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Small states will not be silent spectators at their funeral arrangements

By Sir Ronald Sanders

Feature Address at Seminar on Climate Change

Organised by

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London) and

The United Nations Association (Westminster Branch)

On Thursday, 25 March 2021

(The Commonwealth has a great opportunity to contribute to the outcome of COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 as its extraordinary diversity enables it to speak without regional or economic bias. Whilst all its members can identify their key priorities, the challenges facing Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are common to many of its members, the largest community of SIDS worldwide. What experience can these bring to COP26 and share to wider benefit? What message should they take to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in June and how might its outcome link to the UN Conference in November?)


It would be nothing new for the Commonwealth to engage on Climate Change and its harmful effects globally, and more particularly on small island states.  It has done so many times in the past.

However, circumstances have worsened to such an extent that a robust and joint Commonwealth position is now again necessary and urgent.

The Commonwealth first addressed the idea of Climate Change and sea-level rise thirty-four years ago - in 1987 - at a Heads of Government Meeting in Vancouver.  

The matter was not formally on the agenda, 

But in a discussion of a Report from the World Commission on Environment and Development, the then President of the Maldives, Abdul Gayoom, spoke of the vulnerability of his own country.

He warned that with most of the land less than two metres above the sea, the future of his country - and others with similar topography – could be threatened by global warming and sea level rise.

A further intervention by the President of Bangladesh, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, on the devastating effects of flooding led to a decision by Commonwealth leaders to commission an examination of the issues.

An expert group was established, led by Dr Martin Holdgate, and its report “Climate Change: Meeting the Challenge” was published in 1989. 

The report was prominent on the agenda of the 1989 CHOGM in Kuala Lumpur, resulting in the Langkawi Declaration.

The declaration was both a breakthrough and a disappointment.

For while Heads of Government recognised that their “shared environment binds all countries to a common future” and committed to a programme of action, the developed Commonwealth countries did not commit to do anything more than to “support” the Holdgate Report’s findings and to support low lying and island countries in “their efforts to protect themselves… from the effects of sea level rise”.  

The wealthier Commonwealth countries made no commitment to the Holdgate recommendations “to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and bring their own concentration to stability”.

Little meaningful attention was made to the observation that “adaptation was not possible especially for the poor and become progressively more difficult with large climatic changes”.

So, while the Langkawi Declaration was a good start to Commonwealth action on the adverse effects of Climate Change, an ominous marker was also laid down, suggesting that wealthier countries regarded the issue as one primarily about small islands and low-lying developing countries. 

That pattern continued as a divide between rich and poor countries in the Commonwealth and globally right up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015.

Of course, today – 32 years after the Holdgate Report and the Commonwealth Langkawi Declaration - no country is immune from the effects of Climate Change.

For example, the reliability of water supply in  Southern and Eastern Australia is expected to decline because of reduced rainfall and increased evaporation, affecting irrigation, domestic and industrial water use, and environmental flows.  Further, heatwaves, storms and floods are also likely to have a direct impact on the health of Australians, and there is evidence of these occurrences.

Canada is already experiencing effects on heat-related illnesses in the dense metropolitan areas of Quebec and Ontario.  Scientists have warned that increasing frequency of forest fires, storm surges, coastal erosion, landslides, snowstorms, hail, droughts, and floods could have devastating impacts on the critical infrastructure of British Columbia and Alberta.

In Britain, the latest report of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change shows that “approximately 1.8 million people in the UK are living in areas at significant risk of flooding - a number which could increase to 2.6 million by 2050. Just under 12 million people in the UK are also dangerously vulnerable to future summer heatwaves, particularly the elderly or people with pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease”.

I draw attention to these events to point out that Climate Change and Sea-level rise are not an “us” and “them” issue in the Commonwealth anymore, even if it was once perceived in those terms.

Indeed, globally, the problem is shared by all; and the future of all is now imperilled.

As an example, in the United States, a National Climate Assessment, mandated by the US Congress and published in 2018, identifies the cost to the United States economy of projected climate impacts: $141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise and $32 billion from infrastructure damage by the end of the century, among others.    These figures will steadily rise, reducing the size of the US economy and adversely affecting the lives of the US population.

As we look to the June meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government and what they might do on this vital issue that spares neither the rich nor the poor, it is useful to bear in mind a significant point made by the Holdgate Expert Group in 1989.

They said, “while the Commonwealth, even taken as a whole, was not a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, its institutions – both technical and political – were sufficiently strong “to guide the world by its example”.

