24th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Concludes in Malta

Alicia Nicholls

Heads of Government of the Commonwealth Caribbean joined other leaders of the 53-state Commonwealth Group of Nations for the 24th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta on November 27-29. The meeting was held under the theme “The Commonwealth: Adding Global Value” and comes in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and immediately precedes the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21).

The agenda focused on the following themes: peace and security, human rights and good governance, migration, sustainable development, small states, climate change, trade, youth, gender quality and women’s empowerment, public health, current situations, movement of Commonwealth citizens, Commonwealth collaboration and the election of the new Secretary General.


Baroness Patricia Scotland was elected the 6th and first female Secretary General of the Commonwealth. It was agreed that Guyana would be one of the member governments to serve on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) for the next two years.

The final communiqué released by the leaders includes several noteworthy points of specific importance to the Commonwealth Caribbean, and other small island developing states. The leaders also released a separate statement on climate change.

Climate Change

  • Developed Commonwealth countries committed to assisting in mobilizing US$100 billion per year by 2020 to address the adaptation and mitigation needs of developing countries.
  • A Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub has been established to build the capacity of Commonwealth small and other climate vulnerable states to access climate finance with regional support.

Trade & Freedom of Movement

  • A voluntary Commonwealth Trade Finance Facility was launched to increase trade and investment finance, in particular for small and other developing economies with limited access to trade finance.
  • Leaders acknowledged a proposal for a “Commonwealth Advantage” under which Commonwealth governments will consider measures to enhance access to each others’ countries more easily and for longer in keeping with their national legislation and international obligations regulating visa policies. A working group has already been working on this.

Peace & Security

  • Commonwealth leaders recognized the growing trend of recruitment of youth persons by extremist groups as fighters, including from some Commonwealth countries.
  • Leaders renewed their commitment to implement and support national strategies to counter these threats, including the need to address recruitment and radicalization of youth via the internet and Commonwealth programmes to raise awareness and prevent young people from falling victim to radicalization and terrorism.
  • They called upon all member governments to implement their obligations under the UN Security Council Resolution 2178(2014) on foreign terrorist fighters in full and to join or fully implement the Arms Trade Treaty.

Border Disputes in Guyana and Belize

  • The leaders endorsed the outcome statement of the Commonwealth Ministerial Group on Guyana following its meeting in September 2015, and reaffirmed their “unequivocal support for the maintenance and safeguarding of Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
  • They also welcomed the signing of thirteen cooperation agreements between Belize and Guatemala and reiterated their full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belize.

Small States

  • A Commonwealth and Maltese government-funded Small States Centre of Excellence will promote the interests of small states and provide targeted capacity building programmes and other support.

The full statements may be accessed here:

Commonwealth Leaders’ Statement on Climate Change 

Final Communique 

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Dominica-born Baroness Scotland elected first female Commonwealth Secretary General

Alicia Nicholls

Another Caribbean national has made international history! Today Dominica-born Patricia Scotland QC, Baroness Scotland of Asthal was elected by Commonwealth leaders during the Heads of Government conference in Malta as the first female Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Today’s electoral victory for Baroness Scotland was the culmination of a long drawn out candidacy race which saw her vying against another distinguished Caribbean son of the soil, Sir Ronald Sanders. Baroness Scotland was nominated by Dominica, the land of her birth, and her nomination was supported by Barbados and Belize. Renowned diplomat, Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua & Barbuda’s ambassador to the United States, was nominated by Antigua & Barbuda and enjoyed most CARICOM countries’ support. The third distinguished candidate in the race was Botswana’s Ms. Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwambe, former Deputy General of the Commonwealth.

Baroness Scotland was born in Dominica in 1955 and moved to the UK with her family when she was only three years old. She  has had a long and distinguished legal career as a barrister and jurist. At only 35 years of age she became the first black and youngest female Queens counsel in 1991. She was created a peer in 1997.

She has held several ministerial posts in the UK including becoming the first female Attorney General of England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2007 (later Advocate General of Northern Ireland). During her tenure several reforms of the British criminal system were undertaken including the introduction of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act.

She was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron as Prime Ministerial Trade envoy to South Africa in November 2012. She is the founding patron of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence.It is therefore not surprising that in 2008 she was named by the Guardian newspaper as the most powerful black female Briton. Baroness Scotland is married and is the mother of two sons.

Baroness Scotland will be the second Caribbean national to have held the post of Secretary. The first was Sir Shridath Ramphal of Guyana. The Secretary General of the Commonwealth is the head of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The Secretary General is elected in a closed meeting by the Commonwealth Heads of Government and is allowed to serve a maximum of two four year terms.She will officially take office on April 2016, succeeding incumbent Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma.

