Commonwealth: Make it an economic bloc

By Ameen Izzadeen
If politics is the art of the possible, then international politics is the art of deception. At least in democracies that have checks and balances, politicians who betray the trust which the people have vested in them are thrown out of office at elections. But international politics does not operate within a democratic set up. Even the United Nations has become a den of hypocrisy — with the decision making Security Council being reduced to what democracy is not. As the high and the mighty prevail, often it is the less powerful states which are punished with sanctions or military invasions.
The height of hypocrisy is when the very states that violate international laws know how to gain composure and project themselves as champions of morality, especially when they address multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and the Commonwealth.
One wonders whether the big powers join one too many multinational organisations to gain as many opportunities as possible to preach human rights and morality so that their rhetoric becomes Goebbelesian façade to hide their crimes and nudity.
While the transformation of the post-9/11 anarchical international order into one of order, of morality and of justice should be the goal of every state calling itself a democracy, in reality one sees the Orwellian newspeak — preaching morality and practising immoral acts.
The Commonwealth is no different – and finding a fig leaf in the Commonwealth appears to be one of the main objectives of some member states.
Speeches, declarations and communiqués of the summits in the recent past and the 11-month-old Commonwealth Charter make one wonder whether they have been made by peacemakers under divine guidance. But hours after the summit is over, realpolitik takes over. Realpolitik recommends the use of amoral and power-oriented political techniques and places the highest priority on the pursuit of personal gain or glory. This is why they talk of human rights and the need to effectively deal with terrorism at the Commonwealth podium or at the UN General Assembly, but once at home, they condone torture, extra judicial killings and deal with the question of terrorism on the basis that one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. This is because their national interest is best served not by promoting morality and justice in international politics but by sticking to power-centred realpolitik.
Therefore, when powerful states preach human rights, we often wonder whether it is a tactic to divert the world’s attention from the numerous violations they have been accused of. Human rights have become a political tool. Many of the human rights groups are funded by the same powerful states which do not care two hoots about human rights when they pursue their national interest goals in places such as Iraq.
In this lopsided worldview, water-boarding is human rights; denying fair trial to Guantanamo Bay detainees is rule of law; killing Nabila Rehman’s grandmother in a drone attack is justice, supporting the coup in which Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi was ousted is advocating democracy, and condoning Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine is promoting decolonisation. The Palestinian who fights for his country’s freedom is often a terrorist for Western nations, but the mercenary setting off suicide bombs in Damascus in the West-backed campaign to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a freedom fighter. This is political realism.
Morality, legalism and democratic idealism are luxuries pursued only if they do not endanger the vital interests – economic, political and military – of powerful states.
The Commonwealth, an inter-governmental organisation with limited membership, limited purpose and limited powers, may have idealistic objectives now. But, it also has fallen prey to political realism. It is being used.
The Commonwealth is not an economic grouping like the European Union or the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Neither is it a defence alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Yet it exists to serve the foreign policy objectives of some powerful states.

Some five or six decades ago, the then newly independent states did find strategic relevance in the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka, for instance, highly valued its membership in the Commonwealth in the face of the Soviet Union’s opposition to Sri Lanka’s membership in the UN. It was largely our membership in the Commonwealth that manifested our independence externally in the early years of our independence. Besides, the link with the Commonwealth — in addition to a defence pact with Britain — was our check against a perceived threat from India after Indian historian K.M. Panikkar and others defined India’s defence strategy by including Sri Lanka and Burma.
But today, the Commonwealth has outgrown its usefulness to Britain’s former colonies. The Commonwealth countries do not even take a common stand at global trade talks and climate talks. Till the Western world was shocked by the 9/11 terror attacks, the Commonwealth’s big powers had resisted Sri Lanka’s call for outright condemnation of all forms of terrorism.
Like the Non-Aligned Movement, the Commonwealth has virtually become impotent. Apart from allowing the British monarchy to bask in its past glory built on the forced subjugation of the colonies, the Commonwealth summits are largely talking shops where high ideals are expounded, only to be forgotten when the real issues stare at them.
Proponents of the Commonwealth, however, may say the group’s decisions have helped end apartheid in South Africa and the white rule in Zimbabwe and point to the core values which have found expression in the Commonwealth Charter, the Latimer House principles and declarations at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM).
They say these 16 core values found in the Charter — democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, separation of powers, rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health, education, food and shelter, gender equality, importance of young people in the Commonwealth, recognition of the needs of the small states, recognition of the needs of the vulnerable states, and the role of civil society – will make the Commonwealth relevant.
But critics say the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Additional Protocol, the Convention against Torture and several other international treaties have incorporated these core values long before the Commonwealth though it fit to include them in a Charter.
The apologists may point to the Commonwealth process of shaming the rogue states. But in reality, does this matter? Pakistan was twice suspended from the Commonwealth – in 1999 for the military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf and in 2007 after the military regime failed to end the emergency rule. On both occasions, democracy was restored not because the military regime’s commitment to Commonwealth values, but because of domestic pressures and political contingency.
Moreover, Fiji and Zimbabwe feel no pain or shame over their suspension from the Commonwealth, which they think is a relic of the past and only reminded them of a shameful chapter in their history while they were being subjugated by a few heavily armed Englishmen. For these named and shamed states, the Commonwealth is not even an elite club and therefore membership in it is expendable, though the Commonwealth may be, for Britain, a big foreign policy success story.
Five years ago, as the 54-member grouping was slowly sleepwalking into irrelevance, the Royal Commonwealth Society in a comprehensive study called for radical reforms. One of its recommendations was for the Commonwealth to take an active stand on human rights with the appointment of an independent Commonwealth human rights commissioner. Fair enough, but what the RCS should have also called for was an end to double standards and duplicity. Since the core values are universal and cut across cultures and borders, one cannot have one set of rules for the Commonwealth’s less powerful states and another for more powerful states.
Britain and Canada cannot accuse other members of the Commonwealth of committing war crimes while they themselves are accused of doing the same thing. Much has been written about Britain’s illegal invasion of Iraq and the crimes British soldiers are alleged to have committed there.
But there is also mounting evidence that shows that NATO, which includes Commonwealth members Britain and Canada, did commit war crimes in Libya during its war to oust Muammar Gaddafi two years ago. Reports compiled by human rights groups such as the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the International Legal Assistance Consortium and the Independent Civil Society Mission say NATO bombed civilian centres in Tripoli but later classified them as military targets.
Whither the Commonwealth values when there is no uniformity in addressing issues such as war crimes and accountability. Where is the commitment to the Commonwealth values when Canada remains an ardent supporter of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory and backs the Zionist state’s oppression of the Palestinian people?
As the CHOGM begins today in Colombo, we hope the grouping will take some positive steps to make it relevant to the political realities of the 21st century. But for this to happen, the Commonwealth should also address the question of double standards and hypocrisy. This is more important than merely listing the core values in the charter. Will Britain, the mother country, lead by example?
Another proposition is to convert the Commonwealth into an economic bloc that offers preferential trade. When economic benefits are seen, the member-states may take the Commonwealth seriously and show a willingness to follow the core values which are vital to protect the people of Commonwealth countries from authoritarian rulers.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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