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Expert Comment: Does the Commonwealth have a role?

Michael Holmes - Seminar Friday 25 July 2014

As the Commonwealth Games get underway, Dr Michael Holmes (Senior Lecturer in Politics) asks whether the Commonwealth has a role to play in the modern world.

The Commonwealth Games is now under way in Glasgow, with its mix of pageantry and controversy. This seems to be the way with the Commonwealth in general – last year, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka saw a similar mix of pomp and disputes, with David Cameron being urged to boycott the meeting in protest at alleged war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in their conflict against Tamil secessionists.

So is the Commonwealth still a useful organisation? Yes – but only if we understand that it is inevitably limited in what it can do and what it can achieve. The Commonwealth is committed to promoting the broad aims of peace, democracy and freedom. However, it is hamstrung by the absence of any real mechanisms to make these things come about.

Indeed, if the Commonwealth was to try to be more interventionist, it would face huge problems. The Commonwealth is, of course, rooted in Britain’s colonialist past, and therefore has to make great efforts to avoid any appearance of Britain imposing an imperial line. If Britain – or, indeed, other rich and ‘western’ Commonwealth states such as Canada or Australia – tried to be too insistent on how other countries should behave, the Commonwealth might well collapse.

But that is not to say that the controversies should not be raised or should not be aired. Indeed, the way that John Bercow and Peter Tatchell have used the platform of the opening of the Glasgow Games to raise the issue of the appalling – and state-sanctioned – violations of gay rights in several Commonwealth member states is to be strongly commended.

The Commonwealth works best by encouragement rather than enforcement. So it is good that these issues are being put into a major international spotlight in this way, but anything more forceful might prove counter-productive as the Commonwealth would just split apart. It is perhaps more the responsibility of global bodies and organisations rather than selective ones like the Commonwealth to try to bring about adherence to the core values of peace, democracy and liberty.

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