Baroness Scotland’s bid for CARICOM support of her candidacy was not without controversy. Many commentators interpreted the inability of CARICOM states to reach a consensus on a single regional candidate as yet another sign of increasing fragmentation within the region. Though Baroness Scotland holds dual Dominican and British citizenship, some commentators in the region were of the view that Baroness Scotland’s almost exclusive British upbringing  and career meant she was not a “true” Caribbean candidate but a UK candidate, which may compromise her loyalty to the region.

The other candidate Sir Ronald Sanders had enjoyed the majority of CARICOM states’ support. He has had a long history of service to the region in a variety of capacities, including serving on the Commonwealth Eminent Person Group and was seen by many in region as the ideal choice  as someone with his hand on the pulse of the issues facing the region. There were concerns about whether Baroness Scotland had done enough in her career to represent Caribbean interests and whether, as someone who has spent almost her entire life in the UK, could be the advocate the Caribbean needs to represent its interests and those of small states.

In spite of these concerns, there is no doubt that  Baroness Scotland has had a long and distinguished career as an attorney and in public service and will bring a considerable breadth of knowledge and experience to the post at a time when there are concerns about the declining prominence of the Commonwealth on the world stage and questions about its geopolitical relevance and role today. The Commonwealth is not a trade bloc or an organisation per se but a voluntary association of 53 states, most of which were former British colonies. Together the Commonwealth comprises 33% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s countries united by shared values, historical links and a common language. A recent Commonwealth report also reveals the growing importance of intra-Commonwealth trade.

A Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group was re-established in 2009 to ‘undertake an examination of options for reform in order to bring the Commonwealth’s many institutions into a stronger and more effective framework of co-operation and partnership’. Pursuant to this mandate, the Group formulated the “A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform” in 2011 which put forward several recommendations for reform. The Commonwealth Charter, the first recommendation of the EPG, was inaugurated in 2013.

Small states, such as those in the Commonwealth Caribbean, comprise more than two-thirds of the Commonwealth’s membership. They face many unique challenges, including growing marginalisation of their economies, trade preference erosion, high indebtedness, vulnerability to natural disasters, and the impacts of climate change.  The Commonwealth has played an important role over the years as a collective voice advocating in various multilateral fora for recognition of issues which are particular concern to small states.

Of specific  interest to Caribbean states and small states in general are the recommendations in the EPG Report which speak to promoting development,  empowering small states by strengthening their capacity and resilience, dealing with their high levels of indebtedness and action on climate change and existential threats. Each of these recommendations has emphasised the key advocacy role to be played by the Secretary General.  For instance, the recommendation was made for the Secretary General to establish High-Level Advocacy Missions to engage in dialogue with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank in order to make progress on several issues.

As the incoming Secretary General Baroness Scotland is poised to play a key part in reforming and redefining the Commonwealth’s role in the twenty-first century, including furthering and enhancing its work as a forum for cooperation on issues of development, human rights and democracy and as a mechanism through which small states can have their voices heard.

It would be remiss of me if I did not conclude by expressing how excited I am as a young Caribbean woman about Baroness Scotland’s election, just like I am whenever I see examples of Caribbean women both at home and in the diaspora making their imprint on the world stage. I congratulate Baroness Scotland on her election and wish her a successful tenure!

Further information on Baroness Scotland may be found here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.





Intra-Commonwealth trade projected to increase to $1 trillion by 2020

This week the Commonwealth of Nations released its Commonwealth Trade Review 2015 entitled “The Commonwealth in the Unfolding Global Trade Landscape: Prospects Priorities Perspectives”. The report which was released ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta this week details the trade performance and trends in the 53-state voluntary grouping and discusses prospects for future intra-Commonwealth trade. The Commonwealth comprises a diverse set of countries, most of which are former British colonies. It includes developing and developed countries, as well as small states and land locked states.

Though not a trading bloc, trade amongst Commonwealth states is already substantial and growing. Intra-Commonwealth trade has grown almost 10% annually since 1995 and was estimated at $592 billion in 2013. It is projected to reach over 1 trillion in 2020.The report emphasises that there is scope for more intra- Commonwealth trade due to the historical ties, shared values, long established trade, familiar administrative and legal systems, use of the English language mostly and strong diasporic communities.

