The British Commonwealth is stirring up unaccustomed controversy -- and that's a good thing.
Meetings of the Commonwealth of Nations, an international grouping made up primarily of countries that were once parts of the British Empire, are generally sedate affairs. The group’s summits tend to evoke the genteel aura of afternoon tea. Controversies rarely surface.
But 2013 threatens to depart from the rule. The next Commonwealth summit, set to take place in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo next month, looks like it’s going to be a doozy. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper says that he’s going to boycott the proceedings to protest the deteriorating human rights records of the summit’s hosts. Harper accuses Sri Lanka of a slide into authoritarianism, citing "ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra-judicial killings."
Just in case anyone missed the point, the Canadians are also going after Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, of India. Last week, Canada’s special envoy to the Commonwealth, Hugh Segal, accused Sharma of "acting as a shill [for the Sri Lankan leadership], defending their every mistake." Not exactly croquet and cucumber sandwiches.
As if that weren’t enough, the small West African country known as The Gambia has just made good on its threat to withdraw from the Commonwealth. President Yahya Jammeh, in power for the past 19 years, denounced the group as a "neo-colonial institution" and an "extension of colonialism." His ire probably has something to do with British criticisms of his miserable human rights record. (Jammeh castigated the Commonwealth in his speech at last month’s United Nations General Assembly, where he also seized the occasion to rail against homosexuality, which he described as "one of the biggest threats to human existence." He’s also notorious for his claims that he can cure female infertility and that AIDS can be healed with an herbal body rub.)
Some have said that The Gambia’s exit is a sign of waning influence, signaling a darker future for the Commonwealth, whose membership roster now falls from 54 countries to 53. But I disagree. The very fact that Jammeh felt compelled to leave the club suggests that he was feeling threatened by the Commonwealth’s insistence on the primacy of freedom and human rights.
Yet the Commonwealth has few formal tools for compelling its members to comply with its aims. It commands no weapons, no armed forces. It arrives at its decisions by consensus, not by fiat — and each member has an equal vote (in stark contrast to the United Nations). One could describe it, with some justice, as a glorified social club.
And yet, as any member of a social club knows, the aspiration to remain a member in good standing can be a powerful force for persuasion. The Commonwealth proved its soft power mojo when it organized the sanctions regime against South Africa in the 1980s (successfully pushing back against then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was opposed to pinching the apartheid government). On six occasions in its history, the Commonwealth has taken the drastic step of excluding countries for backsliding on democratic principles, and the organization’s defenders say that the resulting bad PR was instrumental in leading at least two of them (Pakistan and Fiji) back into the democratic fold (and back into the Commonwealth). (The black sheep is Zimbabwe, which responded to its exclusion in 2002 by withdrawing from the Commonwealth altogether a year later.)
As Zimbabwe’s example demonstrates, this low-key approach has its limits: Robert Mugabe is still in power (and, indeed, recently won yet another dubious election). Nonetheless, the restraint of the Commonwealth model looks pretty good in the wake of America’s deeply problematic efforts to implant democracy at gunpoint. "With the discrediting of the neo-Conservative dream of imposing democracy by force, it is the ideal vehicle for the quiet promotion of democracy," wrote British columnist Peter Oborne a few years ago. "In the Commonwealth, the means used are never invasion, but subtlety and quiet pressure."
British Conservative Party politician Michael Ancram has argued that it’s time to reboot the Commonwealth by stressing its role as a democracy promotion organization. Far from being an antiquated relic of the past, he says, the Commonwealth network makes it perfectly suited to the 21st-century era of decentralized power. He’s even suggested moving the headquarters of the Commonwealth from London to New Delhi as a way of boosting its credibility as an organization that’s overcome its colonial past.
I think he’s on to something. The fact that even some countries that weren’t British colonies have decided to join the Commonwealth (Rwanda and Mozambique) suggests that the organization still has a certain cachet. A club that encompasses 2.2 billion people is not to be sneezed at, perhaps. The citizens of some of its member countries have voting rights in others; those wishing to migrate from one Commonwealth country to another also often enjoy preferential immigration status. And even though membership in the Commonwealth club doesn’t explicitly encompass commercial privileges, several studies show that member countries trade much more with each other, and under more favorable terms, than with non-members.
But the "badge of respectability" that comes with Commonwealth membership shouldn’t come too cheap. While there is something to be said for the organization’s consensus-based philosophy, the Commonwealth needs to make a clear stand on the need to protect democratic values in a world where increasingly assertive autocracies are challenging the primacy of freedom. British colonialism committed plenty of sins in its day, but it has also bequeathed to the world a positive legacy of respect for human rights and the rule of law that remains treasured in many of the places that have been touched by it. (I’m looking at you, Hong Kong.)
In any case, next month’s summit meeting could end up giving the Commonwealth a serious reality check. The British government has so far managed to keep aloof from the Canadian’s accusations against the Sri Lankan government, but that could change, now that the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has also come under fire for failing to chide Colombo for its authoritarian airs. Last week a member of the British parliament challenged Cameron for failing to address the killing of a British citizen in Sri Lanka two years ago — allegedly at the hands of a close adviser of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
There’s no question that the Commonwealth urgently needs reform. Too many of the organization’s events are empty diplomatic exercises. To get things back on the right track, the group could start by holding countries to account when they show contempt for democratic norms, perhaps even culling the membership roster accordingly. Surely that would be a small price to pay for increased credibility. It’s time for the Commonwealth to live up to its high standards.