Whether or not Commonwealth institutions are still sufficiently strong to guide the world by example, is far from clear.

It would certainly depend on political will by the Commonwealth leadership.

Further, it is no longer true that the Commonwealth as a whole is not a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Of the ten countries that are the top greenhouse gas emitters, accounting for over two-thirds of global emissions, two Commonwealth countries – India and Canada - are among them.  At least three others – Britain, Australia and South Africa are among the top 15.

The top ten are: China, the US, the EU (including Britain), India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, Canada.

China, the European Union and the United States contribute 41.5% of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries account for only 3.6%.

At the bottom of this list globally are 58 small states.  

The United Nations Development Programme has emphasized that these 58 countries contribute “less than 1 per cent to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions” but they are “among the first to experience the worst and most devastating impacts of climate change with greater risks to economies, livelihoods, and food security”.[1]

Thirty-one of the world’s 58 small and vulnerable states are members of the Commonwealth.

This would suggest that the Commonwealth should play a leading role – as an entry point to the world – in advancing practical programmes and projects, backed up not by only by pledges but by actual delivery of the funds urgently needed to tackle the issues that threaten small islands with extinction and low-lying countries with devastation.

The problem is worse now because of the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on small economies, particularly those highly dependent on tourism.

The tourism industry on which many Caribbean countries depend has been wrecked.  Consequently, economies have experienced shrinkage of up to 30 per cent; unemployment has risen to over 50 per cent in some cases; poverty has expanded everywhere; and revenues have declined precipitously, forcing every Caribbean state to increase debt for which they high rates of interest has been incurred.

To try to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on their economies, many Caribbean countries have paid for quantities of vaccines under the COVAX facility, established by the World Health Organization.  But, orders have not been supplied in many cases, and full supply appears unlikely to meet urgent demand.  

Negotiations with vaccine producers are difficult because supply is limited, and prices are high.  A few countries, including Canada, Britain, the U.S., and the wealthier ones in the EU, have purchased more than 60 per cent of all available vaccines.

Lives cannot be separated from livelihoods.

Many Caribbean countries are in danger of collapsing from a massive economic sclerosis. 

If these conditions are not addressed soon, many Caribbean countries face a crumbling of their security systems from which drug traffickers, money launderers, people traffickers, and organized crime will take advantage to the detriment of Caribbean countries.  Inevitably, there will also be a surge of refugees.

Post-COVID, many Caribbean countries will have much reduced economies, high debt, diminished revenues, and little capacity to recover.

Indeed, the UN has already said that the Caribbean will face ‘a lost decade’ with economies and per capita income declining to 2010 levels.

They will need access to low-cost financing and grants from both International Financial Institutions and donor governments.

To achieve this, the current rules that disqualify middle and high-income Caribbean economies for access to concessionary funding must be altered to include their profound vulnerabilities, and to move away from the overriding criterion which is per capita income.

This latter criterion disqualifies many Caribbean countries from access to soft loans or grants even though they are open economies with high transactional costs for imported goods, services and inputs for production.   What is more a small number of the population, mainly professionals and expatriates earn the bulk of incomes while the larger percentage of the population earn far less.   Per capita income is therefore ‘a false positive’ test.

Additionally, debt has to be forgiven and repayments deferred on easier terms.  If these initiatives are not taken, Caribbean economies will be caught in a poverty trap from which they would not emerge for a generation and, even then, only if they experience no disasters such as hurricanes, prolonged droughts, or flooding – all of which have a high probability of occurring.

Climate Change and sea-level rise hang like a sword of Damocles above the heads of small island states in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Already in the Caribbean, devastation by hurricanes have led to increased costs for risk insurance both for countries and individuals.

Last year, amid significantly reduced income and high demands for dealing with COVID-19, the country insurance risk for several Caribbean countries was paid by Canada – such was the condition of reduced revenues. 

But businesses that already endured high insurance costs from claims related to hurricanes simply closed their doors permanently, unable to afford higher prices.

From all this, it should be obvious that post-COVID Caribbean countries will not have the financial resources to invest in adaptation and mitigation, and should any of them experience a major hurricane, rebuilding will be an extreme challenge.

Scholars and Economists in the Caribbean are arguing that “it is not fair that poor, tiny Caribbean islands are bearing the heavier burden of climate change”.  They say that “Menacing category 5 hurricanes are wreaking havoc on more islands than ever before”, and they ask, “why should Caribbean people lose homes, roofs and families because someone else is playing dirty or just plain dirty”.

