Insight: Fanfare fading for the Commonwealth

As the Queen’s baton begins its journey, Dani Garavelli assesses whether our dysfunctional family of nations retains any relevance
The Commonwealth Baton. Picture: PAThe Commonwealth Baton. Picture: PA
The Commonwealth Baton. Picture: PA

AS THE Queen’s Baton left the UK to start its 190,000-kilometre journey through 70 nations and territories last week in advance of the 2014 Games in Glasgow, it was accompanied by all the colour, fanfare (and hint of Empire) we have come to associate with the word “Commonwealth”. At Buckingham Palace, where the Queen slipped her secret message into the transparent cylinder encased in a lattice titanium frame, there were was the usual flutter of flags and the swish of kilts and saris. At Glasgow Airport, where it left for Delhi, the cultures were intertwined when the Desi Bravehearts performed with bagpiper Johnny Gauld. By the time it wends its way back to the opening ceremony in July next year, the baton will have traversed forests and plains, snow-capped mountains and island idylls – a symbol of the diversity and unity of its disparate members.

It has long been thus; ever since Elizabeth II’s first Commonwealth tour as Queen, a six-month journey through 13 countries by land, sea, rail and air, undertaken shortly after her Coronation in 1953, we have grown used to seeing footage of members of the royal family meeting dignitaries and watching tribal dances in exotic locations.

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The Queen is passionate about her role as the head of this affiliation of member states (most of them former colonies) established in the post-war years as a succession of countries gained their independence, but still desired to maintain their links with Great Britain. Throughout her reign, the Queen has made frequent visits to her major realms (the 16 countries where she is still head of state), and made a point of attending every Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), although she will miss the one to be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka next month on health grounds. In March, she demonstrated Britain’s ongoing commitment by signing a new Commonwealth Charter, which lists 16 core beliefs, including upholding democracy and opposing all forms of discrimination, ostensibly shared by all members.

The quadrennial Commonwealth Games, which put the host city on an international stage, are the most visible symbol of the “rich cultural tapestry” which has survived the formation of other more powerful groupings – Nato, the EU, the UN and the G20 – and create a buzz of excitement around the concept of Commonwealth.

Yet to many, the organisation is an unpalatable throwback to a distant past when Britannia lorded it over much of the developing world.

President Yahya Jammeh may have been more concerned about criticism of his government’s human rights violations than the organisation’s “neo-colonialism” when he announced Gambia’s decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth earlier this month, but there are those who question its relevance in the 21st century.

Although it does provide an important forum for smaller nations which, in the Commonwealth unlike the UN, are accorded equal status to larger ones, the benefits of membership are quite ephemeral, particularly as Britain long ago entered into preferential trade arrangements with its fellow EU members. With a tiny budget (one per cent of Britain’s Department for International Development) and a secretariat the size of the UN HQ cafe staff, many of its critics dismiss it as a talking shop. But perhaps the biggest dent to its credibility is the growing perception of double standards. Although the Commonwealth is supposed to represent an alliance of countries committed to democracy, many of its current members are led by despots and have a dubious record on human rights. At present, homosexuality is illegal in 41 of its 53 members, with the “offence” often punishable by lengthy prison sentences or flogging.

Though the Commonwealth does send monitors to elections, particularly after coups, and has the power to suspend or expel members (Fiji is suspended for its failure to hold elections since Frank Bainimarama seized power in 2006) it can be slow to act against countries who seem to hold its core values in contempt.

Last week, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper announced he would be staging a unilateral boycott of next month’s CHOGM because of human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lankan government against Tamil separatists in the country’s long-running civil war. Sri Lanka is not the only country guilty of violations. Claims of execution by the security forces in Nigeria, human trafficking in Ghana, the lack of rights for women and the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan are among many issues in Commonwealth countries causing international concern. The Sri Lankan situation was particularly invidious, however, as hosting the CHOGM means taking over the chair and gaining a place on its ministerial action group, which investigates member states’ human rights records. Harper has said the government is also looking at withdrawing its $20m-a-year contribution, as he says he wants to ensure taxpayers’ money is being used wisely.

The irony is that while Canada is questioning its membership, other countries are keen to join. Mozambique and Rwanda have been welcomed on board despite having no colonial links with Britain, and Algeria, Madagascar, Sudan and Yemen hope to follow suit, leading secretary general Kamalesh Sharma to call the Commonwealth “the club of the 21st century”.

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So can the Commonwealth really survive beyond Queen Elizabeth’s reign? Is the soft power it continues to exert enough to justify its existence? And what can be done to ensure that its member states actually practise the values they claim to espouse?

Most analysts agree the Commonwealth is something of a historical anomaly. Founded by the Balfour Declaration in 1920, which established the “separate and equal” status of the dominions of the British Empire, it was expanded several years after India gained its independence to include sovereign nations no longer under the control of the British monarchy.

Today, it represents 2.2 billion people – almost one third of the world’s population – yet operates on a shoestring. Though Australia, Canada and the UK provide two thirds of its budget, it makes little dent on the national purse; in 2009, the UK contributed £4.6m to its running costs compared to £12.5m to the OECD and £76m to the UN. Even so, some critics see the use of the former palace Marlborough House in London as the HQ of its secretariat as excessive, and have accused it of ineffective administration.

While the Commonwealth lacks any real economic clout, the absence of the US does provide an opportunity for less powerful nations to speak more freely about their domestic concerns. On the diplomatic front, too there is no doubt it has played a key role in resolving conflicts, particularly in South Africa, where it led the boycott against the apartheid regime. Pakistan was twice thrown out after General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999, rejoining when democracy was restored.

Advocates of its behind-the-scenes diplomacy point out that seven out of the top eight African countries in an index of good governance are Commonwealth members. Yet it is difficult to take its new charter seriously at a time when it appears to be turning a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s violations.

Another indicator of the Commonwealth’s reduced status is how little countries such as Zimbabwe, which withdrew after its suspension, and Fiji, seem to be affected by not being members. According to New Zealand-based geopolitics consultancy, 36th Parallel Assessments, Fiji was isolated in the short-term – losing aid as donors aligned to the West came to view it as a rogue state, but the vacuum left was quickly filled by other countries, especially China.

Though the Queen’s enthusiasm for the Commonwealth is undiminished, that is not always true of British politicians, particularly under New Labour. Former general secretary Sir Don McKinnon has claimed that Tony Blair “put [the Commonwealth] in the same category as fox-hunting: it belonged to another age”. In 2011, then Foreign Office minister Lord Howell reasserted Britain’s commitment in a speech to the 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference. Citing a Commonwealth Society paper, he claimed the relative importance of intra-Commonwealth trade had increased – not decreased – over time. “Over the last two decades the importance of Commonwealth members to each other as sources of imports has grown by a quarter and by a third as destinations for exports,” he said. Howell insisted he wanted the Commonwealth to continue to make its voice heard on climate change and the related issues of energy security and energy transition.

The concept of the Commonwealth also appeals to Eurosceptics, with Boris Johnson recently calling on Britain to rekindle its relationship with the Commonwealth countries it “betrayed” in favour of the EU. Yet – significantly – the organisation has failed to adopt one of the key proposals of the Time For Urgent Reform report written by the Eminent Persons Group set up to chart the Commonwealth’s future: that it should appoint a human rights commissioner (a move the UK supported). As the razzmatazz builds in the run-up to the Glasgow Games, the Commonwealth will once again be seen as an emblem of shared history and values. But unless it is prepared to address its shortcomings, when the closing ceremony is over, the spotlight is likely to shift once more to its failure to live up to its own high standards. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1