Will the Commonwealth be Relevant in the Future?

It is Queen Elizabeth who has been at the heart of this post-Empire organisation going, but what lies in store for the Commonwealth after her?

“The Commonwealth is turning the corner – it’s not quite round it, yet but it’s turning,” a leading official involved with the 53-country organisation, which gets more brickbats than praise, said to me at the end of the past week’s two-day summit and forums in London.

That just about sums up the most optimistic view possible on the current status of this strange post-empire body which, if it owes allegiance to anything or anybody, seems to do so to Queen Elizabeth who turned 92 on Saturday. She has been the organisation’s head, and has held it together, since her mid-20s. Just last week, she secured agreement from the summit that Prince Charles, 69, her eldest son and heir to the British throne, will in due course take over from her.

The Queen and Prince Charles are therefore two of the week’s three top winners. The third is probably Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, whose country has shed its previous disinterest and is becoming a prominent player, doubling its contribution to a technical co-operation fund and providing funds and development work in other areas.

India’s new involvement was directly sought by the British government in a series of moves over the past year. This reflected both the organisation’s urgent need for an injection of fresh thinking and action, and India’s growing international importance – it is expected to become the Commonwealth’s largest economy in the next year or two when its GDP overtakes Britain and it accounts for more than half the Commonwealth’s 2.4bn people.

Modi was wooed personally by Prince Charles who won over the Indian prime minister to champion him taking over the Queen’s role.

Questions at a press conference on Friday about whether there were any objections to Charles drew answers that suggested not all the countries wanted the prince. The president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, revealingly said there was “a strong consensus”, and Theresa May, the British prime minister then said it was “unanimous” which, of course, does not mean there were no dissenters during the discussions. Suggestions that the role could rotate around the members did not have much support, and there was no other international figure of sufficient stature. The decision could have been delayed, but the British government and royal family lobbied effectively against that happening.

After the three winners, May was the fourth important figure this week, but more as a survivor. She desperately wanted to use the summit to pitch the UK’s interest in increasing its role as a trading partner after Brexit. Instead she was distracted by a row over the UK’s appalling treatment of Caribbean British immigrants, whose lives have been devastated by a “hostile environment” on immigration that she herself had determinedly pushed as home secretary before becoming prime minister. For months, she and her government ignored reports in The Guardian about the problems, and rebuffed parliamentary questions, till a week ago when May’s office refused to arrange a meeting with Caribbean leaders. That triggered a crisis that continues this weekend despite days of apologies and offers of compensation.

The primary problems are that the 53-country body itself does not have an effective leadership or management structure. Credit: Twitter #CHOGM2018

This points to how accident-prone the summit, officially known as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), can be. Four years ago it was boycotted by several countries because of the human rights record of Sri Lanka, the host. It could be heading for a repeat of that because Rwanda, where human rights abuses have a longer and more embedded history than Sri Lanka, has almost unbelievably been chosen for the 2020 summit.

The primary problems are that the 53-country body itself does not have an effective leadership or management structure, and has been floundering for at least ten years as a worthy collection of nations with many laudable causes but no clear international role (which it did have for over 30 years against South Africa’s apartheid).

The Queen presides but does not lead, though Prince Charles, who champions various environmental and other causes, may begin to be more active before he formally takes over. The country that hosts the biennial CHOGM is regarded as the leader for the next two years, so Britain is now in the lead till 2020. Frequently, however, the country involved has little capability or interest to push more than the ceremonials and the summit.

Then there is the Secretariat, housed in Marlborough House close to the London’s royal palaces. At its head is a secretary general appointed by the member countries. The post is currently held by Baroness (Patricia) Scotland, 62, who was born in the former British colony of Dominica and was attorney general in the UK’s last Labour government.

In the two years that she has held the post, the general view is that the secretariat has not functioned well. Preparations for CHOGM were hived off to the Cabinet Office, reporting direct to the prime minister. Scotland’s predecessor, who came from India and held the post for eight years, was regarded as charming but ineffectual.

