Still the Good Fight? The Commonwealth of Nations Turn 60

By Rory Lowings
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2010, Vol. 2009/2010 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

“A Sentimental, disintegrating club for Blimps”

Such was the BBC’s indictment of the Commonwealth after its 1950 Foreign Minister’s conference in Colombo.1 Yet despite the lampoons in its infancy, the Commonwealth of Nations has, in 2009, reached its 60th Anniversary, having increased in size since its foundation from ten to fifty-three independent states. Nonetheless, the soul-searching process within the post-colonial Commonwealth continues.

Where do we go from here? This was the question posed by the Royal Commonwealth Society on the 20th of July this year when RCS Director Danny Sriskandarajah and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband launched the Commonwealth Conversation, a massive public consultation aimed at gauging the opinion of Commonwealth Citizens on the organisation’s future.2 What follows is an attempt to answer this question, by analysing the Commonwealth’s origins, its historical goals, its achievements, and finally, the views of modern critics regarding its future.

The British Commonwealth

Once upon a time, Britain ruled the world. Fully a quarter of the Earth’s surface and population was united under the red, white and blue of the Empire. Had the British Empire remained a sclerotic, sedentary racial hierarchy, like the contemporary French and Portuguese empires, it might have died a slow, painful death, as did they. But Britain’s development of infrastructure, both in education and industry, facilitated the growth of national identities within the Commonwealth, whose claims upon independence grew in direct proportion to British decline during the Inter-War period. 3

After the Second World War, Britain, partly to facilitate the dismantling of an empire it could no longer maintain, but partly too out of a genuine belief in democratisation and racial equity in politics, facilitated the independence of all its former colonies between the period 1947-1997. As early as the Balfour declaration in 1926, the term British Commonwealth of Nations was used to describe Britain and her “White Dominions”, and the ‘British’ element of the title seemingly fell into disuse following the independence of India and Pakistan.4 In 1965, the Commonwealth Secretariat was founded, shifting control away from the Britain’s Commonwealth Relations Office towards a genuinely independent association.5

Geographer David Lowenthal, writing in 1989, described the new independent states of the Commonwealth as an exemplar of “the anti-Imperialist ethos of self-determination”.6 This conception of the Commonwealth has held true throughout the twentieth century. The Commonwealth has championed majority rule in many post-colonial countries around the world. During the period of decolonisation the Commonwealth was able, by brokering the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979, to resolve the bloody and contentious Rhodesian War, granting majority African Rule in the new state of Zimbabwe. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Lusaka, where pressure from member states resulted in the Agreement, has been cited as one of the “Greatest Successes” of the Commonwealth by Malcom Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia.7

Throughout, the Commonwealth presented a clear moral consensus and a united front on post-colonial issues. In the view of Shridath S. Ramphal, Commonwealth Secretary-General in 1986, the organisation represented the “supremacy of community over otherness”, in relation to the “common purpose” of deconstructing racial inequality both in Sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide.8 In his article of 1966, twenty years before, Canadian Professor William B. Hamilton referred to the Commonwealth as “an association unique in world history”,9 in its preservation of political ties despite cultural dissociation.So much is history. When Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced in 1960 to the South African Parliament that the “Wind of Change”10 was sweeping Africa, institutionalised racism was commonplace in the post-colonial world and a clear adversary for Commonwealth governments to unite, despite societal antipathy, against. Since the fall of the Apartheid regime, the Commonwealth dream of a free and equal world has seemingly been realised. Consequently, the organisation finds itself facing a new challenge: how to remain relevant when its traditional purpose – to maintain amicable links and cooperation during the progress of decolonisation – has apparently been served?

That Mysterious Institution Called the Commonwealth

In truth, today the Commonwealth faces problems similar to those it faced sixty years ago. Racism, bad governance, and cultural division between member states are as pertinent issues today as they were in 1949.