Commonwealth Trade

Some key points from the report:

  • Total combined Commonwealth exports of goods and services were $3.41 trillion in 2013 and accounted for 14.6% of global exports in that year.
  • Developing Commonwealth states increased their share of Commonwealth exports from 36% in 2000 to over 50% in 2013. This expanded share was attributed mainly to Asian countries which comprise 4/5 of total Commonwealth developing country exports in 2013.
  • Merchandise exports comprised 76% of all Commonwealth exports while the remaining 24% is services exports

Commonwealth Caribbean Trade

Caribbean states, along with Pacific states, comprise the majority of small states in the Commonwealth. The report reveals that:

  • Total Commonwealth Caribbean exports in 2013 comprised only 1.14% of total Commonwealth exports of goods and services and 2.25% of total Commonwealth developing country exports of goods and services.
  • Commonwealth Caribbean exports have grown from 14 billion in 2000 to 39.1 billion in 2013 and are forecasted to reach 41.2 billion in 2015.
  • Trinidad & Tobago accounted for 60% of all Commonwealth Caribbean goods and services exports in 2013, with its total exports of goods and services reaching 24.7 billion in 2013. The other top Commonwealth Caribbean exporters were Jamaica, the Bahamas and Barbados.
  • Intra-Caribbean exports account for 55 per cent of Caribbean members’ intra-Commonwealth exports, while developed countries accounted for 40% and developing countries was 25% in 2013.
  • Services accounted for 60% of Commonwealth Caribbean countries’ exports in 2013 and were dominated mainly travel trade, followed by transport and other business services.

Other major points made in the report:

  • Commonwealth small states’ share in world trade has declined from over 0.7% in 1980 to just 0.46% in 2011, with loss of preferences being a major factor. Small states are also faced with declining export orientation of their economies; export GDP ratio of small states has fallen while it has risen globally. This is compounded by the numerous competitiveness challenges small states face, including their small domestic markets, unfavourable geographical location.
  • China has grown as a major trading partner in the Commonwealth, with Commonwealth States exports to China increasing from 19 billion in 2000 to 268 trillion in 2013, while Commonwealth states’ imports from China have grown from $16 billion in 2000 to $359 in 2013.
  • The report also mentions the many opportunities which exist within the Commonwealth for enhancing trade and suggests ways in which developing countries can improve their trade performance. These include through the use of trade preferences, aid for trade, addressing the implementation gap, promoting the role of private sector and the global trade support architecture.

The full report is available on the official website of the Commonwealth here.

The Caribbean and the Isis Threat

Although the Caribbean has remained largely isolated from the terrorist threat, recent developments have caused concern in the region. This issue of the Caribbean and the Isis threat is explored on one of our favourite blogs Barbados Underground:

From the article:

A few years ago it was all about Al Qaeda, now the world has become preoccupied with the threat from ISIS. Although some will challenge the degree to which the two terrorist organizations […]have been manufactured by the foreign policy of the West, BU is concerned that the Caribbean may be dragged into a cesspool of geopolitics in the near future.

Read the full article here.

The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and Caribbean Small Island Developing States: Challenges and Opportunities

Alicia Nicholls

Getting raw sugar from a sugar factory in Guyana or Suriname to supermarkets and kitchens half-way across the world involves many different customs processes and paperwork. The World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement seeks to cut the red tape and reduce the transaction costs and delays in the movement, release and clearance of goods across borders through the harmonisation, simplification and acceleration of customs procedures.

Trade facilitation, along with investment, competition policy and government procurement, was one of the four “Singapore Issues” which developing countries were opposed to including in the multilateral negotiation agenda at the 5th WTO Ministerial in Cancun in 2003. However, negotiations on trade facilitation were eventually launched in 2004 (pursuant to Annex D of the July Package) with the “aim to clarify and improve” relevant aspects of trade facilitation articles under the GATT 1994″ in order to speed up the movement, release and clearance of goods, including goods in transit.

After nearly ten years of negotiations, the TFA was concluded at the 9th WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali, Indonesia in 2013. It is the only multilateral trade agreement to be concluded so far out of the deadlocked Doha Development Round and the first since the WTO was established twenty years ago.  A separate Protocol of Amendment was adopted by WTO members on November 27, 2014 to insert the TFA into Annex 1A of the WTO Agreement.

The TFA will enter into force once two-thirds of the WTO’s 161 states (as at April 2015) ratifies the agreement. So far of the only 52 countries which have already ratified the agreement, Trinidad & Tobago and Belize are the only countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to have done so, while Mauritius is the only other SIDS worldwide to have done so. A report published by UNCTAD in September 2014 on the status of implementation revealed that though a priority, trade facilitation is a major challenge for developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) and that some of the major barriers to implementation are lack of resources and of legal frameworks.

