The Commonwealth: Does it Matter Anymore?

The Commonwealth: Does it Matter Anymore?

by / 2 Comments / 73 View / 3rd December 2009

When I was growing up one of my favourite Buddy Holly songs was “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”. As Commonwealth leaders concluded their gathering in Trinidad of the biennial Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), some have argued that should have been the theme of this unique organisation. I would beg to differ.

It is sixty years since eight political leaders met in London and issued the London Declaration setting out the principles for the establishment of the Commonwealth. Since then 53 countries have signed up. Each country joins as a free and equal member. No one is given any special status such as the Security Council members within the United Nations, Lesotho’s vote counts the same as the UK’s; the size of one’s economy does not determine membership such as the G8 or G20, Sierra Leone sits alongside Singapore; nor does the size of one’s population, Tuvalu is present representing her ten thousand citizens across from India representing nearly two hundred million. Queen Elizabeth is the symbolic head of the Commonwealth, a position she has pursued diligently, but members do not have to recognise her as their head of state. One no longer even has to have enjoyed a previous relationship with Britain or have English as its national language – the last member to join was Mozambique, this year it was Rwanda!

Those who question the value of the Commonwealth argue that the countries receive little in the way of economic benefit from Commonwealth membership such as they do from membership of the European Union or the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. But this misses the point. The value of the Commonwealth is the opportunity it offers to bring together such a diverse group of countries without the burdensome bureaucracy of the United Nations or the rigid legality of the European Union, etc. The Commonwealth is not a substitute for these other organisations. Bodies such as the UN, the AU, the EU, ASEAN, NATO exist because they have to; one of the strengths of the Commonwealth is that it exists because it doesn’t have to.

As the London Declaration says, it is a free association – a group of countries “freely cooperating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”; a body which, as the Singapore Declaration (1971) says, “embraces equal rights for all regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief with a shared commitment to democratic self determination, world peace and international cooperation.”

Encompassing two billion people, nearly one in three of the world’s population is a member of the Commonwealth (and not one of them is Chinese or American!) It is very much a people orientated body, bringing people together from all around the world in a way that no other organisation does. My wife, a Trinidadian, recalls how when she first started working at the World Bank in Washington, her closest circle of friends came from fellow Commonwealth countries not just because they all spoke English but they had all read and studied the same books at school whilst growing up. An immediate bond was formed. A Ugandan ministerial friend told me how when he went to work in the United States he was approached by the black American caucus but he found that he had more in common with Indian and Trinidadian and even Canadian colleagues than black Americans because of his Commonwealth heritage.

Over the years such common systems of education and law and order has proved to be of much mutual benefit. Professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, policeman, etc have more easily transferred their skills within the Commonwealth than outside. As the Governor of one of Britain’s small overseas territories in the early 1990’s I had to recruit judges and lawyers for our small judiciary. It was to the Commonwealth (Sierra Leone and Barbados) I turned. As British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone in the late 1990’s I witnessed the close relationship between Sierra Leone and Nigeria and was reminded that many Sierra Leoneans had gone to teach in Nigeria in the 1950’ and 60’s. Such ties endure. In the global world nationalities become less relevant. I recall that at one stage Britain even had a New Zealander as head of the British army.

This family of nations, like all families, has had its ups and downs and internal arguments. From time to time members quarrel and leave. Pakistan left but came back. South Africa left during apartheid but one of the first decisions of Nelson Mandela when he became President was to seek re-entry into the Commonwealth. President Mugabe has taken Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth and Fiji’s membership is currently suspended because of its failure to adhere to democratic principles. But the Commonwealth survives and continues to grow, as evidenced by Mozambique’s membership and now Rwanda’s.

Those political leaders who met  in Trinidad end of last month had much to discuss especially relating to the global economy and climate change but in some respects the biennial meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government is the less important of the Commonwealth gatherings. In my view, it is when the Commonwealth comes together in activities relating to sport, culture, youth, etc that the real benefit of the Commonwealth manifests itself. Such gatherings, some of which took place on the sidelines of the Port of Spain meeting, harness bonds of friendship, tolerance and understanding which surpass territorial boundaries and political ideologies and provide a basis for reaching agreements for a better future for all.

Peter Penfold

Former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone (1997-2000)