They are calling for “environmental justice”, saying “we need to ensure that those who destroy the planet most, bear the consequences most”.

This development should not escape anyone.

People are now becoming energised and radicalised over this issue.

They are no longer silent spectators at their own funeral arrangements.

The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has pointed out that: “Carbon dioxide levels are at record highs. Fires, floods and other extreme weather events are getting worse, in every region”,

He stresses that “If we don’t change course, we could face a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees this century”.

By then, many island nations in the Pacific would have drowned, their people fled, seeking refuge.

In the Caribbean, smaller islands will also drown, and larger islands will suffer significant loss of coastal lands on which their major productive activities such as tourism are centred.

I flag-up for attention that even though these realities are staring in the face of global governments, no inter-governmental attention is being paid to the looming issue of climate refugees – where they go, in what conditions, and with what rights.

Against the background of what has been set out here, it should be clear that, as the UN Secretary-General has said, “COP26 in Glasgow will be a make it or break it occasion”.

So, at the June Commonwealth Heads Meeting, small states should raise their voices.

Their lives and livelihoods depend on it.

They should insist that the Commonwealth – led by its member states who are among the greatest greenhouse gas emitters – India, Canada, Britain, Australia and South Africa take on the role as their Champion at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow.

This is no longer an “us” and “them” game, and while small states are the most vulnerable and face the greatest suffering, no Commonwealth country is immune.

And none should be allowed to kick the can down the road to future generations who will inherit a legacy of disaster.

The Government of the United Kingdom has a key role to play as co-host of the Glasgow meeting.   

Those who are planning the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting should canvass big ideas and big ambitions, including designating Champions against the adverse effects of Climate Change.

Obvious Champions would be Britain, Canada and India – each of which are influential G20 countries; and two of which are members of the G7 that is also meeting in June.

Those champions should be vocal in Glasgow in advocating for:

-        Drastically reducing and ultimately eliminating the cause of climate change while ensuring greenhouse emission reduction efforts are pursued to limit the global average temperature a 1.5 C increase above pre-industrial levels;

-        Increasing the funds and easing the conditions and procedures for delivering money for adaptation and resilience.

-        Developed countries must keep their pledge of channelling $100 billion annually to the Global South. They have already missed the deadline of 2020. 

These are minimal requirements.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was an important achievement on paper.

But the commitments made are inadequate and they are not being met.

The withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement set back the world, not only by its absence from the discussions, but also by the back pedalling of other countries which its withdrawal encouraged.

With the US re-joining the agreement, the opportunity arises for Commonwealth champions to recruit it to the cause.

There was a time when it was said that “while the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world, it can help the world to negotiate”.

We are now at a time when the Commonwealth should give itself greater relevance and meaning by playing that role again.

Thank you.


[i] Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS, and High Commissioner to Canada.  He served twice as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, served on the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth Secretariat and as Adviser to the Secretariat and the World Bank on a vulnerability index doe small states.  He was a member and Rapporteur of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group that produced the seminal report, “A commonwealth of the people: Time for Urgent Reform”, in 2011.

Latest News in Pictures

Participating as a delegate from Antigua and Barbuda in the Summit of 40 Leaders on Climate, organised by us President, Joseph Biden, on 22 and 23 April 2021.  Sir Ronald second from left at top.


With the late Right Honourable Professor Owen Arthur, former Prime Minister of Barbados at his office at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies in January 2020, talking Caribbean integration


Meeting between US Congressional Representatives, Global Banks and Caribbean government representative.  Congresswoman Maxin Waters (centre in red), Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne to her right, Sir Ronald Sanders to Prime Minister Browne's right.  Capitol Hill on November 14, 2019


Signing agreements for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Kosovo and Antigua and Barbuda in Washington, DC on 24 July 2019.  The agreemenst were signed by the Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda, Sir Ronald Sanders (sitting right) and the Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo, Vlora Citaku (sitting left). Frymezin Isufaj and Joy-Dee Davis. Ministers Coundellor (standing left to right)


 Speaking at US Capitol Hill in behalf of CARICOM during Caribbean Legislative Week on 5 June 2019


Meeting Wesley Kirton Co-Chair Caribbean Studies Associaton, US, and Captain Gerry Gouveia of the Guyana Privat Sector at Antigua and Barbuda Embassy, Washington, DC on 4 June 2019


On 15 May, 2019 with the formidable US Congresswoman Maxine Waters who is Chair of the Financail Services Committee of the US House of Representatives.  I had presentred the case against de-risking, withdrawal of correspondent banking relations and blacklisting alone with CARICOM Ministers of National Security. 


