Is the Commonwealth a useless relic of the old Empire?

In a televised address to his nation last week, Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh announced his country’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Without prior warning to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, President Jammeh decided that his country was pulling out of the club after 48 years because “the Gambia will never be a member of any ne-colonial institution and will never be party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism.”

The president did not give further reasons but his decision to pull out may be related to the country’s rocky relationship with the UK over its poor record of human rights.

But what is the Commonwealth? And does it still serve a useful purpose for its members or its just simply a colonial relic of the old Empire, soothing British pride in a world where the sun rises everywhere but sets in the West?

Founded in 1949, the Commonwealth is an organisation of 53 sovereign states bringing together countries that were once colonies of the British Empire (with the exception of a few such as Mozambique and Rwanda) , united by a common set of ideals, shared history and similar legal and constitution frameworks.

Many people have derided the Commonwealth as an out-dated institution that has no role to play in the modern world.

It is seen as an ineffective, powerless and expensive talking shop that does nothing useful except pass resolutions on democracy and human rights.

The organisation is accused of failing to live up to its own high ideals and has no means of enforcing principles of the Harare Declaration. Many of its members are dictatorships, or have very troubled human rights records.

Critics have rightly questioned the relevance of having a club that has no meaningful say in trade, security or economic matters.

Perhaps the most stinging indictment of the relevance of the Commonwealth came from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair ahead of the 2002 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in Durban, South Africa.

The former prime minister reportedly said he would rather be watching football than attend the meeting.

Repurposing

Mr Danny Sriskandarajah, a director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, has argued that the “Commonwealth risks being drowned out in a more crowded field of international organisations, many with a clearer sense of purpose, more collective will and better resources.”

The reality today is that members derive very little privileges from this organisation. But even as countries like Zimbabwe and the Gambia withdraw, and as Fiji continues to be unmoved by its suspension in 2009, other countries like Rwanda are lining up to join the club.

The Commonwealth still has a role to play, we tend to focus on its political inaction, but the organisation has tremendous potential to improve the lives of poorer members.

Members from small countries whose voice is rarely heard on the international stage have an opportunity to be heard at Commonwealth forums. Small countries are able to strike bilateral trade deals and lobby major powers on global issues affecting them on the sidelines of the forum.

An organisation that fosters this kind of dialogue, between the rich and poor countries, should be supported to succeed.

Rich nations like the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and emerging countries like India and South Africa must work together to change the purpose of this organisation.

For the Commonwealth to remain relevant in the modern world, it must first start to live by its stated ideals of democracy and human rights.

Yes, some members will jump ship when the heat gets too much, but in the long-run the organisation will be more effective by having only a small club of members who share in its ideals.

Second, the Commonwealth must expand its remit to include areas such as trade, industrial and scientific cooperation, including collaboration in defence and security affairs.

The Commonwealth already has an asset many international organisations do not have – commonalities in cultures, legal and regulatory systems which provide a major incentive for deeper and meaningful cooperation among members.

Email: tanalo@nationmedia.co.ke Twitter: @trevor_analo

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