The Commonwealth’s core principles, as presented in the Harare Declaration of 1991, include “Peace and order, global economic development, and the rule of international law”, as well as “The Liberty of the Individual” and “Equal rights for all”.11 It has never lacked opportunities to promote these principles abroad.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG)’s ‘Good Offices’, a multilateral peace negotiation body, have administrated, within the last decade, conflict resolution missions in Kenya, Fiji, Zanzibar, Swaziland and Lesotho, as well as overseeing the election process in the Maldives.12 Despite experiencing some success, the editor of Commonwealth Journal The Round Table, Peter Lyon, nonetheless views CMAG’s contribution as disappointing;13 one of the most publicly visible world disasters of the early 21st Century, the violence surrounding the 2008 Zimbabwean elections has seen the Commonwealth, (from which Zimbabwe seceded in 2003 following its suspension in 2002) powerless to help.14 Fiji has been suspended from Commonwealth involvement since the First of September 2009, and little progress in restoring the democratic process has been made.15 Due to differences of opinion in member states, the Commonwealth also faces a difficult decision on whether or not to engage Sri Lankan authorities on the controversial Tamil internment camps in the North of the country.16

The Commonwealth is also involved heavily in economic development – at time of writing, the Commonwealth Secretariat is managing a $400 million USD investment in African private enterprise by The Aureos Africa Fund aimed at consolidating the development gains made by Member States’ economies, and to compensate for the massive loss of capital in the developing world as a result of the 2008-2009 economic crisis.17 Economic support, whether through this type of direct management, by giving business training to individuals with small businesses, as in Botswana,18 or by advising and working with Member Governments in order to construct their own regulators, as with the Petroleum Revenue Management fund in Belize,19 has led, once again, to considerable gains for member states.

That this is virtuous work is without question. The Commonwealth’s approval among member states is considerable:

  • From Britain’s Lord Janvrin, former private secretary to the Queen;

“The Commonwealth is in a unique position to help people understand some of the global issues of climate change and economy in this day and age”20

  • From Trinidad and Tobago, football star Dwight Yorke;

“The Commonwealth unites the world. It brings different ethnic backgrounds together.”21

  • And from Kenya’s Vice President, Kalonzo Musyoka;

“The Commonwealth has the best credentials of any grouping in the world”.22 Optimism is commonplace among world leaders and officials from within ‘the establishment’.

But, as Mr. Musyoka adds in the same interview, “We don’t hear the voice of the Commonwealth enough”.

It may be partly due to the Commonwealth’s media silence that there are considerable misconceptions and a growing tide of disillusion with the Commonwealth, especially in the more advanced Member States. Canadian journalist Doug Saunders puts his finger on the problem; “It no longer means anything to us, for a very good reason: it no longer does anything for us.” Later, he adds; “It’s just as well we’re pulling away from the Commonwealth.”23

Mr. Saunders’ feelings are mirrored in the polls run by the Commonwealth Conversation in early 2009. The understanding of the Commonwealth in Canada is especially dire, with 51% of citizens polled being unable to name any of the activities undertaken by the Commonwealth. In Britain the figure was 49%, and in Jamaica, 63%. 10% of Canadians and 19% of Australians would be actively happy to see their respective countries secede from the Commonwealth.24

Perhaps one reason for the ignorance and negativity in the societies of the Organisation’s oldest Members is the degree to which it is still associated with very negative memories of Empire. Or in the words of Australian journalist, Richard Flanagan: “There was no Commonwealth, only a... memory of a master race and its dominion people.”25

Zimbabwean Minister for Regional Integration and International Cooperation Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, in her position as a representative of a government which may be considering reintegration with the Commonwealth, sheds light on the disconnection which many citizens of the Commonwealth feel today; “What has been lacking is the translation of that relationship [With the Commonwealth] into things people can relate to at a practical level.”26

Ms. Misihairabwi-Mushonga is part of a new Zimbabwean government which may be considering reintegration into the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth needs to present an organisation with something valuable and unique to offer. If the existing Commonwealth does not show itself to be tackling practical issues, it will continue to lose support and interest around the world.

The Royal Commonwealth Society has heard many suggestions regarding the Commonwealth’s future in the international relations of its members. Fortunately for the Secretariat, there are patterns emerging which may provide clues to the Commonwealth’s future role.

The Once and Future Commonwealth

M. Sayeedur Khan, Bangladesh High Commissioner in London argues that “Because of this global warming-up, due to climate change... Bangladesh is going to be the worst sufferer in the world”27 It appears that climate change will receive top billing at the 2009 CHOGM, possibly paving the way for Commonwealth cooperation in dealing with its effects upon Member States.

