The Inaugural Lecture marking the 100th Anniversary of the Charter of the Bristol Commonwealth Society at the Mansion House, Bristol on Saturday 12 October 2013
By Sir Ronald Sanders KCMG AM
In this lecture, Sir Ronald Sanders argues that the inter-governmental Commonwealth is a diverse group that is now plagued by mistrust and loss of confidence. If the Summit in Sri Lanka is to be meaningful, Heads of Government must set up machinery to address this issue urgently and credibly. It will call for careful diplomatic stage-managing by the Secretary-General, and transparent and open chairmanship by the Sri Lankan President. Whether this can be achieved is left to be seen. But, if this matter is not tackled with urgency and credibility, the Commonwealth may well go over the cliff to disintegration on which it is now dangerously perched.
Sir Ronald Sanders is a former member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (2010-2011) that produced the report for the 2011 Heads of Government Meeting on urgent reform of the Commonwealth;); he has participated in several Meetings of Commonwealth Senior Officials and Heads of Government; he served a member of the Commonwealth Committee Southern Africa (1984-1987) and as an adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat/World Bank on small states(2000); and is the author of several publications on the Commonwealth.
Part 2 – Unmanaged diversity a threat to the Commonwealth
Over the years, there has been an assumption that the Commonwealth comprises States that naturally cling together, sharing common interests and aspirations. Despite their diversity in ethnicity, religion, geography, size and culture, it has been assumed that they could remain cohesive under the Commonwealth banner because of their historical links to Britain and the legal and administrative systems that resulted from those links. vii But, in reality – and especially over the last two decades – more diversity and less commonality have evolved in Commonwealth membership, and diversity has produced division.
Commonwealth member States have forged alliances with other countries and with other groups of countries on vital matters such as trade and investment, and defence and security. These alliances now loom large in their concerns in practical ways and have, to some extent, dwarfed their links to the Commonwealth.
Of particular importance in this regard is the emergence of China as the second largest economy in the world and the holder of the largest foreign exchange reserves (US$3.2 trillion), a bigger provider of concessionary loans to many developing Commonwealth countries than the World Bank, and the biggest trading partner of many of them. It is well known that China places no priority on democracy as we know it or on respect for human rights as an international standard. China does not make democracy and human rights conditions of its economic relationship with Commonwealth developing countries. Hence, even though it may be unintended, China’s policies undermine the Commonwealth’s core political values of respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. viii
We should recall that the Commonwealth is a voluntary not a treaty organisation; it is not a defence and security organisation; it is not a trade organisation; it is not a health and education organisation; and despite the modest (though important) resources of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, it is not an aid organisation. It does provide technical assistance, advice and advocacy in all the areas just listed, but while these contributions are important to developing Commonwealth countries, other agencies and other alliances with far greater resources fulfill bigger needs and, therefore, command greater allegiance.
The Commonwealth: Better a small values-based association
This begs the question: what is the Commonwealth? Essentially, the Commonwealth is a Club – a Club with rules. Membership is voluntary and governments can choose to withdraw at any time. To get into it and to remain a part of it, members are expected to conduct themselves according to the rules which are embodied in the many declarations that Commonwealth governments have made over the years setting out the values and principles for which their countries stand.
Last year, all Commonwealth Heads of Government – including the President of The Gambia and the President of Sri Lanka – established a Charter of the Commonwealth that re-committed all member states to the values of the Commonwealth as set out in all eleven of its declarations from 1971 to 2011. Under the Charter, governments declared their commitment to “equality and respect for protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies”. They noted “that these rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented selectively”.
When governments sign-up for membership of the Commonwealth, they sign up to all these values – not only the ones that suit them from time to time. It is these values - taken collectively - that define the Commonwealth; it is adherence and commitment to these values – all of them – that distinguishes the Commonwealth; it is pursuit of these values that give the Commonwealth relevance within its own member countries and influence in the international community.
In this connection, when the Apartheid regime withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961 to pursue its racist policies, the association was stronger not weaker for it; when the Mugabe regime withdrew Zimbabwe in 2003 after the Commonwealth suspended it for seriously flawed elections and organised violence against non-Mugabe supporters, the association was stronger not weaker for it; now that President Yahya Jammeh has withdrawn The Gambia because of his wish to victimize homosexuals including by, as he says, “beheading them” xi, the Commonwealth is stronger not weaker for it.
The Commonwealth would be far more relevant to its people and more credible to the international community if it comprised States that are genuinely committed to expanding human understanding and development within their own countries and among all nations, than if it simply sought to maintain and expand its membership despite the violations of its values and principles by its member governments.
The Gambian President and the Commonwealth scapegoat
But, it should be recalled that it is not the Commonwealth by any of its mechanisms that suspended or expelled The Gambia despite the poor record of its government in violating the rules of the Commonwealth Club; it was the Gambian President who withdrew the country. He said he did so because, according to a public statement by his Information Minister, he no longer wishes to “associate with Great Britain” and “will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism”. x The contradiction in his position is that he has withdrawn his country from the Commonwealth because of Britain, but yet he continues to maintain direct diplomatic and other relations with Britain. In this connection, it is clear that the Commonwealth was merely a scapegoat for the President’s unhappiness with the British government positions in relation to his government’s human rights record, although, curiously The Gambia is not among the 27 countries about which the British government expressed concern in the most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Offices report on Human Rights. xi
Of course, the Commonwealth itself is no longer British. That ceased in 1949 with the creation of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. And, if it was not obvious before that the Commonwealth had ceased to be a “British” organisation, it was certainly obvious when, in the 1980s and 1990s, Commonwealth governments stood up against the British government over the independence of Southern Rhodesia under majority rule and when Britain was isolated by the Commonwealth over the imposition of sanctions on apartheid South Africa.
Previous: Part 1 – Troubling Issues
Next: Part 3 – Human Rights: “Western import” or universal birthright
vii The exceptions to this are Mozambique, Cameroon and Rwanda whose membership of the Commonwealth is not based on traditional criteria.
viii For a deeper discussion of this matter, see Ronald Sanders, The Commonwealth and China: Upholding values, containing the dragon?, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, June 2013
ix See, Gambian president says gays a threat to human existence, by Michelle Nicholas at the United Nations for Reuters, 27 September 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/27/us-un-assembly-gays-idUSBRE98Q19K20130927 (accessed on 30 September 2013); also, Gambia president threatens to behead gays, in Al Aarbiya News, Tuesday, 2 November 2010, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/05/24/50348.html (accessed 30 September 2013)
x Trevor Grundy report on 8 October 2013 of an interview with Nana Grey-Johnson, Gambian Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure with the Zambia- based monthly magazine The Bulletin and Record (shared by email with the Commonwealth Journalists Association).
xi See, Human Rights and Democracy; The 2012 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report, http://www.hrdreport.fco.gov.uk/introduction-2/ (accessed 30 September 2013)
The author is grateful for statistical data provided by Dr Mohamed Razzaque and Tsung-Ping Chung of the Commonwealth Secretariat, but stresses that the analysis provided in the Lecture and its conclusions are entirely his responsibility