Caribbean Economies are trade dependent

Trade facilitation is important for Caribbean economies which have a high dependence on trade. Limited natural resources and lack of scale make most Caribbean SIDS (with the exception of Trinidad & Tobago) highly dependent on imported food, fuel and medicines, while their export profiles are characterised by a narrow range of exports and export markets. They have limited participation in global value chains and face declining terms of trade.

Smaller Caribbean SIDS have largely diversified from economic dependence on mono-crop agriculture to services trade, mostly tourism and/or financial services. However, the major commodities exporters in the region (Trinidad & Tobago and the mainland countries of Guyana, Suriname and Belize) rely on exports ranging from oil and natural gas in Trinidad & Tobago and Belize, to aluminium, rice and raw sugar in Guyana and Suriname.

Importance of Trade Facilitation

Despite market access opportunities created by trade agreements, a major complaint for Caribbean SIDS exporters, especially small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), have been the cumbersome hurdles they face when seeking to export to foreign markets. These hurdles include not just complex customs procedures but also stringent sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards (SPS) and technical barriers to trade (TBTs), these latter two are covered in other WTO agreements (i.e. the SPS and TBT Agreements).

Customs procedures vary by country. By standardising and simplifying customs procedures, reforms pursuant to the TFA can enhance access and predictability for Caribbean SIDS exporters in foreign markets and promote export diversification.

As the industrial action by customs officials in Barbados earlier this year showed, customs delays can negatively impact businesses and consumers. These delays can stem from the time taken to process applications for obtaining import or export licenses to the length of time for barrels and containers to clear ports.The quicker goods clear customs the quicker they can reach businesses and consumers for use as inputs or as final goods. Efficient customs release and clearance is particularly important for time-sensitive perishable products such as fruit and meats. Loss of perishable goods equals lost revenue to businesses.

Transparent customs procedures and rules can also limit the opportunity for corruption by officials at checkpoints. Moreover, as import duties are still important revenue sources for Caribbean SIDS, modernisation of customs collection procedures can facilitate increased tariff revenue collection.

The Agreement

The TFA is divided into 3 sections: general provisions, special and differential treatment provisions for developing country members and least-developed country members (LDCs) and institutional arrangements and final provisions.

It provides binding obligations in relation to procedures for pre-arrival processing, electronic payment, procedures allowing the release of goods prior to the final determination of customs duties, taxes, fees and charge, a risk management system for customs control, post-clearance audits, establishment and publication of average release times, procedures to allow expedited release of at least goods entered through air cargo facilities and procedures for releasing perishable goods within the shortest possible time.

Provisions requiring publication and availability of information (such as applied rates and import/export restrictions) on the internet and for allowing traders and “other interested parties” the opportunity for comment and if necessary consultations before introducing or amending laws of general application to trade in goods, aim to promote transparency. While this latter provision may sound like an invasion of policy space, developing countries should take advantage of this provision to have their say on proposed policies by developed countries which might have an impact on their exporters.

The Agreement also includes some ‘best endeavour” provisions, such as encouraging members to use relevant international standards in their formalities and procedures and to establish a single window for traders. The Agreement further provides for the establishment of a permanent WTO committee on trade facilitation and member states are required to designate a national committee to facilitate domestic coordination and implementation of the provisions of the Agreement.

Special and Differential Treatment

The TFA presents numerous benefits for Caribbean SIDS. However, Caribbean governments’ capacity to implement these trade facilitation reforms varies considerably as evidenced by the difference in their Category A notifications.

The special and differential treatment provisions in Section II of the Agreement take this into account by linking countries’ commitments to their capacity to implement them. Moreover, LDCs will only be required to undertake commitments to the extent consistent with their individual development, financial and trade needs or their administrative and institutional capabilities.

These flexibilities are based on the modalities that had been agreed in Annex D of the July 2004 Framework Agreement and paragraph 33 of and Annex E of the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration. Developing countries and LDCs are to receive assistance and support for capacity building to implement the provisions of the Agreement in accordance with their nature and scope.

Developing and LDC countries are required to categorise each provision of the Agreement  based on their individual implementation capacity, with Category A being those measures they can implement by the time the Agreement comes into force (or within one year after  for LDCs), Category B being those which they will implement after a transitional period following the Agreement’s entry into force and Category C meaning those which require capacity building support for implementation after a transitional period after the Agreement’s entry into force. Most Caribbean SIDS, including Barbados, have now submitted their Category A notifications.

