14 November 2013
This weekend’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka seems set to be dominated by the furore surrounding human rights abuses in that country.
That should hardly be a surprise. Such issues are the norm for CHOGMs. Over the years, meetings have been dominated by the domestic situation in one member country or another – Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nigeria, Fiji, and in earlier times South Africa and Uganda, come to mind. Crises within a member state at CHOGM time seem to have become the norm. Indeed, even the student CHOGM held in Wellington at Parliament each year factors into its programme a session dealing with a simulated crisis in one member country or another!
The Commonwealth has long since ceased to be the cosy club of the British Empire it once was. It is now far more diverse and diffuse – 53 independent nations in a loose and free association, but with increasingly little in common. It is certainly not a trade or economic bloc (the WTO and the G20 have long since taken on that role, and the days of Imperial Preferences are well gone); nor is it a political or strategic powerhouse like NATO. It is certainly not an alternative to the United Nations. While the Queen might like to wistfully refer to the Commonwealth “family” that is really bygone era stuff, which no-one takes all that seriously. Today’s Commonwealth is not so much a family as a loose and free association of states, with interests in development in the sharing of cultures, and the promotion of development and education, the essentially liberal preconditions for “democratic’ societies. It is that quaint vagueness that gives the modern Commonwealth its strength and purpose.
Of course, none of that justifies the rogue behaviour of individual member states from time to time. In such circumstances, the Commonwealth club’s best reaction is to shame the offender to the extent that in most cases the miscreant gets the message and stays at home, either in defiance or a sulk. And the chaps at CHOGM hope they get the message and tidy up their act so that they can be welcomed back next time. And often they do.
Where things are a little different this time, though, is that the host is the problem. This is new territory which member states seem uncertain about how they should handle. Some (like club stalwarts Canada and India) are just staying home, others like New Zealand are going and planning to confront the issue head on. Either way, the danger is that diplomatic and political niceties will mean that nothing actually changes and Sri Lanka’s nominal leadership of the Commonwealth will carry on.
And if Sri Lanka does not “get the hint”, then the occasional “Wither the Commonwealth?” debate might gather more steam. That would be a pity – for all its idiosyncrasy, the Commonwealth remains a valuable international organisation that serves its members well.