Sunday, November 29, 2009

The importance of the Commonwealth

CHOGM 2009 Family Photo

I have a post coming up later today completing my review of Don Aitkin's book What was it all for? and so had no intention of posting.

Then driving through the early morning light to take Clare to work, I listened to the BBC World Debate, this week on the question the Commonwealth at 60: does it have a future? The program was live, so it is not up yet.

Yesterday in Saturday Morning Musings - Liberal implosion, the importance of the Commonwealth I mentioned the decline in knowledge in Australia about the Commonwealth. Listening to the program, I actually got annoyed with myself because it revealed my own lack of knowledge, showed how out of touch I was getting.

Like most of us in a time poor world I rely to a degree on the Australian media for my knowledge of the world. I do check beyond, but the Australian media is still my first source.

As I listened to a panel discussion including the foreign ministers for UK and Bangladesh, I realised that the almost complete absence of Commonwealth reporting meant that my own knowledge had atrophied. To illustrate what I mean, I thought that I should look at some of the issues covered in the panel discussion. I leave it in your hands to judge whether these issues are important from an Australian perspective.

The timing of this CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) just before Copenhagen gave it added importance.

Climate change has been an important issue within the Commonwealth for some years simply because so many Commonwealth countries are affected. We know of the Pacific island states, but (and as the Bangladesh Foreign Minister pointed out) Bangladesh faces the possibility of 20-30 million displaced people.

Successive Australian Governments have in fact been quite dismissive of the concerns of the smaller nations whether expressed through the Commonwealth or other bodies such as the Pacific Island Forum. To those nations, the Commonwealth has been important in a way outside Australia's ken because it provides a vehicle through which they can at least press their case.

The importance of this CHOGM from a climate change perspective was marked by the presence of the UN Secretary General, the Prime Minister of Denmark and the French President at the summit.

The presence of the French President was quite striking.

France has its own Francaphone equivalent to the Commonwealth and has been deeply suspicious of the Commonwealth as a threat to the French language and culture. Further, this CHOGM is considering an application for membership by Rawanda, a country that has been trying to join the Commonwealth for six years and even changed its official language from French to English to support its case! Yet there was the French President.

As Neil noted in To Senator Nick Minchin, the Queen Elizabeth's  opening address set the tone:       

And on this, the eve of the UN Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, the Commonwealth has an opportunity to lead once more. The threat to our environment is not a new concern. But it is now a global challenge which will continue to affect the security and stability of millions for years to come.  Many of those affected are among the most vulnerable, and many of the people least well able to withstand the adverse effects of Climate Change live in the Commonwealth.

The Queen always speaks carefully because of her multiple roles. However, there can be no doubting her commitment on this issue, nor that of her husband and son.

There is, as Neil implied in his post, a kind of delicious irony in the fact that some of the strongest supporters of monarchy in Australia are leading the anti-climate change push. There is an almost more delicious irony in the fact that some of those in Australia who are most anti-monarchy and who want to dismantle traditional ties, Mr Turnbull comes to mind, find a base for support for their environmental positions within those institutions that they want to do away with!

As it happened, the French President got the support he wanted for a joint French/UK initiative to establish a climate change fund. Commonwealth leaders also called for a "legally binding" agreement on climate change to be reached in Copenhagen next month. Fifty three nations are not to be dismissed. The CHOGM did , I think, improve Copenhagen's chances.

The climate change discussion links to one of the issues canvassed in the BBC forum,the extent to which the Commonwealth can or should play an international role beyond that of talking shop. Here the British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary made a very important point.

The Commonwealth is not a United Nations. All Commonwealth countries are members of multiple bodies. Their Commonwealth ties are one and not normally the most important of their international linkages. What, then, is the use of the Commonwealth?

David Miliband suggested that it lay in the exercise of soft-power, the way the Commonwealth facilitated dialogue. I do not find this a fully satisfactory answer from a personal perspective. It is too wishy-washy.

There is no doubt that the Commonwealth is facing something of a crisis of confidence, of self-reflection, of uncertainty. In some ways the organisation reached its peak during de-colonisation where it played a key role. The very idea of international election monitors is a Commonwealth invention. Now, as the body turns sixty, people question its relevance in a more complex world.

The very fact that I did not know, nor I think do most Australians, that this year's CHOGM marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Commonwealth is a sign of the organisation's decline in popular perception.

I cannot give you a clear and unequivocal answer as to the future relevance of the Commonwealth. I can, however, point to some of the reasons why I think the Commonwealth should and probably will survive.

The first is that countries still want to belong. Even Australia, where the Commonwealth has to some degree become a dusty memory of what is now seen as an increasingly irrelevant past, has no particular desire to withdraw. Membership is simply useful. 

Actually, the question of whether countries like Australia should be excluded from the Commonwealth was raised by the moderator during the BBC discussion. The argument went this way: if Australians were no longer interested, should they then remain?

The question got short shrift and indeed it was partially rhetorical. It is in the Commonwealth's interest for Australia to remain. However, if Australia is to remain a member, then we do need to address the question of our contribution.

Beyond established developed countries like Canada or Australia where Commonwealth support has been declining, the continued wish of new countries to join the Commonwealth is a sign of continued perceived relevance.

