Zehner: The Empire Strikes Back

In its current form, the Commonwealth is meaningless.

by Callum Zehner | 5/10/18 2:05am

 There is certainly something endearing about the notion of a group of geographically-disparate nations coming together to perform broad values-based activities. And against a growing trend of inward-looking nationalism, the Commonwealth of Nations certainly has a distinct appeal. However, although it should presumably be considered a paragon of grand multilateralism, the Commonwealth is effectively powerless in its current state. The organization puportedly has two aims: advancing democracy and human rights and aiding economic development. It struggles to do either, and it must be reformed for there to be any reason to keep it.

To be fair, the Commonwealth has had its good moments. It assisted in spearheading a slew of strict sanctions on South Africa in 1986, helping to cripple the Apartheid regime. It drafted the new constitution of Swaziland and created an independent electoral commission for Cameroon. Its impact on trade is also fairly positive, with it being estimated that the members’ common language and legal systems reduce the cost of doing business within the bloc by 20 percent. And the coalition itself remains broadly popular, with those from developing member states more likely to favor it. This popularity is evident in the long list of countries hoping to join the body, including Burma, Ireland and Kuwait.

Yet, despite its positive aspects, the Commonwealth is inherently flawed. Firstly, the organization has proved itself impotent in dealing with states that are either undemocratic or perpetrating human rights violations. For example, the 2013 Commonwealth Summit in Colombo was rife with controversy as it was conducted by Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man charged with committing atrocities in the country’s civil war. As a result, the leaders of multiple nations refused to attend. In addition, the fact that Brunei, ruled by the firm hand of Sultan Bolkiah, is included among the member states is a testament to the institution’s flexible definition of democracy. Beyond this, however, it is obvious that a plethora of abuses have been perpetrated by many of the 53 member states over the years, such as the anti-sodomy laws in Malawi and Gambia, that the Commonwealth has simply chosen not to recognize, let alone condemn.

It is because it lacks the ability to enforce its ideals of democracy and human rights that the organization can only go so far in pursuing them. As the member states have no legal obligations to one another, the Commonwealth’s only tool for coercion is suspension of members, which is often ineffective. This can be seen in the fact that Zimbabwe was pushed into withdrawing in 2002 — over violence-marred elections — yet Robert Mugabe continued to govern unhindered as President until only last year.

The Commonwealth also struggles with its own irrelevance. To illustrate, when surveyed, a quarter of Jamaicans believed that the head of the organization was Barack Obama rather than Queen Elizabeth. And, in general, Commonwealth citizens do not know what the organization actually does or what it stands for — half of Britons and Canadians were found to be unable to name a single Commonwealth activity. The only time when the coalition of states truly receives any prolonged attention are the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, and that hardly merits the continuance of the bloc.

The Commonwealth’s lack of fame or substantive impact on the global stage can be at least partially attributed to a scarcity of funding. The U.K., the largest economy in the group, contributes only 0.07 percent of its annual international development budget to the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation. The CFTC’s total annual budget was a measly $40 million in 2017, dwarfed by the European Union’s annual spending of $100 billion on economic development. As another point of comparison, the size of the entire Commonwealth Secretariat staff is smaller than the number working at the cafeteria at the United Nations headquarters. Having the resources to expand operations would allow the bloc significantly more clout in the international system.

Treacherously, the Commonwealth is often fundamentally viewed as a conspicuous attempt by the U.K. to cling onto some former imperial prestige. This has certainly affected relations within the group, with President Yahya Jammeh removing Gambia from the institution in 2013, referring to it as a “neo-colonialist institution.” Many of the more recently added member states have taken issue with the perceived dominance of the “white” countries — chiefly the U.K., Canada and Australia. This notion of mellow imperialism is only compounded by the fact that the Queen remains the figurehead, with Prince Charles as her likely successor. Yet the dominant developing countries — such as India and Nigeria — appear consistently unwilling to take up larger roles in the coalition.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, many in the U.K. have held up the Commonwealth to be the ideal replacement for the E.U., calling for revived ties with old associates. Yet seeing an expanded role for the Commonwealth is incredibly ambitious. At the moment, the coalition is, at best, a roundtable that gives a louder voice to smaller nations dotted around the globe. Ultimately, the bloc lacks money and influence and even defies its primary objective of pursuing democracy and human rights. Put simply, the Commonwealth has a tremendous amount of potential, and could do well by all of its members. If it reforms, may it become a major force. But until then, at least people have the Commonwealth Games to keep them entertained.