a part in shaping the future of the Commonwealth. What is happening with BIOT is another issue. But, in the meantime, the Commonwealth is a great opportunity for the UK and Mauritius and all our Commonwealth friends.
While you are talking about collaboration with Commonwealth countries, you are aware that the number of students going to the UK is going down because of the lack of opportunities to come back with any work experience. Do you foresee any changes in Britain’s attitude of ‘come and pay the fees and then go back home as quickly as you can’?
The UK looks at immigration, skills and the job market and will obviously continue to need foreigners to come and help build Britain. We are keen to see Mauritian students going to the UK and many still do. And many Mauritians are happily working and contributing to the UK economy as well. What I should flag as well is that while students continue to go to the UK, we are seeing more and more UK universities opening campuses here. I think we will see more of the UK quality and standards available here, and we will see other Africans also coming here. You have an attractive and safe destination for students to come here.
Aren’t you concerned that more and more students are now opting for Australia and Canada instead?
It’s important to have the choice. I have attended many education fairs here and have seen lots of students showing an interest. So I think at the same time there will be students studying in the UK but also a lot of them staying and getting a UK education locally as well.