A talking shop that can do a lot of good

The Commonwealth has hidden assets, says Richard Bourne

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Commonwealth foreign ministers, meeting in London on Tuesday to consider the wreck of democracy in Fiji, face a paradox. The last year has been pretty awful for the Commonwealth, blowing away the Nineties hype and complacency about democratisation and human rights, in setbacks from Sierra Leone to Fiji, and from Pakistan to Zimbabwe. But, at the same time, capitals around the world are looking to the Commonwealth as a network of value and increasing potential: it may not have the institutional resources available to the EU, but it has some pretty interesting assets. What are these? Can they be made to work harder?

Commonwealth foreign ministers, meeting in London on Tuesday to consider the wreck of democracy in Fiji, face a paradox. The last year has been pretty awful for the Commonwealth, blowing away the Nineties hype and complacency about democratisation and human rights, in setbacks from Sierra Leone to Fiji, and from Pakistan to Zimbabwe. But, at the same time, capitals around the world are looking to the Commonwealth as a network of value and increasing potential: it may not have the institutional resources available to the EU, but it has some pretty interesting assets. What are these? Can they be made to work harder?

There are four key assets, I believe. First is the Commonwealth's voluntary nature, which means it can build on its rules with withdrawal of membership as a sanction. Then, it has a non-treaty basis, which allows for continual evolution without elaborate treaty mongering, but the requirement that nations negotiate without the threat of force. Third, English is the common language, an advantage for communication through the internet and usually without interpreters. Finally, the Commonwealth is an association of peoples as well as states.

The downsides are more obvious. Its real resources are slim. Staff at the Commonwealth Secretariat dropped from 420 to 280 in the Nineties. For most of the 54 member states the Commonwealth is a third-level body, less important than the UN or regional associations. Ministers and officials give it only occasional attention - Tony Blair may attend two UN gatherings and four European Council meetings before he gets to the second of the biennial Commonwealth summits.

And nobody much, in the press, or those aged under 40, knows anything about the organisation unless they happen to have been involved. It remains a collection of occasional meetings, rather than an association of committed stakeholders - and in a voluntary club you only do anything if you want to.

The Fiji crisis illustrates the shortcomings of the set-up, but also indicates how it could be improved. The new Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, took office at the start of April and walked into a series of problems. He was shuttling between Zimbabwe and the South Pacific, en route for a meeting of Commonwealth youth ministers in the Solomon Islands, when George Speight launched his coup. Although Mr McKinnon got across to Suva pretty quickly he was criticised in the region for not giving a Commonwealth lead - or more public support to the Mara-Chaudhry government - in the first, vital 48 hours. In retrospect, of course, not enough was done to help the fragile Fiji democracy to consolidate, just as there was insufficient help for Pakistan after the military last withdrew at the end of the Eighties. It was too easy for other Commonwealth governments to sigh with relief as civilian rule was restored, overlooking the poor quality of the democracy and its unresolved issues. Sadly, but significantly, there has been little mobilisation of people power to challenge the overthrow of elected prime ministers in either country.

The future of the Commonwealth is up for grabs after thedecision last year at Durban, led by South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, and Tony Blair, to carry out a review of the organisation. The South African government is driving the process, but as the first meeting of officials will not take place until the end of next month, most of a year has been lost already. The initial remit proposed is so wide it may be difficult for leaders and officials to focus their efforts. This partly reflects the fact that the Commonwealth has grown a wide variety of networks, each backed by special interests, and is also dangerously tempted to try and do everything, without the people and the commitment that is needed.

But at one level the real question is, should the Commonwealth try to go forward with its Nineties agenda of sustainable development, democratisation, human rights, and the strengthening of civil society? Or should it try to do something radically different?

The conventional put-down for the Commonwealth is that it is worthy but dull. Yet in the Nineties, countries queued up to join; applications from Yemen, Rwanda (impossible under the 1997 rules) and the Palestinian National Authority (not yet a recognised sovereign state) still lie on the table. Because of its "club" status, so derided in the past, it was able to go further than any other international body in showing disapproval of the Nigerian dictatorship, and the Pakistani military takeover. Its Ministerial Action Group is likely to follow suit by suspending the unelected Fiji government.

International organisations cannot expect to be loved, and a network of networks like the Commonwealth is peculiarly hard to understand. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that all its members have an interest in its existence, even if it is not top of any agenda. And that it is not just a series of avenues for debate through the dreaded, but actually quite useful, talking shop. It can have a real capacity for action.

The writer is head of the policy unit at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

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