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The Big Picture on Small States: How Can the Commonwealth’s

Small States Navigate Global Challenges?
16 April 2018 - 12:45pm to 2:00pm
Chatham House, London

How can Commonwealth small states navigate today’s global challenges? This was the theme of a
panel discussion on Monday 16 April, jointly organised by the Commonwealth Human Rights
Initiative ( CHRI ) and Chatham House, the UK’s foreign policy think-tank. With 31 states in the
Commonwealth with less than 1.5M people – three fifths of the membership – this is a burning

The first speaker was an Australian minister who pointed out that the diverse range of island states
in the Indo-Pacific all have small economies with a narrow industrial base, which are distant from
trade partners, and vulnerable to climate change with hurricanes and sea level rise. Senator
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, said that
Australia is “prioritising our backyard”, directing 90 per cent of its overseas aid to its smaller
neighbours, and helping them in maritime boundary talks arising from the UN Convention on the
Law of the Sea.

Lord Bates, Minister of State at the UK Department for International Development, pointed out the
drastic nature of hurricanes: Dominica was “wiped out” by events last year, and the UK has an
ongoing programme to support damaged island states to “build back better”.

Patsy Robertson, who chairs the Ramphal Institute, the development think-tank for the
Commonwealth, asked the audience to imagine what it is like to be a small state “in a cruel and
ruthless world.” “They are not big states writ small”, she argued, but have quite different issues. One
of the best decisions they made at independence was to join the Commonwealth, for this is a
supportive family. She instanced an appeal by the President of the Maldives, in the 1980s, for
assistance over climate change which had led to understanding and assistance from the
Commonwealth and UN. “We are going to sink, unless something is done”, he told fellow heads of

The fourth speaker was Caroline Morris, who runs a Centre for Small States in the law department at
Queen Mary, University of London. She said that all of them face challenges of vulnerability and
resilience. How can they handle their relations with larger neighbours? Out-migration and trade
imbalances are a problem as is good governance in societies with a small legal community, where
there are clashes between common law and customary law, and they need to regulate complex
industries such as online gambling and financial services.

Discussion subsequently centred on the need to assist small states to participate more fully in the
international community, so that they are not just recipients of requirements laid down by bigger,
richer states. Senator Fierravanti-Wells instanced Australian finance for Commonwealth small states
offices in Geneva and New York, which had been not unhelpful when Australia joined the Human
Rights Council. The CHRI itself has been training small states diplomats in Geneva on human rights
issues. Danny Sriskandarajah of Civicus, asked whether the multilateral Commonwealth is really
investing enough in its small states work, but the Senator and Lord Bates preferred to emphasise the
national contributions of Australia and the UK.

Richard Bourne, Trustee, Ramphal Institute