 Testifying on 14th May, 2019 before the US International Trade Commission on behalf of Antigua and Barbuda and Caribbaean States on the perennial US trade surplus with the region which reached $7 Billion in 2018. 


Sir Ronald at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, talking trade and other relations between the US and CARICOM countries, especially Antigua and Barbuda, with Cingressman Brad Wenstrup (R-Cincinnati) on  27 February 2019.


Caribbean Ambassadors in Washington with US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Kim Breier, at the US State Department. Sir Ronald third from right in January 2019. 


In July 2018, while in Ottawa for Antigua and Barbuda bilateral talks with Canadian government officials, Sir Ron ran into old and repected friend, Joe Clarke - former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Canada and a great warrior in the anti-apartheid struggle.


With Ambassador Jesus Silvera of Panama, receiving a donation to the rebuilding of Barbuda, June 2018


With OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, on 6 June 2018, signing the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and  Related Forms of Intolerance.  Antigua and Barbuda was the first signatory to the Convention and the second country to ratify the Convention. 

 Signing ceremony in Washington, DC of Abolition of Visa Requirements between Ukraine and Antigua and Barbuda in May 2018.  Ukraine Amnbasador (left) and Joy-Dee Davis, Minister Counsellor, Antigua and Barbuda Embassy (right) 


 With Governor-General of Canada,Her Excellency Julie Payette, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on January 30th 2018.  In addition to beeing accredited to Canada as High Commissioner, I have the honour of sharing the distinction with this amazing former Astronaut of being a Senior Fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto.


In Tobago after delivering feature address at The Tobago Finance week on 13 November 2017.  Photo shows, Economist Terrence Farrell, Sir Ronald, Tobago Deputy Chief Secretary Joel Jack, and Anthony Pierre, Chairman of the Caribbean Association of Chartered Accountants


 In Port-of-Spain, Trinidad speaking at the annual Conference of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Trinidad and Tobago on 9 November 2017


 Speaking at a meeting in Geneva, prior to appearnace at the World Trade Organisation on Antigua and Barbuda's contention with the US government on the WTO award to Antigua over Internet Gaming, September 2017 


 Speaking on Refugees resulting from Climate Change and the growing danger to small island states at an event organised by OXFAM in Washington, DC on 30 October 2017. (Heather Coleman, OXFAM; Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda; Selwyn Hart (Barbados), Lisa Friedman, New York Times)


Sir Ronald speaking at the National Press Club in Washington DC on 12 October 2017.  He was talking about the devastation of Barbuda by Hurricane Irma and the remedies for Climate Change and Global Warming.  To his left are:  The Prime Minister of Grenada Dr Keith Mitchell, CARICOM Secretary General Irwin la Rocque and St Lucia Prime Minister Alan Chastanet


Sir Ronald speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on the security and other threats posed to the Caribbean and the Hemisphere of Climate Change and Global Warming on 13 September 2017


 Sir Ronald (third right) with senior officers of the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington, DC after discussing what assistance could be given in the clean up and rebuilding of Barbuda after Hurricane Irma (Friday, 15 September 2017)


With US Congressman, Ranking member of Committee on Foreign Affairs at Capitol Hill on 14 September, discussiing secutty matters, Hurricane Irma and Barbuda and the US-Antigua and Barbuda WTO issues.  Very helpful.


 With US Congressman Mark Meadows on Capitol Hill talking the US-Antigua and Barbuda WTO issues, and the effets of Hurricane Irma on the island of Barbuda on 12 September, 2017.  Good man. 


 Talking to the Emergency Agencies of the OAS about the impact of Hurricane Irma on the island of Barbuda and seeking assistance on 14 September 2017


Sir Ronald with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on 28 August 2017 discussing Canada-Antigua and Barbuda bilateral matters.


Sir Ronald with the President of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, at the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States in Cancun, in June 2017


Heads of Delegations to the OAS General Assembly in Cancun.  Mexican Presdident, sixth from right, front row.  Sir Ronald fourth from right, front row.


Meeting of Consulation on the situation in Venezuela at the Organisation of American States on 31 May 2017 Sir Ronald (far right).


