Commonwealth faces new crises but the end is not nigh

BFFs no more: Queen Elizabeth and former Gambian High Commissioner Tamsir Jallow in 2006. Steve Parsons/PA

All is not well with the Commonwealth of Nations. Gambia’s announcement last week that it has withdrawn from the association was followed hard by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying he would boycott next month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting over human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. He also warned Canada is reviewing its 20% funding for the Commonwealth Secretariat and £15m funding to Commonwealth development projects.

The two critiques have come from opposite ends of the spectrum of members. The Gambian government, led by the highly idiosyncratic president Yahya Jammeh, has a poor human rights record. Clearly the hypersensitive president was fed up by British and other Commonwealth countries’ public criticism and finger wagging. In contrast, Canada has a well established record of active support for democratisation and human rights, firm constitutional protection for its own minorities, and has been consistently critical of Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses.

And so it seems the Commonwealth – that unique values-based association of now 53 member states, almost all of whom are former British colonies – is facing one of its periodic existential crises, which will require another significant reinvention. Based on past Commonwealth crises – and the organisation has endured many – the omens are fair. But this is not going to be a sudden transformation.

What’s the point of the Commonwealth?

The modern Commonwealth may have its roots in British imperial history, but to regard it as an outdated 19th century relic or clapped-out vehicle for British neo-colonialism is a fundamental misrepresentation. It certainly suffers from lack of public knowledge, and an excessively low profile.

What is the Commonwealth for? This was easy to say in the days of apartheid South Africa. The Commonwealth stood for racial justice and development, a clear media “good news” story. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of apartheid, the Commonwealth’s mission started to become more problematic. The organisation suffered, rightly, from criticism that it was free with complaints about repressive regimes in Southern Africa but remarkably resistant to setting its own house in order.

Colombo? No, one’s not going either. Chris Radburn/PA

From 1991, the Commonwealth evolved into a values-based organisation to promote and support democracy, democratisation and respect for human rights. This is not simply along the lines of a Westminster model, and promotes accountable government based on universal secret franchise, freedom of speech and association, backed by the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, and acknowledges a variety of democratic models of governance. Closely tied to this is the Commonwealth’s long standing support for development, which is indelibly linked to democracy, socio-economic progress and stability.

How does it do this? Through peer-pressure: sending election process monitoring teams (again, these are invariably small because of limited funds – particularly when compared to outfits such as the Carter Centre – and the post-election reports have varied in their willingness to pull punches.)

The Commonwealth also promotes professional and civil society activism, an increasingly important impulse to democratisation since the 90s, and uses a peer-review mechanism through the Commonwealth Ministers Action Group’s “watching list”. This matters to small states, as it is tied to the opinion of larger bodies such as the EU, or individual national exchequers.

But the dominant mantra in the Commonwealth is “consensus”, which has become more problematic with the growing size of the organisation, the inclusion of small states with different national interests from the larger ones, and public expectation of delivery on its high-sounding principles, embedded in the new charter. Yes, some members have successfully defied international pressure to support democracy and human rights: Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Fiji, Sri Lanka and the Gambia come to mind. But equally the Commonwealth does have its qualified success stories: Nigeria, the Maldives and the Solomon Islands.

Valid criticism

The Commonwealth has certainly got its critics. Cynics argue it is a pillar of the British monarchy. It’s true, the Commonwealth has helped provide a wider visibility and purpose to the institution of monarchy and the Queen, who heads the association and remains Queen of 13 member countries. But she has also provided the invisible glue for the Commonwealth, through charisma of office and accumulated unrivalled knowledge and personal contact with leaders through her reign.

Another gibe is that it is (yet another) ineffectual talking shop, focusing excessively on process rather than results. More valid criticism is the association is too big, and so too unwieldy; also too small and ineffective. At a third of the size of the United Nations, and with a fraction of the budget, its members span G-20 members to tiny island states facing the existential crisis of climate change and rising sea levels. Its bureaucracy, the Commonwealth Secretariat regularly attracts comments of inefficiency.

You know you want to. Lewis Whyld/PA

All true to certain degrees. But the positives of membership are the access of association, and incomparable networking: the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings enable heads of state access to larger powers, and to find out their concerns (which officials are always uncomfortable with). The Commonwealth “family” – that multiplicity of professional and civil society organisations – provide an impressive network of links, solidarity and support.

What are the ramifications of leaving? Prestige? That is in the eye of the beholder. Access to developmental funds? The Commonwealth’s resources are limited; individual national governments play a far greater part. Swift access to advice and experts? This is very important compared to ponderous large international bureaucracies. Education and scholarships? Not insignificant. Knowledge networks? This is the Commonwealth family’s ace, as they were there well before LinkedIn.

Like any top club, the Commonwealth needs to be discerning about its members. Its mantra of “consensus” needs to produce perceptible results, not cosy compromise. The politics of how to achieve this is at the heart of the current spat, but it’s not last orders yet.

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