A Commonwealth of the margins

By Stephen Chan

THE Commonwealth has long been marginal to most people’s view of international relations. There is, however, a thriving Commonwealth industry among officials and professional groups. So

me of this industry is a form of solidarity.


When the Commonwealth Press Union presents the Astor Award for Press Freedom, this is a moment of great encouragement to persecuted African journalists and editors. The difficulty comes when each group sees itself in isolation, and when Commonwealth officials see the entire Commonwealth in isolation.


It is probably reasonable to think of five great groups that constitute civil society. These are the press, the churches, the universities, the trade unions and the legal community. Each group, unlike single-interest non-governmental organisations, speaks in terms of universal values and across-the-board freedoms.


There are active Commonwealth associations for at least three of these, but none would pretend that its fight is anything but an international one that goes way beyond the boundaries of the Commonwealth. In the world of journalism, for instance, and as the war in Iraq has demonstrated, it really is a world of journalists sans frontieres.
 
The advent of Arab international media is a case in point.


But even in the world of media there was never a closed Commonwealth version of the real, larger thing. The great broadcast networks of today — BBC, CNN, Fox and Al Jazeera — are also broadcasters sans frontieres, even if some of them have very closed ideological backdrops. The fact that the fourth of these players, Al Jazeera, is not an English-language medium, merely reflects the scale of change in international communication generally.

If not now, then very soon, the main Internet language will be Chinese. It was Brazilian media advisers who, using Portuguese, facilitated the election campaigns in post-war Angola and Mozambique. And anyone who thinks French is losing its international place need only observe the avid readers of Le Monde Diplomatique in the slums of Dakar.


The real problem for the Commonwealth as an overall world player, however, is that its official body, the Commonwealth Secretariat, has very limited capacity to act in international affairs. There are five great issues of today: the issue of democracy; international violence; the great confessional or religious divides that may be springing up; the huge issue of health, whether in terms of HIV or Asian bird flu; and the massive backdrop problem that simply will not go away of poverty and underdevelopment.


The official Commonwealth has acted, or tried to act in the facilitation of democracy. Ironically, its foundation document on democracy is the Harare Declaration on Human Rights, signed in Zimbabwe in 1991 — but the Commonwealth has been unable to check the lack of democracy in the last five years of President Robert Mugabe.
 
The Commonwealth has set its store in what it accomplishes by way of election observation but, frankly, the Carter Centre now does as good if not a better job.


Similarly, the Commonwealth has tried to pose new initiatives to grapple with underdevelopment. But not since the days of its second secretary-general, Shridath Ramphal, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, has it proposed anything startling. The agendas are set elsewhere — in terms that act against the Third World in the World Trade Organisation; in terms that seek, mildly, to assist the Third World by economists such as Joseph Stiglitz. The Commonwealth has no capacity at all in the vast fields of health and disease, confessional violence, war and terrorism.


And the world groupings, especially the power groupings, are bypassing the Commonwealth. In the jostling to become members of an enlarged UN Security Council, India, Nigeria, and perhaps South Africa, would not sit as self-consciously Commonwealth members. If they sit as conscious representatives of any group it would be the Non-Aligned Movement.


None of the great power blocs that may or may not emerge to challenge the unipolarity of the US contains a significant, or any, Commonwealth presence. A United States of Europe, China, a revitalised Russia, some sort of Asian alliance built around Japan — each would view the Commonwealth as marginal or moribund.


What can be done with this polite club, its archaic symbolisms, its lowest common denominator consensus? There are two stark options.


The first is simply to live without it. Even the Commonwealth Press Union and its Astor Award would quickly and easily morph into a different more embracive group. The second would be to change the Commonwealth into a genuine world player. There would be two key requirements here.


The first is that its membership must be enlarged. Either because of the archaic tradition of some former British rulership, countries like Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine need to be persuaded to join. Or, as in the case of Mozambique, countries of all historical backgrounds could be invited into membership. Why not even China?


In short, the group would become relevant by virtue of strategically meaningful actors coming on board. It would mean the end of an English-language Commonwealth. Arabic and Chinese would force the group into a 21st-century multi-lingualism.


The second key requirement, conversely, is to reduce the size of the Commonwealth Secretariat. At the moment it fields several divisions, each trying to say something — even if it does little — on the huge issues of health and underdevelopment. Their combined technical impact is, on the ground, negligible.


Member governments know this, and it is perhaps why they have consistently made their funding of the Secretariat tighter and more frugal — even though, as international organisations go, it is already cheap to run.

What the Commonwealth Secretariat does best right now is illustrated by its meetings of finance ministers, immediately before World Bank and International Monetary Fund summits. They give Third World delegations a chance to rehearse, to brief one another, to form negotiating alliances. It is this sort of activity at high level, but in fields to do not only with high finance but high politics that a streamlined Secretariat would facilitate.


It may mean an end to consensus. There might even be arguments involving more than everyone against the United Kingdom. It might mean a moment of delayed maturity.


But, having said all that, there is a key role that an enlarged Commonwealth, properly facilitated, should play. This concerns the confessional divides that may plague the world. They may plague the world only because of a lack of international understanding.


It is not enough to say, lazily, there is a clash of civilisations. It is more important to be able to say what each “civilisation” represents, how it thinks, what it wants, how it changes when it is able to interact on equal terms with the West. And how the West changes too.


This all goes beyond soundbites. It goes beyond the sub-editor’s skill in punchy headlines. It places a responsibility on newspapers and broadcasters. But it is this which would not only finally justify the Commonwealth, it might be an effort that could save us all.


*This is a summary of Stephen Chan’s presentation to the Biennial Conference of the Commonwealth Press Union in Sydney, held from February 23-25 2005. Chan is professor of international relations at the University of London and dean of law and social sciences at the School of Oriental and African Studies.