International organisations have an important role to play in global geopolitics. At best, as with the UN, they can help to create and sustain a rule-based international order. Sometimes, however, these organisations protect and promote the interests of a limited membership. In the early 1970s, for example, OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) was accused of holding the world to ransom by controlling the supply of oil.
At worst, international organisations can prove divided and incapable of acting with any collective sense of purpose because consensus proves impossible. The UN isn’t alone in facing that particular accusation.
In October, reports emerged that The Gambia was to leave the Commonwealth, which it had joined in 1965 after gaining independence from the UK. The Gambia is a small country of some 10,000 square kilometres in West Africa. Farming, tourism and fishing are its most significant economic activities, but many of its 1.7 million residents live on US$1.25 or less per day.
The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, gave little explanation for the decision to leave the Commonwealth beyond describing it as a ‘neo-colonial institution’. Having risen to power following a coup in 1994, Jammeh has been a long-term incumbent, securing electoral victories in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011. He has been accused of being despotic and remains a controversial figure for his views on homosexuality, HIV/AIDS and religion. International observers have expressed repeated concerns about human rights abuses and the intimidation of critics of his administration.
The accusation that the Commonwealth is a ‘neo-colonial institution’ will strike a familiar chord among many readers. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for one, has made similar pronouncements. Indeed, this often appears to be the default position of post-colonial leaders following criticism from external observers about their country’s governance standards in key areas such as elections, human rights and political and press freedoms.
At the heart of the Commonwealth is a commitment to human rights, the eradication of poverty and the promotion of democracy, trade and world peace. These core principles were reaffirmed in the 1991 Harare Declaration (which has a certain irony given the above observations about President Mugabe).
In 1961, racial equality was established as a fundamental principle of Commonwealth membership, which provoked the departure of apartheid South Africa (it was re-admitted in 1994). The post-apartheid era also saw the admittance of the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique (1995) and the former Belgian trust territory of Rwanda (2009).
So if these last two countries – which have had no formal association with the British Empire – want to join, does this make the Commonwealth neo-colonial?
The 1949 London Declaration instituted the establishment of this now 54-strong intergovernmental organisation. Although its origins lie in earlier governance arrangements involving the dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, this post-war international body was intended to facilitate a continued connection between Britain and its former imperial possessions. By 1949, for example, India, Pakistan, Israel and Ireland had broken away from the British Empire and there was reason to believe that the colonies in Africa, in particular, would follow. The USA and the Soviet Union, as the two emerging superpowers, were hostile to the continuation of European imperial portfolios. The London Declaration was emphatic that this free association of English-speaking states was to be ‘free and equal’ and that while the British monarch was the head of the Commonwealth, the principle of consensus would apply.
The idea behind the foundation of the Commonwealth was straightforward. For Britain, it would be a mechanism through which it could maintain a global position even as its imperial portfolio was being dismantled. For the other members, it provided a global network within which they could share and promote economic, political, cultural, educational, sporting and scientific interests.
It is, ultimately, a voluntary organisation; countries can join and countries can leave. They can also be suspended, as Fiji was in 2009 after it refused to hold elections following the 2006 coup. Other countries that have been suspended include Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Nigeria – all for irregularities relating to military coups and the suspension of democratic governance.
Expect more trouble soon as countries such as Canada decide to boycott a Commonwealth meeting due to be hosted by the Sri Lankan government in order to register their displeasure at the human rights violations that took place during the civil war there.