What’s the point of it? – The oddest of post-imperial clubs
Mar 19th 2016 Economist
“There’s been an existential question mark over the Commonwealth for some time,” says a seasoned diplomat in its secretariat in London. “The Commonwealth has been dead, absolutely dead, for the past eight years,” laments Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society (and a former Economist writer), taking a swipe at the outgoing secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, an urbane Indian diplomat who has run the show since 2008. As Queen Elizabeth nears 90 after 64 years as its titular head, some wonder if the club will survive when she goes.
Ask citizens of the 53 countries that make up the Commonwealth what it is for, and most will shrug. Its most visible moment, which happens every four years, is a sports jamboree. A few years ago the Royal Commonwealth Society, which promotes the club, conducted a poll asking if respondents would be “sorry or appalled if your country left the Commonwealth”. People in its poorer members were likeliest to answer “yes”; those in Britain, Australia and Canada tended to indifference. Few knew much about it; a quarter of Jamaicans thought its head was Barack Obama.
The modern Commonwealth was born in 1949, partly thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, who had declared his country a republic but wanted to stay friends with the former imperial power and other former British dominions. As other ex-colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean joined, “Commonwealth values” (never precisely defined) were promoted, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa struggled to shed their white masters. Under a dynamic secretary-general from Guyana, Sir Shridath (“Sonny”) Ramphal, from 1975 to 1990, the grouping gained clout in world councils.
The Commonwealth’s purpose is twofold: to advance democracy and human rights; and to aid economic development. But on the first score it lacks a proper mechanism for enforcement. And on the second, it is not a big provider of cash. One of its principal boasts is its ability to help the gamut of island states, many of them tiny, that are members. But nowadays many of them look more eagerly to much richer bodies such as the European Union.
It was in 1991, in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, that heads of government declared that the Commonwealth should bolster human rights and democracy. The organization gained respect for the teams it sent to observe elections. In 1995 a ministerial action group was set up to deal with “persistent and serious violators” of those principles. Since then several offenders, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Fiji, the Gambia and Zimbabwe, have been ejected or shamed into leaving, usually temporarily.
But under Mr Sharma the organization is generally thought to have atrophied, especially as a vehicle for upholding democracy and human rights. In 2011 the idea of a commissioner for human rights was floated—only to be sunk by Nigeria, South Africa, India and others. Every two years Commonwealth heads of government meet for a pow-wow known by its initials, CHOGM, pronounced “choggum”. The last was in November, in Malta (pictured above); the one before that, in Sri Lanka in 2013, was overshadowed by the host government’s execrable human-rights record. In the words of Hugh Segal, a former Canadian senator, the Commonwealth was “missing in action” over Sri Lanka, where 40,000 people, mostly civilians, are thought to have been killed by government forces in the closing stages of the civil war in 2009.
The Commonwealth has also suffered from its newer members’ perception that it is run by a coterie of “white” countries, led by Britain, Australia and Canada. To gain more clout it needs the biggest post-colonial members, particularly India, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa and Malaysia, to start pulling their weight. But India’s prime minister has failed to attend the past three CHOGMs. Amartya Sen, an Indian Nobel prizewinner who co-authored a report in 2007 suggesting how to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, bemoans India’s lack of involvement, which he fears is unlikely to change under Narendra Modi.
Mr Sharma says that quiet persuasion has done more to advance democracy than public denunciation would have, for example when Guyana’s government stepped down a year ago after narrowly losing an election. Commonwealth mediation helped Fiji re-embrace democracy and helped guide the Maldives away from its one-party regime in 2009, he insists. He regards his softly-softly approach to Sri Lanka as vindicated by last year’s decision by Mahinda Rajapaksa to bow out as president after losing an election. (A former senior UN official who tracked the proceedings calls this notion “preposterous”.)
To give Mr Sharma his due, the Commonwealth acts by consensus. Countries are meant to carry equal weight in discussions and there are few sanctions short of expulsion. Even the democracy requirement is flexible; the sultanate of Brunei weirdly passes the test.
And despite its weaknesses, the Commonwealth is still a club that countries want to join. Though war-ravaged South Sudan is the only one formally on the waiting list, a string of others have been dandled as “possibles”: Algeria, Burma, Burundi, Ireland, Kuwait, Nepal, Palestine, Yemen. Its very oddness is an attraction. As its proponents often boast, it encompasses a third of the world’s population, a quarter of the UN’s membership and a fifth of the world’s land mass. Most members share a legal heritage and language (though Mozambique broke the English-speaking mould by joining in 1995, followed by Rwanda in 2009). “The Commonwealth is of great value to the world for what it is, before you consider what it does,” says Mr Sharma. “It contributes to global sanity and global wisdom.”
So what’s it for?
The Commonwealth’s real force is as a unique all-purpose network, whose embrace includes trade, education and an array of 180-odd professional bodies, from law to dentistry. In the recent CHOGM in Malta, Jonathan Marland, a British peer and tycoon, relaunched the Commonwealth Business Forum, gathering 1,200 people from 70 countries, including 25 ministers and 15 heads of state. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, praises the club’s ability to “bring Pakistan and India together in a useful format”; its support for his campaign against global corruption; its climate-change advocacy in the run-up to the global conference in Paris late last year; and its “forum for discussions in Africa and in the Caribbean, which can feel ignored and unloved”.
