The Commonwealth: kill or revamp?

The Commonwealth: kill or revamp?

by / Comments Off / 16 View / 27th October 2009

The Commonwealth of Nations is celebrating its 60th Birthday in London this year.

This is not only a good time to reflect on its history, but also on its relevance to members today.

In other words, is the Commonwealth, as some argue, an organisation with marginal global influence and neo-imperialist tendencies that is no longer of any particular use for its member states or is it, in fact, a valuable institution in need of reform?

Among those who question the continued need for the Commonwealth are two of its wealthiest members, Canada and Australia.

In a recent article, Canadian journalist Doug Saunders expressed what, arguably, many of his fellow countrymen think, when he wrote: ‘It (the Commonwealth) no longer means anything to us, for a very good reason: It no longer does anything for us’.

However, is the real truth behind this comment not that his country (and the same is true for Australia or New Zealand) has the luxury to dismiss the Commonwealth?

Canada is part of such powerful international agreements and treaties as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), NATO or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

But what about the Third World members of the Commonwealth? Where do they go if this organisation is abandoned?

It is true that the Commonwealth has not always got it right. In its early years, the organisation was seen as a tool for maintaining British influence and British presence in its former colonies.

The image of a cosy debating club with a member-only sign springs to mind. The organisation – led by Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – found a different focus in the 1990s when it championed democratisation and good governance.

It overlooked, however, the fact that Westminster or US style electoral systems and constitutions are not suited for countries with totally different historical, social and political environments.

Hence, the notion of the Commonwealth as a neo-imperialist organisation with capitalist interests at heart.

But what about the achievements of the Commonwealth that improved the political and economic situation in some of its member states?

During the Cold War, African, Caribbean and Asian Commonwealth leaders tried, with some success, to use the body to generate greater pressure to resolve various issues including UDI in Rhodesia.

 And when the Commonwealth’s united against South Africa’s apartheid regime, it had a serious and real impact that contributed to Nelson Mandela’s release and, eventually, apartheid’s abandonment.

More recently, the organisation has tried to promote action against climate change to the dismay of Canada and Australia, neither of which supported the Kyoto Protocol.

Another common criticism is that the Commonwealth is ineffective. Dough Saunders, for instance, compares the organisation with the European Union which has been exceptionally successful in creating a common market, partly through abandoned trade tariffs and visa restrictions.

It is true, that the Commonwealth has not done the same for its members.

But, is it fair to compare a non-elected club of leaders with a political body of enormous proportions and influence such as the EU? The comparison feels instantly ill-placed.

A better-fitting parallel might be drawn to the United Nations, which may have a different structure and was created for different ends, but which has one crucial thing in common with the 60-year-old organisation.

It, too, struggled from the power vacuum left by the end of the Cold War and had to re-invent itself accordingly.

When conflicts sprang up in Third World countries during the 1990s, the UN was not able to cope. The organisation had simply not adapted its old approach to peace-keeping and peace-making operations to new realities and the one million people who died during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is the most cruel testimony to that.

But since then, the United Nations has undergone changes to justify its existence and to fulfil its purpose. Some argue, probably rightly so, that these changes are not enough but they are a start.

Is it so unthinkable to believe the Commonwealth could implement reforms and re-invent itself and its purpose in a similar way?

Is it unreasonable to think that the organisation could become relevant to its members by promoting and not preaching better standards of leadership and human rights and by finding common grounds on urgent and vital issues such as climate change, education or poverty?

What it comes down to, in the end, is that the Commonwealth has not always been the best it could be in the past, but that it remains the only hope for many countries to have their voices heard on the international stage.

There is no doubt that a fresh outlook is needed and that there is room for improvement. It may never play in the same league as the EU, the IMF, the UN or the WTO. It may not be as influential as these organisations when it comes to influencing global issues.

But what the Commonwealth can be and has to be, is a forum where progressive policies can be discussed and promoted and where its Third World members can find a voice for their perspectives.

After all, the organisation does not only consist of rich countries such as Canada or Australia but of 53 independent states, many of which do not have the opportunity to join other international clubs.

So, before announcing the death of the Commonwealth, would it not be more appropriate to start a stimulating discussion about reforms that would allow the organisation to adapt, reform, and grow?

Sabrina Kernbichler.