As the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) concludes today in the host city of Colombo, the future of Britain and its former colonies as a united body must surely be on everybody’s mind. The presence of the Prince of Wales representing his mother, Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the Commonwealth was [...]


The Commonwealth’s raison d’etre


As the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) concludes today in the host city of Colombo, the future of Britain and its former colonies as a united body must surely be on everybody’s mind.

The presence of the Prince of Wales representing his mother, Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the Commonwealth was a significant aspect by itself. The Queen is the titular head of the Commonwealth and the one golden thread that binds the 54 member-states together. No succession plan seems to be yet in place; was Colombo the soft run for Prince Charles to take over the mantle as the natural successor? He did after all, drop a subtle hint that he shared his mother’s deep attachment to the Commonwealth, and such sentiments have been an “ever-present cornerstone” in his own life.

Born in the modern form on April 28, 1949 in London, the Commonwealth will reach 65 next year, the year when in most Western countries one reaches pensionable age. Perhaps, it is a good time then to pause and reflect. In the words of Lord Black of Brentwood (speaking recently in the House of Lords), “is it a time to put the feet up, reflect on past glory and waltz into the sunset? Or is it time to set new goals and embark on fresh challenges?”

The three big nations in the Commonwealth, viz., Canada, Britain and India, have shown by example that the Commonwealth is more about domestic politics than a common history, language, legal and education system or the upliftment of the peoples of one-third of the world’s population.

They have tried to steal the thunder by hammering the host nation of the 23rd CHOGM and breaking the organisation’s unity. None of them, surely is without fault. If one were to trade charges, there would be no end to it. While the British PM tried to be the centre of attraction with his boorish behaviour, his departure without attending the start of the working sessions and midway from the summit itself illustrated the importance, or the lack of it, that his Government gave to the Commonwealth’s deliberations.

Make no mistake, Britain has long abandoned the Commonwealth for Europe (though probably regretting the fact), and there’s not even a whiff of evidence that it sees a future for the group. It is surprising that Sri Lanka does. The British Government is already facing international condemnation for reneging on ‘Commonwealth Values’ regarding press freedom by introducing a Royal Charter that will send politicians virtually into the newsroom. Its hands are soiled with the blood of innocent Iraqis, whose country it invaded by misleading its own people. Britain’s immigration policies discriminate against Commonwealth citizens while giving special concessions to European citizens.

The other influential Commonwealth nation, viz., Australia, by contrast has taken a more mature overview of the Commonwealth. It refused to join Canada in derailing the 23rd CHOGM in Sri Lanka and its Prime Minister made three pertinent points about the group at the opening ceremony on Friday; it must ensure democracy prevailed among its member-states, it must alleviate poverty and it must not give up old friends for new. With remarkable sagacity he told newsmen on the eve of his departure to Colombo, “I don’t propose to lecture the Sri Lankans on human rights.” Things could have been done a bit better, he said referring to the last stages of the Sri Lankan military campaign against the LTTE — the subject the pro-Eelam lobby in Canada and Britain are subjecting their politicians to — “but they have had a terrible, terrible civil war…. The savagery of which is almost unimaginable to Australians, and I thank God that that civil war has ended, yes, ended brutally, but it has ended and things are… much much better for all Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhala.. I praise the Sri Lanka Government for having managed to end one of the world’s longest running and most brutal, awful civil wars.”

The Australian Premier is obviously better briefed than his Canadian and British counterparts and under no domestic compulsions to chase behind expatriate votes. He’s just won an election, after all.

And so, whither the Commonwealth? This 23rd CHOGM is not all about Sri Lanka, though Sri Lanka’s democratic deficiency is indeed an outstanding issue that must be rectified. There are a host of other issues that the Commonwealth has addressed over the years ranging from the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles to the Langkawi Declaration on the Environment, the Milbrook Action Programme, the Latimer Principles, the Aberdeen Agenda, the Perth Declaration on Food Security and so on and so forth culminating in the Commonwealth Charter of 2013.

Does the Commonwealth justify its existence in the modern world? Do smaller states have a voice in it? Is the “membership fee” they pay being short-changed?

Various Commonwealth organisations are cash-strapped. The richer countries are slow in pulling out their purses and doling out though quick to sermonise. The Commonwealth Secretary General referred to the 2013 CHOGM agenda being on “growth with equity”, the problems of small states, trade matters and inter-alia, the need to open borders for citizens of the Commonwealth when most of them are closed. How much of this is mere rhetoric and how much will change is a big question mark as the more dominant member-states in the group continue to steer the group’s agenda.

The Commonwealth and its 53 member-states make for a wonderful array of flags. Its diversity is hailed as the core of the group. With the Non Aligned Movement now virtually defunct, the Commonwealth is the largest world grouping next only to the United Nations. But if it to make any clarity about its goals and achievements, its raison d’etre (its reason for existence), there is an ever-widening gap and much common ground to be covered between the ‘old Commonwealth’ and the ‘new Commonwealth’.

CHOGM 2013 unfortunately displayed a tear at the seams largely due to the internal political compulsions of Canada, Britain and India. That has to be mended sooner than later if it is not only to continue to have any relevance in the modern world and its worldly affairs — but to remain as a group for much longer.

Those at Buckingham Palace may have seen these tensions themselves, and Prince Charles’ soothing words on Friday quoting India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that the Commonwealth was “capable of bringing a touch of healing to the management of contemporary world problems” and thereby delivering the very best future for those in the Commonwealth should be taken to heart by every member nation, big and small.

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