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The Commonwealth is a Jamboree of Repression

The Commonwealth has developed a 21st-century role – as a haven for serial human rights abusers

Published in: The Guardian (UK)

What's the point of the Commonwealth? Every two years the question comes around in the run-up to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. Then everyone goes home and forgets about it until the next one.

Starved of cash and political attention, the Commonwealth becomes ever more marginal. Even the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office hardly mentions it in major foreign policy pronouncements.

But is the Commonwealth redundant? Or is it, as Lord Howell, a Tory former chair of the foreign affairs committee, said recently, an "ideal soft power network" for the multipolar world?

The answer depends on whether the Commonwealth can muster the collective political will to uphold its core values of political freedom and respect for human rights. In the past it has punished errant members: apartheid South Africa was excluded; Nigeria was suspended in 1995 after the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa; Pakistan was suspended after General Musharraf's coup d'etat in 1999, and again in 2007; Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002, and withdrew from the organisation the following year.

However, in recent years the collective political will of Commonwealth members to promote human rights has all but evaporated. Only the tiny Pacific nation of Fiji, suspended following a coup in 2006, will be excluded from this month's Commonwealth jamboree in Trinidad. And beyond the summits the Commonwealth has become even more pusillanimous.

Its secretariat fails to push or fund its human rights unit as a viable mechanism to encourage its members to comply with international standards; neither the secretary-general nor the diplomats of leading member states make a serious effort to get the Commonwealth to act collectively at the UN and elsewhere to champion human rights.

Over the past six years, the Sri Lankan government - presiding over serious violations of the laws of war and a vicious assault on its critics - has even sat on the Commonwealth ministerial action group, responsible for enforcing members' compliance with the Commonwealth's core values. There could be no better symbol of its failure to protect human rights and political freedoms.

Pakistan and Bangladesh, with a nod from London and Washington, use the real threat of terrorism to justify abuses such as torture and illegal detention. Kenya deliberately avoids accountability for serious abuses during the post-election violence in 2007. Cameroon, Uganda and the Gambia intimidate human rights defenders and journalists.

Beyond failing to deal with the rights abusers and fake democrats in its midst, the Commonwealth is actively encouraging applications by repressive governments such as Rwanda which do not meet the Commonwealth's own criteria for membership as set out in the 1991 Harare declaration. The likely approval of its application at this year's summit will send a strong message that the Commonwealth is turning its back on human rights and political freedom.

If the Commonwealth is to become relevant in the 21st century, it must set itself in opposition to the gathering forces of intolerance and authoritarianism. As a global, multifaith, multiracial network of genuinely rights-respecting states, the Commonwealth could be a powerful symbol of the universality of human rights and a champion of their protection. But that means first engaging constructively with its own members on their shortcomings, taking strong action against serial abusers, and refusing to accept new members unless they are genuinely committed to human rights and democracy.

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