Monday, December 18, 2006

Commonwealth of Nations - a unique global institution

Note to readers. My apologies to those getting two feeds on this post. Another case of formatting problems that needed to be corrected.

Photo: Flag of the Commonwealth of Nations

Those who read this blog will often know that I speak of pre 1970's Australia as a far country simply because so much has changed that Australians today have lost contact with much of that past.

For the record I should note that I have taken the far country concept from the name of a book by Nevil Shute that describes the story of a an English girl and a displaced Czech doctor who comes to Australia at the end of the second world war.

Well written, the book presents a picture of life in country Victoria at the start of mass migration and of the adaption to the country of two people from very different world's. The 1986 Australian mini series of the same name was based on the book.

As a fifteen year old back in that far country I won the Constitutional Association Essay Prize with an essay on the future of what was then known as the British Commonwealth. In that essay I argued in part that the Commonwealth would survive as an institution because of its remarkable ability to adapt to change.

Time passes and the Commonwealth drops from the radar screen of many Australians. Indeed, in the period leading up to the last Commonwealth Games some Australians queried both the Games themselves and the very existence and continued relevance of the Commonwealth as an institution.

Yet somehow the Commonwealth continues to survive. It has no constitution, but continues as a voluntary association of 53 countries with nearly 2 billion citizens, about 30 per cent of the world's population, drawn from the broadest range of faiths, races, cultures and traditions.

A key factor in that survival has been the 1965 decision to establish a permanent Commonwealth Secretariat in London to coordinate Commonwealth activities. Today more than 85 international bodies have the name Commonwealth in their title.

I was reminded of all this by a quite remarkable story I found by accident in the Scotsman while searching for stories on Tamworth and its refugees. It's an interesting story, but not one I think that would get coverage in Australia given the blind spots created by current mind sets.

The Commonwealth of course evolved from the old British Empire and was made up exclusively of former parts of the Empire. This changed in 1995 when Mozambique (a former Portuguese colony) and Cameroon (a former French colony) applied to join and were accepted as members.

Again this largely slipped past the Australian radar, although it was a remarkable development in an organisation many Australians considered to be moribund. Both countries joined because they saw the Commonwealth as a cost-effective way of extending their international reach.

Now there is another possible membership change, one that raises quite complex issues for the Commonwealth as an institution.

According the the Scotsman story, six countries in Africa and the Middle East have indicated interest in joining the Commonwealth. The countries have not been named, but diplomatic sources suggest that they are Algeria (a former French colony), Rwanda (former Belgium colony), Yemen (this has links to the old Empire through Aden), Sudan (part of the old Empire), Israel and the Palestinian Territories (Palestine was a former British League of Nations mandate).

I really blinked at this list for a number of reasons.

Dealing with the less important first, I found the continued interest of Francophone countries in Commonwealth membership of itself interesting. Now while I knew that the Commonwealth and Francophone countries were in some ways an extension of the old French/English rivalry, I had never in fact investigated the Francophone block. I did so and was surprised at what I found.

The Francophonie

The modern Francophonie was created in 1970, four years after the creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and has many of the same attributes as the Commonwealth.

Fifty-three states and governments are members of the organisation, four others are associate members, and ten additional states are invited observers of its Summits. The prerequisite for admission is not the degree of French usage in the member countries, but a prevalent presence of French culture and French language in the member country's identity stemming from France's interaction with other nations in its history.

I was surprised at the degree of overlap in membership between the The Francophonie and Commonwealth. No less than eight Commonwealth countries are members in some way of The Francophonie - Cameroon, Canada (Quebec and New Brunswick), Cyprus, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles and Vanuatu. I was also surprised at the greater variation in membership within The Francophonie including a range of countries such as Belgium, Georgia and Switzerland with no direct links to the previous French Empire. This reflects The Francophonie's cultural focus.

Broader Membership Issues

Turning to broader issues, the composition of countries reported as now seeking admission to the Commonwealth raises some very interesting questions.

To begin with, the reported interest by both Israel and the Palestinian Territories (if correct) made me blink.

I must say that I had never thought of the Commonwealth as a possible vehicle for cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Yes, there are long standing historical interconnections between both and the the Empire and Commonwealth, but even so it seems strange. Mind you, anything that might improve relationships in this area is obviously welcome.

The reported expressions of interest also highlight the question of continuity and links within the Commonwealth itself.

While Australians are sometimes rude about the individual countries within the Commonwealth and their governance systems, the Commonwealth has been a considerable force for democratisation and modernisation, not withstanding lack of power and conspicuous failures such as present problems in Fiji and Zimbabwe.

Central to this influence is the fact that countries actually want to belong to the Commonwealth, creating pressures for reform that encourage change over time. This is not the sudden type of pressure that we have seen fail so disastrously in Iraq, in fact another country that on historical grounds could apply to join the Commonwealth. Rather, reform comes from incremental changes whose effect can only be seen over longer time periods.

Central to this in turn is a wide range of often dimly recognised shared linkages that have proved remarkable enduring. You only have to look at sport in Australia to see this. The problem for the Commonwealth as an institution is that admission of new members may act to weaken those shared linkages in the absence of action to create new linkages.

Both Mozambique and Cameroon have been active members of the Commonwealth since joining. Mozambique is surrounded on all sides by Commonwealth countries, so its membership meant that all of Southern and South East Africa were members. In somewhat similar fashion, Cameroon adjoins Nigeria. But where to draw the line?

Commonwealth Response

Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon will not be drawn on just which countries have expressed interest and makes the careful point that no country will formally apply to join unless they know that their application is likely to be successful.

Mr McKinnon would also not be drawn on the question of whether or not new members would be admitted in time for the next CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government) meeting scheduled for Kampala (Uganda) in November 2007. Here the Commonwealth works on consensus, so the joining process is likely to be slow.

In the meantime, the Commonwealth has set up a group of eminent persons led by former Jamaican prime minister Percival Patterson to look into the matter. Here Mr McKinnon noted: "The issues would be: should we widen membership? Should we have associate members? Should we have a half-way house?"

I have no idea how all this will work out. The one thing that I am sure of is that the Commonwealth will continue to evolve in interesting ways.

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