Trade Facilitation Facility

A key developmental element of the TFA, the Trade Facilitation Facility (TFF) was established in July 2014 to provide assistance to developing countries and LDCs to ensure “no WTO member is left behind”. The TFF is to provide assistance in helping them assess their capacity to implement the TFA, by maintaining an information sharing platform to assist with the identification of possible donors , providing guidance on the implementation of the TFA through the development or collection of case studies and training materials,  undertaking donor and recipient match-making activities and providing project preparation and implementation grants related to the implementation of TFA provisions in cases where efforts to attract funding from other sources have failed.

According to the World Trade Report 2015, once it enters into force, the TFA is expected to reduce total trade costs by up to 15 per cent in developing countries.

Status of Implementation

At the recently concluded COTED meeting in Georgetown, Guyana, CARICOM members reported on their status of TFA implementation. However, this status information has not been made public. Despite this, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a ‘compare your country on trade facilitation performance’ portal which allows for comparing countries on trade facilitation indicators.

Looking at Barbados’ performance for instance, Barbados “matches or exceeds the average performance of high income countries in the areas of fees and charges and simplification and harmonisation of documents”, with performance improving in appeal procedures and automation. However, some ground was lost in information availability and internal border agency cooperation.

Implementation Challenges

Trade facilitation reforms can be beneficial to Caribbean SIDS.  This does not mean however that there will not be significant implementation challenges, particularly the infrastructure costs related to technology and equipment, and administrative, human resource and training costs. There will also be costs associated with raising private sector awareness. These costs are not just one-time costs but are recurring.  In light of competing resource demands and their limited access to concessionary loans these costs will not be easy for cash-trapped Caribbean SIDS which already have high debt to GDP ratios.

The flexibilities in the Agreement allow states  to implement the provisions in accordance with their capabilities and there are aid for trade initiatives such as the European Development Fund of which Caribbean SIDS have been taking advantage in varying degrees.  Other challenges for implementation include limited human resource capacity and the need to reform existing laws and regulations to give effect to obligations.

Surveys of developing countries and LDCs conducted by the WTO found that trade facilitation remains a high priority for developing countries. For Caribbean SIDS there certainly has been some interesting developments on this front. The governments of several Caribbean states have openly stated their countries’ firm commitment to trade facilitation and their recognition of its potential for economic growth.

Trinidad & Tobago was recently approved for a $25 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to help strengthen the country’s Single Electronic Window for Trade and Business Facilitation Project (TTBizLink). With the aim of becoming a logistics hub, Jamaica has recently established a Trade Facilitation Task Force. Technical assistance and aid for trade facilitation are also included in the EC-CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement, which includes a protocol on mutual administrative assistance in customs matters.Moreover, in Barbados’ latest Trade Policy Review 2014 WTO members noted the considerable progress the country made with respect to the adoption of trade-facilitation measures. Recently, the island  also amended its Customs Act to allow for post-clearance audits.

Taking full advantage of the technical assistance, aid and capacity building assistance under the TFF will be key for Caribbean SIDS in their implementation efforts.

The Case of Mauritius 

As the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius was the first SIDS to ratify the Agreement, it provides useful lessons for Caribbean SIDS. Seizing the opportunity to boost its competitiveness, Mauritius has received assistance from the International Trade Centre and UNCTAD, including for the establishment of the Mauritius National Trade Facilitation Committee. One can read about the Mauritius experience here.


Despite the high costs and challenges of implementation, trade facilitation reforms pursuant to the WTO TFA have the potential to bring many benefits to Caribbean SIDS. By streamlining the flow of cross-border trade, the ratification and speedy implementation of the TFA by Caribbean SIDS and their trade partners will allow Caribbean exporters to capitalise on the market access openings available in foreign export markets, thereby boosting Caribbean SIDS’ export competitiveness and GDP growth, with spillovers for income and job creation. However, regional exports will still need to meet SPS and technical standards which for many exporters still remain significant barriers to trade.

Ratification and full implementation  of the TFA by all CARICOM states could also improve Caribbean regional integration by easing transaction costs of exporting across CARICOM states. Implementing these reforms also send a strong signal to the business community of these countries’ commitment to improving their business environment.

Full realisation of the benefits of the TFA will not be automatic and the degree will largely be contingent on the pace and depth of implementation of the Agreement by  Caribbean governments and their trading partners and on stakeholder buy-in. Stakeholder holder consultation and strong coordination between public and private actors will be crucial for the formulation of implementation plans and the monitoring and assessment of the impact of the reforms. In this regard, lessons can be learnt from the Mauritius experience. Trinidad & Tobago and Belize have already made the step by ratifying  the Agreement. It is hoped that other Caribbean SIDS will soon follow suit.

The full text of the Trade Facilitation Agreement is available here:

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.