Questioning the relevance and value of the Commonwealth of Nations is nothing new – for such has occurred ever since the modern Commonwealth was created in 1949. However, doubts have intensified in recent time about the voluntary association of now 53 countries. Claims are repeatedly made that the organization is no longer relevant or useful. Its persistent portrayal is that of a relic of Britain’s colonial past or a hypocritical grouping, which declares commitments to shared values but fails to uphold them.
The Commonwealth is now, once again, at a crossroads. Its member states can allow it to continue a slow march to oblivion, or they can rejuvenate and re-energize it to make it work in their mutual interest and for the benefit of the global community. While the Heads of Commonwealth Governments are at the centre of these options, the organization’s Secretary-General and the Secretariat have very special roles. Heads of Government are busy managing the affairs of their own countries, and responding to pressing challenges within their regions and internationally.
Therefore, the task of creating a vision and purpose for the Commonwealth that would appeal to leaders of the Commonwealth and invoke their support falls substantially on the Secretary-General. If the Secretary-General does not proffer a vision of the Commonwealth that is politically appealing to, and motivational for, Heads of Government, and if the Secretariat does not deliver work that excites the imagination of governments, non-governmental organizations, the media, academia and the people of Commonwealth countries, the association could wither and die.
For Britain, the single largest contributor to the budget of the Commonwealth Secretariat and its technical assistance arm, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC), the Commonwealth will have to find a broader base of relevance – other than an association of Britain and its former colonies – to sustain commitment. As for its former dominion members, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India, the Commonwealth, as it now stands, holds little attraction for advancing their interests in today’s major issues – such as increasing trade, enhancing security, safeguarding against terrorism, and managing the challenges of climate change.
Largely, this is because, apart from climate change, the Commonwealth has not taken on these issues – not even as a facilitator of inter-governmental discussion and a catalyst for international initiatives. Even on climate change, the effort made to focus attention at the 2009 Summit in Trinidad and Tobago has not been followed-up in ways that stimulated governments to see the Commonwealth as a beneficial forum.
The governments of bigger developing Commonwealth countries in Africa and Asia are also struggling to find meaning for their priorities in the work of the Commonwealth. With the exceptions of South Africa and India, they continue to be sidelined in the major economic and financial decision-making bodies of the world and they have had to engage non-Commonwealth countries, such as China, to progress their development agendas.
The small member states of the Commonwealth – now numbering 31 and defined as having populations of 1.5 million or less – increasingly question the attentiveness of larger Commonwealth countries to their severe challenges. Low attendance by Heads of Government and Ministers of the big Commonwealth countries at meetings create misgivings in the minds of leaders of small states about the usefulness of the Commonwealth as a mechanism for addressing their concerns.
Small states are at a critical juncture in their history. Increasingly, they are marginalized in the international community. Both large developed countries and International Financial Institutions behave as if small nations are not only irrelevant, they are a nuisance. Hence the concerns of small states are either ignored or barely tolerated. Development assistance is drying-up; terms of trade are worsening; access to concessional financing has virtually disappeared. This is occurring at a time when climate change and sea level rise are threatening the existence of some small states and materially affecting the economic life of others.
In these circumstances, it is urgent that the causes of small states be advocated strongly and effectively in the Commonwealth and the wider international community. The Commonwealth Secretariat must, therefore, become machinery for such strong and effective advocacy. For the Secretariat to do so, the Secretary-General must be someone who has fought in the diplomatic and negotiating front line for small states and who has not only the sensitivity to their plight, but the knowledge of their circumstances born of experience.
The Commonwealth is the most important of all multilateral organizations for small states because it is the only forum which provides the opportunity for leaders of small states to meet regularly (and as equals) with leaders of larger and more powerful countries.
No other organization provides the chance for the Head of Government of small Caribbean states, for instance, to meet the Head of Government of Britain, Australia, India and South Africa as an equal to discuss frankly and openly his/her country’s challenges and opportunities. That is why small states cannot allow the Commonwealth to wither and die. Small states need the Commonwealth to be vibrant and effective so that it can advance their interests.
In recent years, an increasing focus by Australia, Britain and Canada (ABC) on democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Commonwealth countries, has led to a widening division within the organization. The argument is raised continuously by representatives of developing countries that the ABC’s emphasis on these matters is at the expense of economic development upon which the governments of developing countries place high importance.
While this perception is mistaken, there have been inadequate efforts to demonstrate that the great portion of resources is indeed spent on development.
These fractious and divisive conditions have arisen from years of neglect in which the Commonwealth could have been reformed and inspired by its leadership. Its slide away from its fundamental purposes should have been arrested and new ways created to maintain its collegiality.
The absence of vibrant initiatives to keep Heads of Government fully engaged in preserving and strengthening the association has led to the inertia and lack of enthusiasm in which it now languishes.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and at Massey College, University of Toronto. He is also a candidate for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General)