Commonwealth Week 2023 was very special as it celebrated the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Commonwealth Charter by HM The Queen on March 11th, 2013, and the 50th anniversary of Commonwealth Youth Programmes. 2023 was designated the Year of Youth by Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kigali in 2022.
Rotary International President Jennifer Jones visited London for five days in Commonwealth Week with her husband Nick Krayacich and Rotary International Vice President Nicki Scott. Rotary International is one of 82 accredited organisations to the Commonwealth and has two Rotary Representatives to the Commonwealth: Judith Diment MBE and Doug Wills. We are part of the Rotary Representatives to the UN and International Agencies Network.
Our 31 Representatives arrange high level visits for the Rotary International President to help raise awareness of Rotary and its seven areas of focus, our role in the polio eradication programme and to develop partnerships with like-minded organisations and to inspire others so they wish to join our clubs.
We started the week celebrating International Women’s Day with an event hosted by the Rotary Club of London on the theme of Unleashing and unlocking potential of young women.
Jennifer chaired a panel of three young women: Abbie Breakwell, a wheelchair tennis player, Grace O’Malley President of the Rotaract Club of London, and training at Royal College of Music to be an opera singer, Jellilat Oyetunji, President of Rotary Club of Chiswick and Brentford, and a computer specialist working in the innovation department of BT. They were joined by Arif Zaman, Director of the Commonwealth Business Women’s Network (CBWN).
I had the privilege to be on the panel with @JenJonesRotary and other inspirational women for the Unleashing Potential event. #Ambassador #empoweringwomen #inclusion #WorkingTogether @EveSConway @Jannine_Paul pic.twitter.com/eieOJhYMsx
— Abbie Breakwell (@AbbieBreakwell) March 14, 2023
There was a wide ranging discussion on gender equity and gender equality and actions needed to empower women to enable them to realise their full potential. There is clearly synergy with Rotary and CBWN and discussions will continue to enhance the existing relationship to work together on mentoring for entrepreneurship, networking and mutually beneficial programmes to enhance gender equality.
Commonwealth Day was a whirlwind of memorable events. We started the day attending the very moving Memorial Ceremony at the Commonwealth Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill. This was attended by government Ministers including UK Foreign Minister James Cleverly, heads of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Mayor of London and leading Commonwealth NGOs, military bands and the Commonwealth Children’s Choir.
The Chairman and President of the Memorial Gates, which were inaugurated by HM The Queen in 2002, are Lord Bilimoria CBE and Baroness Flather DL respectively. It includes two plinths with eternal flames.
Lord Bilimoria gave a moving address highlighting that this year’s ceremony was in honour of the service and sacrifice of the Windrush generation as 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush.
Robert Flather gave an address on behalf of his mother Baroness Flather DL stressing the importance of the Commonwealth of Nations, now 56 countries and the remarkable contribution of more than 5 million men and women who volunteered to serve with British Armed Forces from the Indian sub continent, Africa and the Caribbean in the first and second world wars.
Clive Myrie, broadcaster and author spoke eloquently on behalf of the Windrush generation and the struggles of his family and many others who arrived in the UK in the 1950s. This was followed by the playing of the last post. More than 40 leaders then proceeded to lay wreaths including Rotary President Jennifer Jones.
It was deeply moving to attend yesterday's wreath laying ceremony at the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill, in honour of the five million men and women from India, Africa and the Caribbean who served with the Armed Forces during WWI and WWII. pic.twitter.com/V2m1c62s5Z
— Cllr. Callton Young (@CalltonYoung) March 14, 2023
We then moved on to Westminster Abbey for the Commonwealth Day Service accompanied by ten Rotaractors and the President of Rotary Club of London Ian Balcombe. The Commonwealth Day Service is a multicultural and multi-faith service and featured a procession of young flag bearers representing each of the 56 nations of the Commonwealth. The theme of the service this year was the Year of Youth and this was reflected in the wonderful entertainment from young people from around the Commonwealth.
The Royal family in attendance included Their Majesties the King and Queen Consort, the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh. During the Commonwealth Day Service His Majesty King Charles 111 addressed the gathering as Head of the Commonwealth for the first time.
Delivering his Commonwealth Day Message from the great pulpit he hailed the extraordinary potential of the Commonwealth stating: “The Commonwealth has an incredible opportunity and responsibility to create a genuinely durable future – one that offers the kind of prosperity that is in harmony with nature and that will also secure our unique and only planet for generations to come.
“The myriad connections between our nations have sustained and enriched us for more than seven decades. Our commitment to peace, progress and opportunity will sustain us for many more.”
The service organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society is broadcast live and has an audience of over 70 million.
President Jennifer, Nick and I then attended a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by King Charles III attended by all the Royal family, government Ministers from the UK, and Foreign Ministers from Commonwealth countries, Commonwealth High Commissioners and representatives of accredited Commonwealth NGOS. We met King Charles III, who is interested in Rotary’s mangrove projects, the Queen Consort, who is patron of Shelterbox, and The Princess Royal, who has spoken at several Rotary conferences and the Toronto Convention and is interested in the polio programme.
