OP-ED: A reformed Commonwealth: An example for the world

By Sir Ronald Sanders
OP-ED: A reformed Commonwealth:  An example for the world

No organization can best serve the people it represents in the modern world unless it reforms itself to cope with new global challenges.  The Commonwealth – a voluntary association of 54 countries from every continent of the world and now 62 years old – decided to do just that.

When the Heads of Government last met in November 2009, they did so at a time when the world was in the midst of an economic and financial crisis; the old order of economic power was changing; climate change showed signs of endangering global economic activity and the safety and livelihood of millions of people, and posed threats to the very existence of a number of countries.  Terrorism, too, threatened the security of states and presented a serious challenge to international peace. 

Significantly, Heads of Government decided that, in such a world, it was important to build a stronger, more resilient and progressive Commonwealth and make it relevant to its times and people in the future.

They recognised that an organisation, in which every race and every religion is represented and which comprises rich and poor countries, large states and small islands, has the inherent capacity to contribute significantly to solving the world’s problems.  The sheer diversity of the association would be almost impossible to create today, for there would be no compelling reasons to form it and there would be many pressures to resist its formation.  The existence of the Commonwealth is, therefore, a gift – one that should be nurtured and enhanced. 

The heads of government made it clear that they wanted the Commonwealth to continue to be an important player in the world drawing on its rich diversity to help build global consensus around the Commonwealth’s values of peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality and economic development.

Therefore, they decided to establish an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to propose ways in which the Commonwealth could continue to be both influential and a leader in dealing not only with the problems faced by its own members, but in helping to resolve the issues confronting mankind as a whole.

This was a timely decision by Heads of Government because, prior to the 2009 meeting in Trinidad, the sentiment had grown in the Commonwealth media, civil society organisations and among some member governments that the association was in danger of becoming irrelevant.  Many doubted its capability of continuing to be a significant organisation amongst its own member states, let alone an influence in the global community.

Of particular concern was that, even though the Commonwealth claims to be a “values-based” organisation, through a number of declarations, there have been violations of human, political and civil rights in several Commonwealth countries, and the association has not spoken out strongly enough against them. Indeed, while the Commonwealth is the only multilateral organisation with machinery to oversee compliance with its declared values, that machinery – the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – has responded only when there has been an unconstitutional overthrow of governments; it has not acted against early signs of serious or persistent violations of the Commonwealth code.  This has led to scepticism about the organisation and the claim that it is hypocritical.      

In the past, the Commonwealth broke unchartered ground in dramatic ways to lead the world into ending gross violations of the rights of people.  When the current EPG submits its report to Commonwealth Heads of Government for their consideration in Australia in November, it will be 25 years since the first EPG submitted its findings on the evils of apartheid in South Africa.  That 1986 report of the first EPG was a momentous – now historic - document.  It called the Commonwealth’s and the world’s attention to the imperative of urgent action to end apartheid, and documented in an irresistible manner the consequences of the global community’s failure to act.

Remarkably, given the defiance of the apartheid regime, that first EPG thought it had failed. But, indeed, their work had started the process of success.  Less than four years later, Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of captivity and the walls of apartheid came tumbling down.

The present EPG has a different task from the first one, but it is no less daunting. Essentially, it is to propose ways in which the Commonwealth will remain relevant to its times and people in the future.  To do so, the Commonwealth will have to reform in many ways, and it will require political will by its leaders to act on the bold proposals that the EPG is putting forward.

The proposals cover a range of issues, among which are: enhanced machinery for ensuring that states comply with the Commonwealth’s declared values and that their peoples human, civil and political rights are respected; a stronger role in development issues to bring about change in the international arrangements to give developing countries a voice so that they are not simply flotsam and jetsam pushed around by the tides of larger countries’ interests; practical measures to help small and vulnerable states meet the severe challenges they face particularly access to financing for education, health and infrastructure; creating means to increase investment among Commonwealth countries, and increase trade between them; dealing with the effects of climate change and establishing rapid response machinery to aid countries quickly when natural disasters strike; confronting the problem of HIV/AIDS including by more enlightened leadership and repeal of laws that victimise sufferers; more opportunities for youth who comprise more than 60 per cent of the Commonwealth’s population.

The Commonwealth Secretariat itself also needs a new commitment from its member governments.   Over the years, its staff complement has been reduced while demands on them have increased. The number of its entire staff is now less than the cafeteria staff at the UN in New York.

But, the Commonwealth remains an association that could bring immense benefit to the people of its member countries and to the world.  Its very diversity, and the opportunities it presents for meaningful discourse across ethnic, religious and national lines, are simply priceless in today’s much troubled world.  If the EPG proposals find favour with governments, the Commonwealth will matter to its own 2.4 billion people, and, again, be an example to the world.

The EPG’s directional statement can be read at:http://www.thecommonwealth.org/files/236344/FileName/EPGconsultation.pdf 

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Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat; Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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