But the ultimate glue of the Commonwealth has undoubtedly been Queen Elizabeth. The headship of the club will not automatically pass to her son and heir. During his life Nelson Mandela was sometimes mooted as a possible successor. But Charles, Prince of Wales, has been steadily advancing his case: Operation Seduction, his friends half-jokingly call it.
Into this strange milieu as the next secretary-general steps Patricia, Baroness Scotland, a dual citizen of Britain and the Caribbean island of Dominica, who was attorney-general in Britain’s most recent Labour government. She may tread softly on human-rights issues, though surely not as softly as her predecessor—her early promise to press for gay rights will displease many African members.
The Commonwealth certainly needs a kick. That carries some risks: it could be mortally wounded if India and a few other big African countries ever walked out. But it is unlikely to die. It is an extraordinary network of disparate peoples bound by an imperial history that seems, even among former subject peoples, to inspire nostalgia as well as resentment. Besides, its assorted people “have the same sense of humour”, Lady Scotland said earlier this month. “No one needs to say ‘I’m only joking’ when saying something ironic to another Commonwealth citizen.”
A Common Good
My response to whether the Commonwealth is worth it is an emphatic Yes!. Most Commonwealth countries often get out more than they put in. When I was heading up the Commonwealth Secretariat, Britain’s concerns were dominated by its relationship with America and with Europe, and by the threats, dramas and problems of the Middle East. Thinking about the Commonwealth was well down the pecking order. But British ministers who have understood the Commonwealth, and who have wanted to expand initiatives, have found a ready forum in the organization. With more than 50 member countries it is a mini UN.
The Commonwealth is no drain on the British taxpayer. A few years ago, my research showed that the cost per British citizen to belonging to the EU was about £60 ($85) a year, to the UN about £10, NATO £2 and the Commonwealth about 17 pence. And never underestimate the 80-plus organisations who carry the name Commonwealth for a variety of linkages and benefits. This grouping is the envy of La Francophonie.
When the Commonwealth moves collectively, that is, when all countries are pursuing the same objective of free and fair elections and good governance, it can act against countries that don’t even pay lip service to those values. The fact that Zimbabwe and Gambia are no longer in the Commonwealth is because of a reluctance by the leaders of those countries to accept, adhere, commit and administer those values.
Sir Donald McKinnon Commonwealth secretary-general 2000-08, Pukekohe, New Zealand
The crisis of the Commonwealth is one of identity rather than purpose. Many people would like it to be an organization defined by shared values rather than an imperial legacy which it isn’t: its members include undemocratic, human-rights violating governments. But one thing Commonwealth countries do share is their people. In 2010 the average Commonwealth country had received around half its immigrants from, and sent half its emigrants to, other Commonwealth countries. They collectively constitute one of the world’s great migration arenas, accounting for about a fifth of all migration globally. Despite differing values and their historical antagonisms, Commonwealth countries have an unparalleled depth of experience in cooperation over migration, and they have much to teach other regions where migration is now wrongly treated as a crisis.
Migration is a defining issue that could galvanize the energy and expertise of the Commonwealth and perhaps even demonstrate its ongoing relevance as an organization. And so, before asking what the Commonwealth is for, it is worth reconsidering what it is.
Small Islands – The Commonwealth offers tiny islands a rare platform for airing their worries
Tuvalu and Nauru, lonely miniature outposts in the western Pacific, are just two of the minnows that enjoy making a splash when they swim with the big fish of the Commonwealth. Once the Ellice bit of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Tuvalu is a string of coral atolls, pictured above, at no point higher than 5 metres above the sea, lying more than 5,000km (3,150 miles) north-east of Australia. Its population is just over 10,000. Nauru, a rock of phosphate poking out of the sea in roughly the same expanse of ocean, is less populous by a rugby team or two.
Both are acutely vulnerable to global financial shocks, natural disasters and climate change. Selling its internet domain (.tv) is Tuvalu’s biggest earner, along with postage stamps and remittances from abroad. Nauru depends almost entirely on selling its phosphate, the price of which fell by three-quarters in the year following the financial crash of 2008, and on aid from Australia. Both statelets sell licences to fishing companies.
Though such tiddlers are members of an array of international and regional bodies, it is at meetings of Commonwealth heads of government every two years that many enjoy using a platform where they are listened to. No fewer than 31 of the Commonwealth’s 53 members are “small states”, defined as having a population under 1.5m or—to include such countries such as Namibia, Papua New Guinea and Jamaica—as having “the characteristics of small states”. Of those 31, 25 are islands, a tally that does not include Britain’s 14 “overseas territories” such as St Helena and Ascension Island in the Atlantic and the Pitcairn Islands (population around 50).
In the past decade or so climate change, a special worry for small islands, has moved up the Commonwealth agenda. (Vanuatu, until 1980 the British-French condominium of the New Hebrides, was due to hold the next Commonwealth shindig, but bowed out after last year’s tropical cyclone.) At the Malta meeting in November proposals on climate change were agreed upon with the eager backing of islanders. Presented the following month to the grand UN climate-change conference in Paris, they added bite to the eventual declaration: an example of how the Commonwealth can project small-island power.