With Texas Congressman Randy Weber at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, talking energy, water and US-Antigua and Barbuda relations on Wednesday 5 April, 2017 



With my colleague Argentine Ambassador to the OAS, Juan Jose Acuri (right) and the Argentina candidate for election to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rigjts Dr Carlos de Casas on 29 March 2016


 At the International Monetary Fund with Exceutive Director for Canada and the Caribbean, Nancy Horsman, to discuss Antigua and Barbuda matters.


At the Antigua and Barbuda Embassy receiving Antonia Urrejola, the candidate of Chile for the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, on 23 March 2017 


 With the Mexican Candidate for the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, Joel Hernadez Garcia, on 21 March 2017


 At the World Bank on20 March 2017 meeting Christine Hogan, the Executive Director for Canada and the Caribbean, to talk about Antigua and Barbuda matters.


With Joe Barton, US Congressman from the State of Texas in his Office on Capitol Hill on Thursday, 16 March 2017 discussing US-Antigua and Barbuda relations


Hosting a meeting at the Antigua and Barbuda Embassy in Washington, DC of diplomatic representatives of St Lucia (Ambassador Anton Edmunds, St Kitts-Nevis Ambassador Thelma Phillip-Browne and St Vincent Deputy Chief of Mission Omari Williams)


Meeting the Cuban Ambassador to the United States, Jose Cabanas Rodriguez at the Antigua and Barbuda Embassy on Tuesday, 21st February, 2017


With the Ambassador of Ecudaor to the United States, Francisco Borja Cevallos, talking Ecuador-Antigua and Barbuda relations on 13 February 2017


 With US Congressman Gus Bilikakis (Dem,Fl) for talls on Caiptol Hill in Washington


With Charlie Crist, US Congressman (Dem, Fl) for discussions on US-Antigua and Barbuda matters


 With US Senator Jeff Duncan, Chair Foreign Relations Committee talking energy and Citizenship by Investement Programmes in the Caribbean


 With Professor Louis Gates Jr at the Smithsonian National Musuem of African American History in Washington, DC after an evening of enlightening presentations on the neglected story of the building of the US 

Videos of historic Rastafarian occasion at the OAS on 14 May 2018

The You Tube Video below is the historic occasion at the Permanent Delegation of the Organisation of American States (OAS) when Antigua and Barbuda led the way in aplogising for the wrongs done to the Rastafarian community of the Caribbean. It was the first time that a representavive of the Rastafarian community addressed a high-level inter-governmental body.

Another You Tube Video is the Report to the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States on 20 April 2018 on the Antigua and Barbuda General Elections of March 21.   See video of the report on You Tube link below:


Sir Ronald Statements at the OAS

Two statements made at the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States on 20 April, 2018 have been posted in the "Lectures" section.    The statements are on:  The Guatemala Referendum authorising the Government to take the border dispute with Belize to the International Court of Justice; and a Report on the General Elections held in Antigua and Barbuda on 21 March, 2018.

All posts...

Election for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General

Sir Ronald was a candidate for election to the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General In November 2015 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta. View further details here.

Portrait of Sir Ronald Sanders

Sir Ronald Sanders is currently Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States and the Organisation of American States.


Welcome to this website. I created it in 2009 in response to many requests for access to commentaries I have written, lectures I have given and interviews that have been broadcast or printed in the media on matters related to the political economy of the Caribbean and the Commonwealth.  They are all avaialble here for free.

These requests have come from university students, publications, academics, government officials and business people in many parts of the world. In the course of responding to these requests, I have been pleased to build up a network of global contacts who now receive my commentaries weekly.

From a career that encompassed broadcast and print journalism, development and commercial banking, diplomacy and international negotiations in both the public and private sectors, I am privileged to draw on wide and varied experiences to write, lecture and undertake consultancies.  The latter activity was susended while I carry out my present functions as Ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda. 

I have taken the greatest pleasure in receiving comments and criticism from people all over the world that the Internet has made a “village”. I have learned from many of the comments I received. They have caused me to reflect on my own thinking. Through this website, I hope to communicate regularly with all who write to me.

The website is now a permanent repository of the weekly commentaries and lectures going back several years. Anyone is free to access them here, and to cite them provided my permission is sought in advance through the “Contact me” mechanism. A few of the lectures I have given in Britain and in the Caribbean are also posted on the site in a PDF format which can be easily downloaded. Again, I would make the same request to seek my permission before citing the material.

I invite responses to my writings, and inquiries about the experience and knowledge I can bring to achieving the objectives of companies and organizations that do business related to the Caribbean and the Commonwealth.

Kind regards

Ronald Sanders