Commonwealth Relevance

Thousands of athletes are gathering in the Scottish city of Glasgow this week for the Commonwealth Games, a sporting jamboree that takes place every four years, and is one of the most high profile of the group’s events.

Its other activities are less well known and, with the proliferation of multilateral associations across the globe and the controversy of last year’s Heads of Government Meeting or CHOGM in Sri Lanka many observers wonder whether
the 53-member Commonwealth has any relevance in the contemporary world.

Professor A Selvanathan, one of three speakers at a Jeffrey Cheah Institute forum on the issue, noted that in order for the question of relevance to be asked, the organisation must once have had that relevance. A former director of the Economic Planning Unit and the Director of the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1976 – 1986, Selvanathan argued that the group needed to adapt to changed circumstances.

“A rebranding may be necessary,” he said. “The Commonwealth has to serve a larger community, and, most importantly, take a very critical look at its aims.” The forum, which also included Tan Sri Datuk Seri Utama Pandikar Amin Haji Mulia, the Speaker of the Malaysian parliament and Malaysia’s representative to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and Yusmadi Yusoff, a former Malaysian MP and a member of the Commonwealth election observer team to Maldives in 2013, was moderated by Venkat Iyer, the U.K.-based Editor of The Round Table.

The speakers agreed that the Commonwealth’s heyday was in the 60s and 70s as countries secured their independence after decades of colonialism and sought a larger voice for the developing world in international fora. The Commonwealth, they argued, mattered because it allowed smaller nations a say and helped articulate a coherent voice for the developing world.

Among its key successes, it helped bring an end to white rule in Rhodesia. “It had a very challenging agenda in the 1970s, but it did very well,” Professor Selvanathan observed. In recent decades, however, the Commonwealth has come under pressure, amid concern that it has failed to protect its fundamental principles by taking action against those members seen to be violating them. The speakers noted that the Commonwealth acknowledged the need for change back in 2009 when it asked a group of senior diplomats and officials to recommend not only reforms, but how the organisation might be able to make
itself more relevant in a changing world.

The Eminent Persons Group reported back two years later, making 106 recommendations .

“There is a growing perception that the Commonwealth has become indifferent because it fails to stand up to the values that it has declared as fundamental to its existence,” the group wrote. “These values have been violated by some member countries without an appropriate Commonwealth response except in the event of the unconstitutional overthrow of a government.”

Only two of the recommendations have been adopted including the Commonwealth Charter, which lays down the group’s “core values,” including democracy, human rights, the rule of law and good governance.

The speakers at the forum highlighted the often bitter debate over the Commonwealth’s core values. Iyer noted the issue of human rights was a “sticky point,” underlined at last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka where the conduct of the last month’s of the island’s Civil War cameunder heavy scrutiny and the Prime Ministers of India, Canada and Mauritius stayed away.

Tan Sri Datuk Seri Utama Pandikar Amir, echoed former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the discussion over human rights, suggesting that such rights are not necessarily universal and reflect the perspective of the more
developed Western nations.

Looking back to the group’s successes, the speakers noted that the Commonwealth had benefited hugely from the leadership of people such as Shridath Ramphal, who was the organisation’s second Secretary General and held office from 1975 until 1990. Professor Savananthan noted that Ramphal approached problems at three levels
– national, regional and multilateral. The Commonwealth, the panel said, would benefit from similarly visionary leadership in the 21st century with the group’s members facing new challenges from rising powers such as China and emerging
issues such as Climate Change and terrorism. They also stressed the importance of revitalising people-to-people exchanges and the network of groups, including the “People’s Forum” that takes place in conjunction with CHOGM, that together made up the “family” of the Commonwealth.

“Connecting people is not just technology,’ said lawyer, and former MP, Yusmadi. “It’s about culture and history. The key is interaction. What makes us secure is understanding the other person’s world. When there’s no interaction, how do you have interaction.” Still, achieving such goals, they noted would take money that the Commonwealth doesn’t have. The organisation gets about 70 percent of its finding from Britain, Australia and Canada, but the latter is now reviewing its contributions.

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s budget for 2012/13 was 16.1 million pounds and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co operation, which is meant to provide development assistance to smaller countries, totalled 29.7 million pounds in the
same period. “The Commonwealth is already under resourced,” said Selvanathan. “Its budget has been cut every year for the past ten years. Unless something is done the Commonwealth will die a long natural death; starved of resources. Someone has
got to pay for it.”

Even the Commonwealth Games have suffered amid a perception among some top athletes that it lacks the prestige of some of the sporting calendar’s top-tier events. Some top athletes have stayed away from Glasgow, but as one of the panel audience members observed, having taken part in an earlier Games, the competition is one of the best opportunities for people of the Commonwealth to meet like-minded individuals of other cultures and backgrounds. More than
4,000 people representing 71 nations and territories will be competing in eleven days of competition this year.