Image: President Nelson Mandela with Michael Manley,  former prime minister of Jamaica and leader of the Commonwealth Observer Group to the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa in 1994. © Commonwealth Secretariat

In the ninth of a series of scholarly articles marking the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, Dr Rehnuma Sazzad, associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, reveals how the organisation can reconcile differences and endow them with positive values. 

‘To be, or not to be?’ is not the question we generally associate with the Commonwealth. Given the historico-political ties binding the former colonies with the ‘mother’ country, the relevance of the organisation has never been completely obliterated, even among the sceptics of its membership.

True, the Commonwealth has faced its fair share of challenges since 1949. Spanning from the issue of apartheid South Africa to Brexit Britain, the efficacy of the organisation has been tested from various perspectives. Due to the apartheid-inflicted violations of human rights in South Africa, the country’s role in the Commonwealth was so intensely debated among the member states that the issue nearly threatened the existence of the budding organisation.

Similarly, the unknown trading terms foreshadowed by Brexit pose substantial challenges to the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States) developing countries in the Commonwealth , which rely heavily on Britain’s maintenance of trade preferences with the European Union. Even in the midst of this uncertainty, though, the Commonwealth upholds the UK’s globally influential role not only in trade-based development but also as a champion of the needs of the Third World countries for benefitting from this.

One way or another, the UK retains its key role in sustaining international cooperation through providing the Commonwealth countries with effective leadership for pursuing peace and prosperity in a fast-changing world.

This stabilising role ensures the continuation of the Commonwealth in more ways than one. The voluntary participation of 53 highly diverse independent states shows that the countries value the platform for enhancing the future of the billions of citizens they represent. The common experience of colonial history may have brought them together, though what nurtures their comradeship is their willingness to work through their socio-cultural disparities in order to materialise their goals and objectives as free nations.

‘Commonwealth symbolises the resilience that human civilisation possesses’

From this standpoint, the Commonwealth symbolises the power of resilience that human civilisation possesses, despite its situational varieties, which allows people of vastly different practices to adapt to changing environments in order to garner greater understanding and responsiveness.

The high esteem for common values means that the practice of democracy is well established within the organisation, which shows a remarkable commitment to the ideals of individual rights, dignity, and freedom. The values of the equality of all races, the opportunity of proper consultation among rich and poor members, and the cultivation of goodwill between democracies and dictatorships suggest that the unique strength of the Commonwealth lies in promoting acceptable compromises and viable consensuses on various issues involved in the working of the organisation.

The network of multi-lateral relationships among the member states and the culture of mutual help illustrate that the organisation has created bonds at a level, which is much deeper than what is commonly imagined from the outward appearance of its motley crew. Thus, the opportunity of collaboration among the member states outweighs the danger of the organisation’s disintegration through the countries’ prioritisation of the socio-political discrepancies. Surely, the ties holding the members together are far firmer than the perfunctory assessment of their strength in our currently fractured and fracturing world.

Despite this, decolonisation remains one of the enduring issues of concerns for the Commonwealth. From the 18th century to the present day, the concept has shaped the global system of states by referring not only to the ending of European domination over the rest of the world but also implying various socio-economic dimensions associated with it.

Naturally, some of the newly decolonised member states were wary of joining the Commonwealth, lest they should end up renewing the colonial system of control. On the other hand, the organisation has been charged as a launching pad for neo-colonialism across the African Continent by suppressing knowledge of realities of historic colonial violence and continuing inequalities through the negative effects of neoliberal policies.

A remarkable achievement – ‘the deepening of interdependence

However, the sheer fact that the platform enables criticism of Britain’s historical and even contemporary policies speaks of a much more complex role of the Commonwealth in the decolonised world, which is still dominated by Western economic and geopolitical interests. Indeed, it is one of the basic strengths of the organisation to recognise that decolonisation is a two-way street, which has made the periphery as well as the metropole interconnected in both explicit and implicit ways. Therefore, one of the most remarkable achievements of the organisation has been the deepening of interdependence among its members, despite acknowledging the tense memories of colonial confrontations.

As a result, the Commonwealth has earned its place in the new world history through its introduction of unity among its members by bridging the gulf between the cultures of the East and the West, and as a pioneer of non-racial multilateral association in the 20th century, based on formal equality of status.

Clearly, the continuing relevance of the Commonwealth is demonstrable by its continued evolution as an international organisation. The organisation has mastered not only the technique of reconciling policy differences among its divergent members but also the process of endowing them with positive values, which enables them to function effectively in a global neighborhood.

Dr Rehnuma Sazzad 

Dr Rehnuma Sazzad (left) is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.



Also in this ‘Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting’ series:

Crisis, what crisis? The Commonwealth’s cross-racial character makes for a saner world and ensures its relevance

On the record: the grassroots relevance of the Commonwealth 

When the future is bright, who needs a phoenix? 

Beyond compare: a commonwealth of people and ideas

Student voices from Commonwealth countries 

Visible engagement – essential for the rule of law and human rights

Towards a ‘Commonwealth 21st century development paradigm’

Commonwealth of nations – not Britain 

The Commonwealth and me – a view from West Acton, the last in this series, will be published on 18 April

More information

Re-engaging with the Commonwealth? Gambia and Zimbabwe (16 April)

The state of the Commonwealth (19 April) British Library debate and launch of Professor Murphy’s iconoclastic book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth in which hestrips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia’ (Joanna Lewis, associate professor of international history, LSE).