We also had the pleasure of meeting the Princess Royal’s husband Tim Lawrence, who speaks to many Rotary clubs about his naval career, and the Duchess of Edinburgh.
This was networking at the highest level in the beautiful surroundings of the State Apartments with its magnificent art collections. It was good to connect President Jennifer to the Canadian High Commissioner, and other High Commissioners. It really was quite a day!
We arranged several media interviews for President Jennifer including an hour long interview on Bloomsbury Radio, an interview with the Evening Standard and one for The Ramphal Institute podcast ‘Ramphal Dialogues’.
Speaking after the Bloomsbury Institute interview, Arif Zaman said: “I think this was one of the best interviews I have done and in time I hope it will act as an historical record of a remarkable woman in a remarkable week that helps to make Rotary International better known and better understood.”
Coinciding with President Jennifer’s visit was the publication of an article by her in The Parliamentarian magazine, which is circulated to all politicians in the 56 Commonwealth countries, and beyond.
The Commonwealth Youth Summit was taking place during Commonwealth Week and Jennifer attended one of the sessions for a lively interactive session on partnerships and networking.
More than 40 young representatives from Commonwealth countries attended and they are interested in joining Rotary and setting up a Commonwealth Rotary E-Club. We will work with the Commonwealth Youth Council to implement this.
The Commonwealth has an incredible opportunity and responsibility to create a genuinely durable future – one that offers the kind of prosperity that is in harmony with nature and that will also secure our unique and only planet for generations to come.”
Our next port of call was the Palace of Westminster, home of the UK Parliament. We enjoyed a brief visit to the House of Lords hosted by Baroness Anne Jenkin where we joined a meeting of Conservatives for International Development chaired by Baroness Sugg, who was launching a new report on gender equity.
We then headed to the House of Commons for a meeting on polio eradication hosted by Bob Blackman MP and Rotary attended by Aidan O’Leary Director of Polio at WHO, Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP Minister for Development In the Foreign Office and Sunil Sharma of Conservative Friends of the Commonwealth.
Andrew Mitchell gave an excellent speech committing the UK government’s continued support for the polio programme and he announced that he was taking on the role of Gender Polio Champion for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
The following day we visited the celebrated artist Rosa Branson to view a very large oil painting of the history of the polio eradication programme. Rosa is gifting this to Rotary to help raise funds and we discussed various ideas to implement this.
We stayed all week at the Royal Overseas Club (ROSL) which is steeped in Colonial and Commonwealth history, It was founded in 1910 and admitted both men and women from the start, the first London club to do so.
Jennifer gave the ROSL Public Affairs Series Lecture on Global Challenges and the role of civil society using examples from Rotary’s seven areas of focus. The meeting was chaired by The Honourable Alexander Downer and recorded for distribution on YouTube.
An all Women Trade Mission from Canada visited the UK in Commonwealth Week led by Trade Minister the Honourable Mary Ng. The 40 women run women-owned and women-led businesses all in innovation, clean technologies, communications technologies and the life sciences.
They met many UK entrepreneurs and innovation technology companies from around the UK and visited the Cambridge Innovation Centre. We were invited to a networking meeting with them at the Bloomsbury Institute with Knowledge Quarter London Innovation District which is a hub comprised of businesses, research centres, arts and cultural organisations, museums, and universities all within a one mile radius of Bloomsbury.
These include the new European HQ for Google, the Crick Institute, the British Museum, the British Library, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Saddlers Wells Theatre. This was a fabulous event conducted in speed dating style which meant we had a chance to meet many people. Several had Rotary connections in Canada including Karolyn Hart who is from Windsor, Ontario and had been mentored by Jennifer Jones! Several from the UK and Canada expressed interest in joining Rotary.
We attended a meeting at the South Africa High Commission for a lively discussion on the Commonwealth Charter organised by the Commonwealth Foundation. One of the panellists was His Honour Justice Michael Kirby from Australia, who drafted the Commonwealth Charter, we had the privilege of meeting him earlier in the week.
One of President Jennifer’s aims for this Rotary year was for her to be able to interview world leaders when she is visiting countries on her Impact Tour. So her final engagement in London was a visit to the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat at Marlborough House to interview the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Patricia Scotland.
In a wide ranging interview, they discussed many of the world’s pressing problems, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the existential threat of climate change and the downturn in the global economy caused by the Ukraine war. They are both the first women in their respective roles and they discussed gender equity and how we can get more women leaders. The interview was recorded on video and will be distributed widely on social media by Rotary and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
This was a wonderful week of Rotary engagement at all levels and with a wide range of audiences, and for me epitomises the value and power of the Rotary Representatives to the UN and International Agencies Network, to create partnerships and projects and to inspire more people to join our organisation to do good in the world.