Patricia Scotland, the attorney general under the last Labour government, has emerged as a frontrunner in the race to become the Commonwealth’s next secretary general. Lady Scotland’s candidacy, supported by the island of Dominica where she was born, has provoked fierce inter-Caribbean rivalry and comments about her Catholic faith. The UK has not formally endorsed any candidate.
Her campaign website pledges to build “consensus on a revitalised Commonwealth” focused on the “twin goals of democracy and development”.
The first black woman to become a QC, Scotland, 60, was a pioneering lawyer. She has been a Foreign Office and Home Office minister as well as a member of the Commission for Racial Equality. She is currently chancellor of the University of Greenwich.
Her rivals for the Commonwealth post include Sir Ronald Sanders, a former high commissioner to London for the Caribbean island of Antigua, Bernard Membe, a one-time foreign affairs minister of Tanzania, and Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, a Botswanan who has served two terms as the Commonwealth deputy secretary general.
The chosen candidate will be appointed during a closed session of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Malta on Friday. The post may not be as influential on the world stage as it once was but is nonetheless a role with significant influence.
There is no formal job description nor any requirement that it should be rotated regionally. The selected candidate, who must be a citizen of a Commonwealth country, can only serve a maximum of two four-year terms. The current secretary general is Kamalesh Sharma, formerly an Indian diplomat.
One news website, Caribbean News Now!, has questioned whether Scotland would have to resign from her position as Dame of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of St George, an organisation that promotes Catholicism, if she became head of a secular Commonwealth whose estimated population of 2.4 billion encompasses multiple religions.
One issue likely to feature at Friday’s meeting is the persistence of laws criminalising homosexuality in many Commonwealth countries. A report by the Human Dignity Trust, which campaigns for repeal of such laws, accuses the colonial era regulations of “encouraging mob violence, boosting rates of HIV infection, [and] hindering economic development”.
It adds that 40 of the 53 Commonwealth member states still criminalise consensual same-sex sexual relations between adults – that is over half of more than 75 jurisdictions worldwide where homosexuality is considered illegal.
“The frequency of criminalisation in Commonwealth jurisdictions stems from the historical fact that criminalisation was an export of British colonial rule,” the report states. “Criminalisation is therefore a specific issue for the Commonwealth to consider and take steps to rectify.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “The UK wants the best candidate for secretary general and will support an assertive, proactive candidate who is willing to take difficult and challenging decisions and overcome divisive topics.
“The next secretary general will need to steer the Commonwealth through reform, and ensure it works to advance both Commonwealth values and development. This requires a track record of leadership and delivery.”