This is why it was crucial for this CHOGM to set a new course while the Queen was still the focal point. It was due to be held in Vanuatu in the Pacific, which was hit by a devastating cyclone, so the UK gladly took over, enabling the Queen (who no longer flies abroad) to be present.

Nothing was done this week to tackle the diffused management problem, but officials hope the secretariat will work more effectively because the mass of declarations that have emerged are not just laudable causes but are, this time, anchored in more designated action by individual states than before.

Under four bland themes of a “common future” that is fairer, more secure, more prosperous and shared, these include: a Blue Charter to protect oceans from the effects of climate change, pollution and over-fishing; a declaration on cyber security backed by £15m from the UK government to help individual countries; and proposals for girls’ education and observer work on elections. There were also other measures that will specially help over 30 small states, and increased funding, but the challenge now is to turn good intentions into action that will prove the Commonwealth’s worth.

Individual countries are taking responsibility for implementing sections of the Blue Charter with, for example, Australia, Belize and Mauritius focusing on coral reefs, Sri Lanka on mangrove restoration, and Vanuatu on ocean plastics supported by the UK with a £60 million commitment to a clean ocean alliance.

India plans to help small countries, especially island states, withstand climate change and other sustainable environmental and development problems. That will also benefit India because it will help it develop relationships at a time when China is also looking for naval bases and alliances.

This is less involvement than India’s earlier idea of hosting a trade and investment centre, or “business hub”, in India, which Modi was thought to favour. Initially there was a general welcome for the idea, but the Indian commerce ministry lost enthusiasm, while the secretariat felt it would be losing a key role. A joint international exercise with private sector federations is now being explored. This was accepted by India, which seems to have learned that changes and interventions can only happen gradually.

But key issues were avoided this week. Theresa May talked at the opening session about the need to eliminate old colonial laws that banned same-sex relationships, and she referred to the subject again at the end. Nothing was heard however on this during the summit’s formal sessions, nor was there anything in the communiqué, probably because 37 member countries (including India) would have felt criticised and pressured.

Freedom of expression and protection for journalists also failed to figure, despite recent killings of journalists, and even though the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (CJA) and other organisations produced a new set of principles on freedom of expression and the rule of law. Again India, where there have been recent killings, would have felt pressured. William Horsley, a former BBC journalist and prominent CJA member, says the failure “casts doubt on the capacity and conscience of the Commonwealth and its elected leaders to live up to the much-vaunted ‘Commonwealth values”.

Since the organisation operates on consensus embracing all 53 members with their different priorities, politics and cultures, it is never likely make waves in these contentious areas, and will always fall short of implementing the phrases such as “common values” that it proudly pronounces. The only way for it to prove its worth therefore is probably to strengthen its development role and turn its plans into action.

Meanwhile the cheap jibes will continue. “Any 80-year-old institution based on the contours of a defunct 19th-century empire and largely held together by the charming drive of a 91-year-old woman is going to struggle to prove its modern relevance,” wrote a Guardian columnist this week.

Most of its severest critics are outsiders who have little experience of what it actually is or what it does. There are of course voices such as the CJA’s Horsley, who understandably despair of basic rights being ignored. Over recent months however, listening to people involved from different countries, it has become apparent to me that the Commonwealth, however insignificant it may seem compared with other multilateral organisations, is especially valued by the 30-plus small states because of the development and other aid and advice they receive, and because it gives them a voice, however small, in international affairs.

“It’s an actual family with a royal family at its heart – it wouldn’t survive without the royal family who can speak to heads of government like no-one else can,” Lord (Paul) Boateng,  a former British high commissioner to South Africa, Labour government cabinet minister and civil rights lawyer, said at the launch of a mostly negative book on the Commonwealth this week.

As the future family head, Prince Charles will be inheriting a much more crucial task than he probably realises, which will require much more sustained focus than many of his other devolved activities.

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