by Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
The allegations in Saturday's (October 9) edition of the London-based Guardian newspaper that the Commonwealth secretariat has abandoned its commitment to defend human rights could not have come at a worse time. [Titled “Commonwealth has abandoned human rights commitment – leaked memo” it says: “Leaked document obtained by the Guardian shows staff told by secretary general it is not their job to speak out against abuses.”] Bad press around the Delhi games had already led to questions about what the Commonwealth is for these days, and this news potentially undermines the very thing that sets the association apart.
If the Commonwealth is to survive in the 21st century, it needs to show that it stands for something more than its ties to the old empire. The obvious choice, reaffirmed most recently when leaders met late last year, is a commitment to “fundamental values and principles” around human rights and democracy.
Putting these lofty ideals into practice may be difficult given the diversity of the association — which covers Australia to Zambia — but if its leadership is not seen as a credible custodian of these values then the rest of the Commonwealth project will suffer.
Unlike most other multilateral groupings, the Commonwealth is rooted in a long history and buttressed by unrivalled civil society and business networks. There is no Royal OECD Society or G20 Parliamentary Association. This gives the Commonwealth a huge advantage.
But it also means that its institutions have a harder time carving out a role for themselves. With a total budget less than one per cent of the Department for International Development's, and fewer staff than Cornwall council's fire and rescue service, the secretariat is unlikely to find too many areas in which it will be uniquely placed to add real value. It could be a convenor, bringing together diverse experiences and expertise from around the world, but without an over-arching purpose it risks descending into a series of expensive talkshops.
The Commonwealth's role as a custodian and champion of values, therefore, is its unique selling point and the area where it has been strongest in previous decades.
No other body boasts a global membership of countries that have voluntarily signed up to such strong ideals. Nor does any other have a mechanism for self-regulation like the Commonwealth's ministerial action group, which has the power to suspend, and ultimately expel, recalcitrant members.
The Commonwealth played a lead role in the global campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, with the secretary general often taking a view that was unpopular with member states, notably Britain. And it pioneered independent international election-observer missions, many of which criticised practices in member states.
But the organisation has been woefully quiet in these areas in recent times. The Gambian president has threatened journalists and human rights activists without any criticism from the secretariat and it took almost three years after the coup for Fiji to be finally suspended late last year. Though we are told that work is being done behind the scenes, public silence hurts the association's credibility.
Just as the world is crying out for a credible moral authority, the Commonwealth has become shy and retiring. The fact that the association is governed by consensus is a unique strength, giving all its members an equal stake and preventing the kind of politicised deadlock that so often cripples the U.N. security council. But in recent years the consensus ideal has become an obsession, locking the Commonwealth into being as conservative as its most conservative member, many of which are reluctant to sanction criticism due to their own less-than-perfect records.
By contrast, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees campaigns tirelessly on international protection; and just last month the European commission warned France over its treatment of the Roma.
The problem for the Commonwealth is as much philosophical as political. The fear of being branded neo-imperialist seems to have made it reluctant to push too hard on human rights. Yet, given that its members have freely subscribed to these ideals, holding them to account on their promises is hardly imposing western liberalism.
If the Commonwealth is to recover from its recent battering, it must make good on its promise of being an association that holds to its values. This means lending a helping hand where appropriate but also pointing a finger where there are serious shortcomings.
The founding fathers had visionary ideals. Nehru had hoped that the modern Commonwealth would bring “a touch of healing” to the world. Today, it's the Commonwealth that needs an urgent dose of courage and ambition.
(Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is director of the Royal Commonwealth Society.)