It is difficult to do justice to the mood of despair that has been haunting the corridors of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s headquarters in London in recent months.
The decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka has led, with grim inevitability, to a public relations disaster.
For many, the Commonwealth has long been of little relevance. Hopes in Whitehall that it might serve to bolster Britain’s global power in the post-war era had largely been abandoned by the 1960s. Thereafter, it became a useful forum within which to press for an end to white domination in southern Africa. But a subsequent attempt to reinvent it as a champion of democracy, good governance and human rights has failed to give it an equivalent sense of purpose.
The task of any Common-wealth Secretary-General would be thankless. But the performance of the incumbent has been lacklustre. Kamalesh Sharma is a nice man and a distinguished diplomat, yet he has provided his organisation with neither a distinctive voice nor a cogent vision for the future.
The Secretary-General has a duty to warn against decisions that would tarnish the Commonwealth’s image. In the face of relentless lobbying from the Sri Lankan government, Mr Sharma conspicuously failed. The Sri Lankan government has long craved the international respectability accorded to the host of a CHOGM, and now President Rajapaksa begins his two-year tenure as Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth.
Instead of spouting platitudes about the value of the organisation, the Government should follow the example of Canada. It may well be that, at least from a UK perspective, the Commonwealth as currently configured has reached the end of its useful life.
Philip Murphy is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.