The dangers posed to Commonwealth countries across the spectrum of size and economic potential are evident. For example, according to the Global Humanitarian Forum’s 2009 report from Geneva, Members affected by severe climate change-induced drought or flood will include Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Nigera. In addition to this, small island Members such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives may suffer severe damage from erratic weather conditions, including cyclones. Bangladesh is expected to suffer severely from coastal flooding. Yearly deaths directly resulting from climate change could rise 59% to 500,000.28

This is a considerable risk, both in terms of human life and wider social upheaval across the globe. Population displacement and the mass relocation of up to 75 million refugees would put untold pressure on the International Community’s ability to respond.

British Foreign Secretary the Right Honourable David Miliband seems determined to organise the resources of the Commonwealth against this threat. According to an interview with the RCS in September, Mr. Miliband has chaired a meeting of his counterparts in the Commonwealth, and intends to use the 2009 CHOGM as an opportunity to build a consensus on environmental issues among Member States before the much-anticipated United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held in Copenhagen from December the 7th. In the interview, he suggests that “The Commonwealth can be a place to send a warning about the dangers of climate change; it can be a place to forge and argue out the compromises that are going to be necessary”.29

Certainly, the Commonwealth will possess considerable credibility where international compromise is required, seeing as it consists of both developed and undeveloped states; it has members from every continent on Earth; and it has a long and productive history of cooperation on international issues.

It is this cooperation which seems to be the central issue and rallying point of many contributors to the Commonwealth Conversation. For British Economist and MP Vince Cable, the spirit of consensus is a particularly central theme for the Commonwealth to focus on. Member states, according to Cable, should be concerned with “Keeping an interconnected system alive, so we don’t retreat into nationalism.”30 It may be that this is the essence of the Commonwealth – the sense of connection, of consensus despite geographical and cultural distance. Sir Peter Marshall, former Deputy Secretary-General, certainly values “the way in which people treat one another, a sublime blend of maturity, tolerance, respect, responsibility, commitment and warmth – recognition of our mutual affinities as well as our common values and interests.”31

Where Next?

Such values as expressed by Sir Peter are laudable – is this not the Commonwealth dream? The Secretariat’s ongoing efforts to establish these ideals at centre stage in Member States and the International Community are undoubtedly of great value. Yet the sense of disengagement, the fact that concrete, practical results of the Commonwealth’s work in the world are rarely seen – and its limitations, its inability to come to terms with the ‘big issues’ of the modern world are all too obvious.

The Commonwealth clearly feels the need for renewal. Current Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma wants to make sure that his organisation is “No longer seen to be working along rigid paths or something belonging to the past.” It may be that by bringing modern issues like climate change to the table, by continuing to build consensus among Members whose cultural and social differences grow wider each year, the Commonwealth can revitalise its role in the world and usher in a new age of world community and cooperation.

For many, the Commonwealth Conversation will represent but another forum for high principles and platitudes to be bandied about. Nothing practical, certainly, has been achieved as yet; the 2009 CHOGM is, at time of writing, a fortnight away – it is simply another example of the organisation’s only real function as a talk shop for politicians and diplomats.

But is there anything inherently wrong with this? Should the Commonwealth be vilified simply for trying to find common ground? At time of writing, consensus within the European Union during the build-up to Copenhagen seems unlikely;32 For Britain at least, the Commonwealth is perhaps an opportunity to find allies for the long-term future; not only on the subject of the environment, but also regarding future relations with the African Union and a more powerful India. Self-evidently, nothing practical can possibly be achieved by non-engagement.

The Commonwealth could do worse than keep talking.


