Just in time for Halloween, everyone’s favorite zombified institution came lumbering back into the headlines this week. The Commonwealth, that famously eclectic and arbitrary collection of 53 former British colonies (and, uh, Mozambique) just wrapped up its big biennial heads of government meeting in Perth, Australia on something of a sour note.
Now, Commonwealth summits aren’t terribly productive at the best of times. Under usual circumstances, the main things politicians do at such gatherings is release communiques with titles like “Commonwealth meetings show Commonwealth still relevant” and congratulate themselves for taking a firm stance against apartheid fifty years ago. This time, however, the agenda was a bit more robust. A committee of “imminent persons” from around the ‘wealth had been assembled to write a report on the state of the organization and its members, and come up with a few recommendations. Again, these kinds of things are usually dime a dozen, but the Perth report actually wound up being fairly savage. Declaring that the NGO is plagued by organizational “decay” and on the brink of becoming “unconvincing and irrelevant,” the eminent people blasted the Commonwealth for presiding over terrible human rights abuses within its ranks while simultaneously doing very little to resolve them. Among other troubles, the report noted that odious practices such as child marriages, strict anti-homosexuality laws, and the torture of political dissidents were still being practiced in many Commonwealth member states — which is perhaps unsurprising considering that over over 80% of the Commonwealth’s membership is located in the third (or “developing”) world.
The solution, proposed at this week’s summit, was to create both a “Commonwealth charter” of human rights, plus (and more substantially) a new “Commonwealth human rights officer,” whose office would have have the authority to monitor, scold, and presumably discipline member nations whose governments knowingly permitted violations of charter values within their borders.
It went over like a lead balloon. The very nations who were most likely to be singled out by such a Commonwealth-run Human Rights Watch predictably protested, as did the developing nation power players like India, Pakistan, and South Africa, who portrayed the proposal as just one more way the wealthy, white, first world was looking to boss around and undermine its already long-suffering former colonies. In the end, the proposal was watered down into just expanding the powers of the Commonwealth’s existing body for human rights issues, the Ministerial Action Group, a committee almost as grossly ill-designed and oxymoronic as the UN’s much-belittled human rights council. Of the nine member nations appointed to the committee at the summit (Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Jamaica, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Vanuatu), only about four can be regarded as properly functioning democracies, with the remainder running the gamut from near-failed states, to, in the case of Bangladesh, outright guilty of most of the crimes the committee is supposed to be on guard against.
But the summit wasn’t entirely without accomplishment. The 16 Commonwealth nations that still recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state (a far smaller sub-group than many people realize) did manage to pass a binding resolution reforming some of the more offensive parts of Britain’s 1701 royal succession law. Specifically, they ditched the rule that forbids the monarch to “marry a papist,” and agreed to let first-born princesses inherit the throne even if they have younger brothers, thereby reversing the previous “boys always come first” tradition. So I suppose that’s a kind of progress, insofar as one can ever really “modernize” an institution of unelected hereditary rule.
There used to be a joke that the only two things that would survive a nuclear holocaust would be cockroaches and the bureaucracy of the United Nations. To this, we should probably add a third party, the Commonwealth, an organization of such piddling non-importance and frustration — even to its own members — yet one that still manages to survive against all odds. Who, precisely, is responsible for the group’s longevity, beyond the folks who staff it, has never been remotely clear to me. Even in a supposedly stalwartly pro-Commonwealth country like Canada, I honestly cannot remember hearing a single political speech that gave the institution anything more than the briefest passing mention (other than the occasionally confused statement that Commonwealth membership has something to do with our relationship with the monarchy, which again, it does not), nor ever heard even the most mild accomplishment credited to its existence. Indeed, it may say something about the nature of the outfit that the Commonwealth’s greatest moments of relevance have historically come from the rare moments in which it musters the guts to exile one of its most offensive members — decisions which seem to reflect a kind of country club logic that it’s more important to clearly define who stays out than what’s to be gained from being in.
In the wake of this most recent impasse over human rights, however, that ambiguity over the value of in-ness seems more evident than ever. As this article in the Economist aptly notes, the fantasy of the previous century, that post-colonial Mideast and African countries like Pakistan and Uganda represent the exciting wave of the future, doesn’t sound particularly persuasive at a time when such parts of the world primarily make headlines for civil war, domestic repression, poverty, or some grim medley of all three. In the Commonwealth’s early days, it was easy to just turn a blind eye, and assume those young, struggling members would surely pull themselves together if given fair time. And once in a while that did indeed happen. But in just as many other cases, the passage of years has merely strengthened the hand of those despots and poseurs who have something to gain from their nations’ dysfunctional status quo, and no ramshackle once-every-two-years international gathering of 53 nations who share so little in common and have such widely varying global interests is probably ever going to be able to steer them in another direction.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, the 2013 Commonwealth summit will be held in Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Harper says he will not attend (wait for it) because of the country’s poor record on human rights.
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