From Gary Barlow’s backing musicians to flags fluttering on the flotilla, the Commonwealth featured prominently in the diamond jubilee celebrations. Yet, behind the pageantry of the weekend, lies an international association that has had few political successes in recent years and shows signs of genteel decline.
The Commonwealth deserves its role in the jubilee celebrations. Remarkably, the Queen has overseen the independence of no fewer than 43 countries — all of which have chosen to join the Commonwealth despite many becoming republics (only Zimbabwe has since left) — and she has actively promoted this association of equal and independent States.
But for those of us who believe in the Commonwealth as a unique international experiment in promoting shared values around democracy, the celebrations have been bittersweet. A growing momentum to reform the Commonwealth’s institutions seems to be running out of steam.
Ahead of the last Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, last October, an eminent persons group came up with a set of recommendations to rebuild the Commonwealth’s profile. Many of their key reforms — such as the creation of a commissioner on democracy, the rule of law and human rights — were kicked into the long grass.
Some of the Commonwealth’s most enduring successes — its role in ending South African apartheid, for example —arose from creating dialogue between countries with different outlooks that nonetheless managed to agree on a way forward.
Today, there seems little appetite for tackling some of the thornier issues that should be on the agenda. For example, the Commonwealth could be actively working to end the criminalisation of homosexuality in its member States, or clamping down on the arms trade. And leaders need not look far to see perhaps the thorniest issue of all. The Queen is hosting both Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose country will host the next CHOGM, and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who has said that he will not attend CHOGM unless the Sri Lankan government addresses human rights violations.
Rajapaksa will rightly claim that his government has received no formal Commonwealth sanction. Harper’s concerns are shared by several member states and almost all Commonwealth NGOs. The problem is that Commonwealth institutions seem unable to lend a helping hand with reconciliation or development in Sri Lanka, or to be able to demonstrate that they can resolve political differences.