Rawanda is a case in point. Here six year's work is likely to pay off at this CHOGM with a positive decision on membership. African members support Rawanda's application, as does at least the UK, Canada and Australia.

The issue of new Commonwealth membership is a complicated one and highlights some of the interesting tensions within the Commonwealth. What began as an Empire club began to change with the admission of the Cameroon and Mozambique in 1995.

The thought that countries outside the old Commonwealth and Empire would wish to join would have seemed inconceivable sixty years ago. Yet the combination of the Commonwealth's infrastructure (the huge web of Commonwealth institutions) with its role as a forum has attracted new members.

Joining the Commonwealth is not easy. Existing members wonder how the institution will retain its coherence. There are very specific issues about the maintenance of shared values.

The question of shared values links to democratic and human rights. Many Australian critics of the Commonwealth point to the presence of continuing human rights abuses in Commonwealth countries. Why, they suggest, should Australia belong to a club some of whose members have practices that our alien to ours? And what does the Commonwealth do about this?

I think that it is useful here to compare the UN with the Commonwealth.

The UN is a world governing body. It's role is manage the relations between nations to minimise conflict and to facilitate the achievement of joint aims. To this end, UN membership is essentially open to all, and has to be, regardless of the system of Government.

As a club, the Commonwealth is very different.

The Commonwealth is quite diverse. In religious terms, for example, its major religions are Hindu (800 million), Muslim (500 million) and Christian (400 million). It is not a governing body, just a club. The challenge is how to manage this.

In many ways the Commonwealth is a force for human rights and democratic values in a way that the UN cannot. Its strength is intangible.

There is a glass half full, half empty issue here.

The Commonwealth's failure, its inability to act at times, has been well documented. Its only weapon is exclusion from membership. Zimbabwe is no longer a member of the Commonwealth, Fiji's membership has been suspended.

So long as countries want to remain members of the Commonwealth, then the institution's commitment to human rights and democratic values remains important. This is not a small thing, even if far from perfect. In simple terms, it places pressure on national leaders and on governing institutions.

The case of Rawanda is instructive. The central issue with membership is whether that country has improved its human rights position to the point that membership can be supported. Some argue no, many national governments including Australia argue yes. If Rawanda's membership is accepted, then that country  enters into an arrangement that exposes it to further scrutiny.

In all this, one of the reason why I remain such a Commonwealth supporter is the way membership can facilitate interaction between different cultures. I just love the diversity!             


Rummuser said...

As one of the 800 million Hindus and citizen of a Commonwealth country, AND and Anglophile, I think that it is a waste of taxpayers' money to hold these junkets for mutual admiration by the CHOGMs. In the sixty years of its existence, it has not achieved one single sensible thing of common interest to the members of the 'club'. With such amazing communication methods available to us the 'diversity' can be harnessed like you and I have done. I can tell you hair raising stories about what happens to Commonwealth funds used for so called development work in the less developed member countries. If I were to vote for its winding up, I would vote for a loud 'yes'.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting comment and also a little unexpected, Ramana.

I doubt that Commonwealth development aid of the conventional type in the countries in question, I can think of a few too, has met with greater or less success than that from other sources.

In terms of successes, the type of headline things that come to mind are the Colombo plan, Rhodesia and change in South Africa. At a smaller level we have election monitors and the whole myriad web of support mechanisms that are of greatest interest to smaller members. The smaller members also find it valuable because it gives them a greater voice.

I have a part completed post that I am thinking of for the weekend on history and perception. I am planning to take two cases, the current east-west divide in the EU and the Commonwealth. They actually raise somewhat similar issues.

Barath said...

I was watching the programme "The Queen" yesterday on Channel 4 and it brought it sharply into focus how the monarchy in the UK was nearly derailed due to Margaret Thatcher's unwillingness to impose sanctions on South Africa whilst the Queen was very much in favour. The Commonwealth countries applied pressure by withdrawing from the Edinburgh Games. It is unfaitr to suggest that the Commonwealth is an anachronism, clearly the economic benefits of belonging to this club is sufficient incentives for the poorer nations to want to join with them!!

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting comment, Barath, and captures one side of the Commonwealth.

sam said...

ROBOCOP, a new police official for Commonwealth games

DELHI HAS got a new police official ROBOCOP who is very much in news these days. With the Commonwealth Games round the corner and reports of constant terror threats, ROBOCOP is the new Mini Remote Operating Vehicles (MROV) that will help commandos in a hostage situation and even defuse bombs.
Canada based ICOR Technology manufactured robot, ROBOCOP can not only trace the explosive but lift it and put it in a Total Containment Vehicle (TCV), which is used for defusing bombs. This way, bomb squad personnel will not have to expose themselves to the explosives.
MROV has a robotic arm with a 5 degree movement including a turret, shoulder, elbow, wrist and claw joint. It can lift approximately 20 kgs and drag up to 130 kgs. The caliber T5 robot are used by Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams across the world and can also drag injured people to safety, climb stairs and negotiate rocky terrain. It has a maximum speed of 8 km /hr.

Read More On >> Commonwealth Games 2010