The Commonwealth Principles

It is perhaps with unrivalled irony that when considering the principles and values of the Commonwealth, we must turn to the 1981 Declaration that was signed in what is now seen as the very antithesis of its principles, Zimbabwe.

The Harare Commonwealth Declaration sought to develop the 1971 Singapore Declaration that had already committed the Commonwealth to several core principles concerning global peace, support for the United Nations, individual liberty, eradication of poverty, opposition to racism and the establishment of free trade cooperation.

All of those principles can perhaps be encapsulated in the proposition that the Commonwealth stands for freedom, for development, and for the protection and furtherance of human rights and fundamental democratic principles.

It is of note that the Singapore Principles sought to advance a theory of ‘rejecting coercion as an instrument of policy’. However, this was viewed with some skepticism as it would deprive the Commonwealth of the prerogative to ‘concern itself with its members’ internal situations’. This lacuna was remedied by the Harare Declaration and it is from here that the Commonwealth was vested with the authority to intervene in the internal politics of its member states.

It is only right that when these universally recognised principles come under threat in any member state, that the position is highlighted, that it is condemned, and that there are calls for reform. The Commonwealth has a duty to ensure that its selective membership club adheres to certain recognised principles and that adherence is strictly enforced without distinction. It is therefore with all the more sadness, that one is forced to acknowledge that this does not happen and that the Commonwealth has lost its moral compass.

The Commonwealth appears to have been infected with the very same issues as the foreign policy of a number of states, namely personal or national interest.

The Commonwealth ought to be above politics, it stands for guiding principles, it has no ‘interests’ to protect, it has no constituents or direct citizens that it must concern; it is a family of nations that seek the same core principles.

Why then do we see regular instances of bias against some nations but not others; why do we see one nation being condemned, but another being effectively ignored and thus being given inferred support by way of omission. There is no easy answer to these questions, but the Commonwealth is obligated to address what would appear to be a very clear practice of hypocrisy.

The membership of the Commonwealth is entirely voluntary and therefore States have no general obligation to remain. Its current membership consists of 53 States ranging from the power houses of the United Kingdom, India, Australia and Canada to the smaller states of Botswana, Papua New Guinea and Tuvala. The Head of the Commonwealth is Queen Elizabeth II and its members consist of Monarchies and Republics, cover six continents and almost a quarter of the globe.

The members of the Commonwealth have no legal obligation towards each other, but are united by their ‘shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law’.

It is vital that the Commonwealth demonstrates its commitment to these principles throughout its membership. There are very real issues of concern that it must address. There are allegations of widespread corruption in Nigeria, lack of accountability in Sri Lanka, rising tensions in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Kenya and Malaysia. It would be fair to say that more than half its members have experienced political tension over the past few years. Just a few weeks ago a number of western leaders walked out of the Ugandan President’s swearing in ceremony following remarks about the International Criminal Court and the presence of the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, indicted on charges of genocide.

The Commonwealth’s core principles and its raison d’être are therefore at risk across its community of nations. It is therefore with more than a little incredulity that the Commonwealth has focused on the Republic of Maldives rather than the lack of accountability in Sri Lanka in which more than 30,000 people were killed or Bangladesh were hundreds (if not thousands) of opposition figures have disappeared or been killed by security forces and where extremist forces aligned with Da’esh and Al Qaida have hacked to death a number of atheist and secular journalists and members of civil society in the last year.

The Commonwealth, following its guiding principles, is perfectly entitled to question whether the Maldives is moving along the right democratic path and to call for reform in areas where it is needed, and where the Government itself recognises there is need for improvement. However, let us leave for a moment whether the issues raised by the Commonwealth against the Maldives are credible or not, and let us simply look at the lack of consistency.

The Commonwealth has raised concerns over what it purports to be the damage being done to democracy in the Maldives and the restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms.

In noting that, let us now consider the position that the Commonwealth has taken in respect of Bangladesh – a country where the rule of law has all but disappeared, where democracy does not exist, and where its leader has pursued a path of autocracy. Bangladesh, a country where hundreds of innocent civilians are murdered by state security forces, and many other made subject to enforced disappearance.

One could suggest that it is a country in the midst of a significant crisis, and one that must attract the attention of the Commonwealth given its membership. Why then has there been virtual silence. There have been no threats of sanctions made by Commonwealth members, there has been no threat of expulsion, and Bangladesh has not been made the subject of a specific agenda item.

Where is the condemnation of Pakistan given the clear issues concerning the freedom to practice religion, the lack of respect for women, lack of a free media and the discrimination that abounds; what is being done concerning the ongoing situation in Rwanda, or the appalling manner in which Australia has approached the needs of those seeking to claim asylum.

South Africa, a prominent member of the Commonwealth acted in direct contravention of its obligations as a signatory state to the Rome Statute when it failed to arrest President Omar al-Bashir. This has again been met with a deafening silence.

Malaysia continues to harass and prosecute activists, their offence, to criticise the Government. The Printing Presses and Publication Act is used to limit the content of media outlets, the Home Minister having the power to suspend or revoke a licence to publish at any time, as highlighted by Human Rights Watch.

As with those other countries noted above however, there does not appear to be any ‘concerns’ raised, or talk of including Malaysia as a specific ‘agenda’ item.

These are all issues that infringe the common principles of the Harare, and the Singapore Declarations, and yet why the lack of action, why this hypocrisy.

One might suggest that individual nations are approaching the issue on the basis of their own foreign policy, and the needs of their own state, rather than the core principles of this great family of nations to which we belong; has the Commonwealth become politicised to render its demands now meaningless, much as the UN Security Council has now become almost entirely ineffective given the political interests of its permanent members, and how those interests override the steps the UN is attempting to take.

One must hope with sincerity that we have not reached that stage and truly believe that the Commonwealth has an essential role in global politics, but, it must discharge its obligations, it must stand true to its principles and its common aims. It must not, as it appears to some, pander to the wishes of individual nations and thus ignore the very clear abuses going on within its family.

The Commonwealth now has a new Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland of Asthal. It will be her task to first reform her organisation and ensure that it adheres to the very principles it is established to uphold. It is only once the Commonwealth as an institution practices these principles without distinction that it can start to preach to its members.

Editor's note: The writer Toby Cadman is an established international law specialist in the areas of international humanitarian law, international terrorism, maritime security, extradition, and human rights law. Lectures extensively on international humanitarian law, criminal procedure and human rights law and has provided extensive advice and training to judges, lawyers and law enforcement agencies throughout the Balkans and South Asia.