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Is the Commonwealth still relevant?

  • Published at 11:14 am April 20th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:57 am April 21st, 2018
Is the Commonwealth still relevant?
It’s time that the Commonwealth summit -- now being held in London after two years -- received a dispassionate appraisal of its performance in all these years.  Founded in 1949, the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 52 former British colonies plus Britain, comprising 2.4 billion people across one-third of the landmass of six continents. It transcends barriers of race, religion, and colour, and is connected by shared history, values, culture, and laws and a constitutional framework.  The Queen has told the summit in Buckingham Palace about her wish to pass on the baton of the Commonwealth, if not the crown, to the heir apparent to the throne, Prince Charles.  The Commonwealth is a consolation prize for Britain for losing its empire. It is very important and relevant for Britain to vindicate her tenuous link with the vainglorious imperial past. Hence, Britain spends huge amounts of money to maintain the Commonwealth secretariat in London, and provides funds for development as well as scholarships for post-graduate studies in England each year for member countries.  It has not diminished in significance, but in the context of Brexit, the Commonwealth has assumed an added significance to Britain, as it looks upon it as an alternative source and destination of trade and investment to the EU. To people outside Britain, Commonwealth means games and sports. For others, it means the pomp and grandeur of Her Majesty -- who’s the head of the Commonwealth, but not its ruler.  However, the full potential of the Commonwealth has not yet been harnessed. The institution is a curiosity which retains its unfulfilled potential to expand its influence and clout as an engine of economic strength by boosting trade and investment.  As a trading bloc, the combined GNP of all Commonwealth states is $10.7 trillion. Global trade between Commonwealth states as a whole is estimated to be over $680 billion. The strength of the Commonwealth lies in its moral authority. Its charter, adopted in 2012, espouses the virtues of democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression, gender equity, combating climate change, and economic development with social justice.  It has so far sent 140 election observer missions to around 40 countries. It has helped to end apartheid rule in South Africa and brought about stability in Sierra Leone, which was in the grip of chaos and disorder of a deadly civil war. However, the recent rising trend of the far-right populist rhetoric of nationalism, resistance to immigrants, increasing visa restriction, racial bias, and xenophobia in Britain and other European countries is deeply troubling.  The persecution and deportation of Caribbean immigrants -- labelled as the Wind Rush generation, named after the ship Wind Rush which brought them to the shores of Britain as late as 1947 -- is a disgrace, causing widespread shock and resentment. 
The strength of the Commonwealth lies in its moral authority. Its charter, adopted in 2012, espouses the virtues of democracy, rule of law, human rights
It is deeply frustrating, and a cause of anxiety for many in the Commonwealth. They deserve more deferense and discretion than such an atavistic treatment from Britain. Prime Minister May has expressed deep regret to 12 Caribbean leaders for the episode. The Commonwealth decries abuses of power, corruption, repression, and tyranny of authoritarian rule. Pakistan was suspended of its membership twice during the military rule of Pervez Musharraf.   Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002 as its election was marred by violence and intimidation. Nigeria was suspended when its military ruler executed the death sentence of Ken Saro Wiwa, a writer and a human rights activist by a kangaroo court.   The Commonwealth summit serves a useful corrective purpose, as the attending heads of government remain alert, lest there be any public exposure and grilling for their vulnerabilities, if any, in areas of governance failure and protection of civil liberties. Bilateral talks on the sidelines and retreat of the summit also serves a very useful objective. Fascination with authoritarianism, intolerance for democratic dissent, and disdain for traditional values of liberal democracy and rule of law are now a global phenomenon. It is the defining challenge of the times, and needs to be addressed by all in the Commonwealth.  Let us see how far the joint communiqué at the end of the summit echoes a commitment to the Commonwealth charter.  Mere repetition of bizarre rituals of glamour and photo opportunities with the rich and famous, regal receptions, and platitudinous statements without tangible gains would be a deep disappointment. Abdul Hannan is a columnist and former diplomat.
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