The Commonwealth in troubling times


There has been an assumption that the Commonwealth comprises States that naturally cling together, sharing common interests and aspirations. Despite their diversity in ethnicity, religion, geography, size and culture, it has been assumed that they could remain cohesive under the Commonwealth banner because of their historical links to Britain and the legal and administrative systems that resulted from those links. But, in reality and especially over the last two decades more diversity and less commonality have evolved in Commonwealth membership, and diversity has produced division.

Commonwealth member States have forged alliances with other countries and with other groups of countries on vital matters such as trade and investment, and defence and security. These alliances now loom large in their concerns in practical ways and have, to some extent, dwarfed their links to the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary not a treaty organisation; it is not a defence and security organisation; it is not a trade organisation; it is not a health and education organisation; and despite the modest (though important) resources of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, it is not an aid organisation. It does provide technical assistance, advice and advocacy in all the areas just listed, but while these contributions are important to developing Commonwealth countries, other agencies and other alliances with far greater resources fulfil bigger needs and, therefore, command greater allegiance.

Essentially, the Commonwealth is a Club; A Club with rules. Membership is voluntary and governments can choose to withdraw at any time. To get into it and to remain a part of it, members are expected to conduct themselves according to the rules which are embodied in the many declarations that Commonwealth governments have made over the years setting out the values and principles for which their countries stand.

When governments sign-up for membership of the Commonwealth, they sign up to all these values, not only the ones that suit them from time to time. It is these values – taken collectively – that define the Commonwealth; it is adherence and commitment to these values, all of them that distinguishes the Commonwealth; it is pursuit of these values that give the Commonwealth relevance within its own member countries and influence in the international community.

The Commonwealth would be far more relevant to its people and more credible to the international community if it comprised States that are genuinely committed to expanding human understanding and development within their own countries and among all nations, than if it simply sought to maintain and expand its membership despite the violations of its values and principles by its member governments.

The Commonwealth itself is no longer British. That ceased in 1949 with the creation of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. And, if it was not obvious before that the Commonwealth had ceased to be a “British” organisation, it was certainly obvious when, in the 1980s and 1990s, Commonwealth governments stood up against the British government over the independence of Southern Rhodesia under majority rule and when Britain was isolated by the Commonwealth over the imposition of sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

This is why the governments of the Commonwealth and the Secretariat of the Commonwealth have to work continuously and diligently to build trust, confidence and understanding among themselves and in the Commonwealth as an association. But, such trust, such confidence, such understanding and belief will not emerge by themselves, nor should they be presumed to exist. They require constant vigilance, promotion and advocacy by those who are charged with the Commonwealth’s full-time stewardship.

That task begins with the Commonwealth Secretariat. Its leadership should be concerned with keeping the worth and relevance of the Commonwealth alive and vibrant, even if that task runs the risk of leaders, such as the President of The Gambia, withdrawing from the association because the Commonwealth’s declared values restrain policies of discrimination and victimization.

In this context, it is incumbent on the Secretariat to work with governments at the highest levels constantly, to warn them of potential conflicts and tensions, to build bridges, to advise corrective action that should be taken by any of them that violate Commonwealth values, and to recommend CMAG action should corrective action not be taken. The criteria for the Secretariat’s work should be the Charter of the Commonwealth and all the values and principles that it embraces. There can be no other.

Those Commonwealth values, enshrined in the Charter, include sustainable development and social transformation to build economic resilience and promote social equality – importantly “to meet the basic needs of the vast majority of the people of the world”. Despite its extremely limited resources, the Commonwealth has performed well in this area over the years, and even though its Budget has been reduced in real terms, the Commonwealth Secretariat has delivered in the areas of its competence and capacity.

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