Endnotes

  1. James, L. The Illustrated Rise & Fall of the British Empire (London, Little, Brown, 1999) p.296
  2. Commonwealth Secretariat (2009) “Global public consultation on the Commonwealth begins” http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/34580/34581/211388/210709conversation.htm (accessed 14th November 2009).
  3. Marks, S. The Ebbing of European Ascendency (London, Hodder Arnold 2002) pp.132-141, pp.148-149.
  4. McIntyre, W. D. The Commonwealth of Nations, Origins and Impact, 1869-1971 (University of Minnesota Press, 1977) pp. 5-6.
  5. McIntyre, The Commonwealth, p. 401.
  6. Lowenthal, D. (1989) ‘Size and Statehood: The Geography of politics’ in A Common Culture? Edited by Richard Maltby and David Quartermaine, p. 80, University of Exeter Press, 1989.
  7. Fraser, M. (2009) Interview by the RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/Fraser-Kaunda-interview-transcripts-Final2.pdf (accessed 14th November 2009).
  8. Ramphal, S. (1986) ‘The Commonwealth and Common Purpose’. In A Common Culture? Edited by Richard Maltby and David Quartermaine, p. 16 University of Exeter Press, 1989.
  9. Quoted in McIntyre, The Commonwealth, p.448.
  10. McIntyre, The Commonwealth, p.445.
  11. Commonwealth Secretariat (2004) ‘Harare Commonwealth Declaration 1991’. http://www.thecommonwealth.org/shared_asp_files/GFSR.asp?NodeID=141095 (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  12. See ‘Democracy and Consensus Building’, Commonwealth Secretariat. http://www.thecommonwealth.org/subhomepage/190591/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  13. Lyon, P. (2006) ‘CHOGM and/or CPF – the complex mysterious Commonwealth’ The Round Table 95, p. 3.
  14. McWilliam, M. (2003) ‘Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth’ The Round Table 92, pp. 89-98.
  15. BBC News (2009) ‘Fiji suspended from Commonwealth’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/8231717.stm (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  16. The Commonwealth Conversation (2009) ‘Should Sri Lanka be suspended from the Commonwealth?’ http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Sri-Lanka-Page-from-RCS-Exchange.pdf (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  17. Commonwealth Secretariat (2009) ‘Commonwealth teams up with private equity firm to deliver up to $400 million in investment in Africa’ http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/215560/021109aureoscapital.htm (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  18. Commonwealth Secretariat (2008) ‘Farming for the Country and not the individual’ http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/34580/34581/181200/030708farmbotswana.htm (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  19. Baird, T. (2007) ‘Making oil a cure, not a curse’. Commonwealth Quarterly, http://www.thecommonwealth.org/EZInformation/172202/making_oil_a_cure__not_a_curse/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  20. Janvrin, R. (2009) Interview by RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/07/lord-janvrin-queens-former-private-secretary-speaks-of-commonwealths-relevance-and-value/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  21. Yorke, D. (2009) Interview by RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/11/dwight-yorke-on-trinidad-tobago-and-the-commonwealth/ (Accessed 14th November 2009)
  22. Musyoka, K. (2009) Interview by RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/11/we-dont-hear-the-voice-of-the-commonwealth-loud-enough-says-kenyan-vice-president/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  23. Saunders, D. (2009) ‘The old, grey Commonwealth ain’t what it used to be’ The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/the-old-grey-commonwealth-aint-what-it-used-to-be/article1327311/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  24. The Commonwealth Conversation (2009) ‘Results from Commonwealth polls’ http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Commonwealth-Poll-FINAL.pdf (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  25. Flanagan, R. (2002) ‘A ghostly memory of a master race’. The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/jul/19/australia.monarchy (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  26. Misihairabwi-Mushonga, P. (2009) Interview by RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/10/i-see-a-day-when-zimbabwe-will-rejoin-the-commonwealth-says-zimbabwean-minister/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  27. Khan, M. (2009) Interview by RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/11/bangladesh-on-the-frontline-against-climate-change/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  28. GHF Geneva (2009) ‘Human Impact Report: Climate Change, The Anatomy of A Silent Crisis’ http://ghfgeneva.org/Portals/0/pdfs/human_impact_report.pdf pp. 6-16 (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  29. Miliband, D. (2009) Interview by RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/09/uk-foreign-secretary-david-miliband-on-the-commonwealth-and-climate-change/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  30. Cable, V. (2009) Interview by RCS. http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/11/commonwealth-still-valuable-in-an-interdependent-world-says-vince-cable/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  31. Marshall, P. (2009) ‘Consensus versus Voting’ The Commonwealth Conversation, http://www.thecommonwealthconversation.org/2009/11/consensus-versus-voting/ (Accessed 14th November 2009).
  32. BBC News (2009) ‘EU Strikes Climate Funding Deal’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8334146.stm (Accessed 14th November 2009).

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