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Member nations not legally bound by decisions

Britain's Prince Charles and Rwanda President Paul Kagame are seen at a meeting on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, on Thursday in Kigali, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda. Picture: Simon Maina/AFP

Britain's Prince Charles and Rwanda President Paul Kagame are seen at a meeting on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, on Thursday in Kigali, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda. Picture: Simon Maina/AFP

Published Jun 26, 2022

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By Philip Murphy

The Commonwealth consists of 54 independent member states. Most of them were formerly ruled by the British, although Mozambique, which joined in 1995, and Rwanda, which joined in 2009, do not share that historical link to the UK.

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There are 19 Commonwealth states in Africa, eight in Asia, three in Europe (including Cyprus and Malta, which are also members of the EU), 13 in the Caribbean and the Americas and 11 in the Pacific. They vary in size and population.

The majority of 32 Commonwealth members are classified as small states with populations of under 1.5million. By contrast, India – the most populous Commonwealth state – has 1.4 billion citizens. Of the 2.5 billion people who live in the Commonwealth, over half are based in India.

Last year, the combined GDP of all Commonwealth countries was estimated to be $13.1 trillion. The Commonwealth is sometimes described as a “family of nations” and as a mark of their special relationship members call their diplomatic missions in other Commonwealth states “high commissions” rather than embassies.

It takes an interest in a wide variety of issues. These range from climate change and deforestation to gender equality, international development, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. This represents a strength and a weakness.

It means that it speaks to the diverse national interests of its member states. Yet it finds it almost impossible to focus its activities on one or two major issues where it could make a genuine difference.

Whereas the more affluent countries of the Commonwealth have tended to favour a focus on trade and good governance, the less affluent have stressed the need to address global inequality and promote development.

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The result has generally been warm words on all these issues but a conspicuous lack of concerted action. This is reflected by the absence of a clear and deliverable agenda for heads of governments meetings.

Instead, they have “themes”, which are intentionally all-encompassing. The theme of the 2022 Summit is “Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming”. It has been four momentous years since heads last met. The world has faced extraordinary challenges and the Commonwealth has done little of note to offer solutions.

So its supporters hope the meeting in Kigali will give a much-needed boost to the organisation’s public profile, leadership and sense of purpose.

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The issue which kept the Commonwealth focused, energised and newsworthy from the 1960s to the 1990s was the struggle to dismantle white minority rule in southern Africa. This tended to place British governments in an uncomfortable position, as they were often accused of obstructing attempts by the rest of the Commonwealth to put pressure on the governments of then-Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa.

But while the organisation was rarely united in its approach, it can certainly claim a prominent role in the international fight against apartheid.

More recently, the Commonwealth has pointed to its success in promoting democracy among its member states. Yet while the organisation is no longer prepared to tolerate military dictatorships or one-party states, a number of members, including the host of this year’s summit, have poor records in terms of allowing opposition movements to operate freely.

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This is another area where the Commonwealth struggles. It is not a treaty-based organisation and members are not legally bound by its decisions. Because it emerged from the dissolution of the British Empire, there has never been any willingness on the part of members to transfer powers back to its co-ordinating body, the Commonwealth Secretariat.

From the 1990s, the Commonwealth has increasingly portrayed itself as a body united by shared values rather than a shared history, and in 1995 it created the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to monitor adherence to those values.

The group’s powers include the ability to recommend the suspension or even the expulsion of member states. But because it is so easy for members simply to withdraw from the Commonwealth without immediate negative consequences, the group has proved reluctant to hold them to account except in the case of the most flagrant violations of the organisation’s norms.

A perennial problem for the organisation is that although it issues statements about a wide range of international issues, Commonwealth heads of government meetings tend in practice to be dominated by internal affairs.

Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland is seeking a second term in office. Normally, secretaries-general serve two four-year terms, and it is unusual for the incumbent to be challenged at the end of their first term.

Scotland’s first term was due to come to an end in 2020, but because of Covid, the heads of government meeting due that year has twice been postponed. Hence, she has already served for six years.

British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s desire to deny Scotland a second term in office led to a public row in the run-up to the summit, with accusations from Scotland’s supporters that the Johnson administration’s “colonial agenda” risks wrecking the Commonwealth.

Since 1999, the leader of the host country becomes the Commonwealth’s chair-in-office until the next heads of state meeting, which usually follows in two years’ time. In 2013 the decision to allow Sri Lanka to host proved extremely contentious due to the human rights record of its government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The British government’s highly controversial scheme to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda has put the country’s domestic and foreign policy under even greater scrutiny.

Neither this, nor the increasingly bitter campaign for the post of secretary general, is likely to give the Commonwealth the sort of positive “relaunch” some of its supporters were hoping for.

* Murphy is the Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of British and Commonwealth History, School of Advanced Study.

** This edited version of his article was first published on theconversation.com.

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