by Rehnuma Sazzad, Associate Fellow
To be, or not to be, is not the question we generally associate with the Commonwealth. Given the historico-political ties binding the former colonies with the mother country, the relevance of the organization has never been completely obliterated, even among the sceptics of its membership. True, the Commonwealth has faced its fair share of challenges since 1949. Spanning from the issue of apartheid South Africa to Brexit Britain, the efficacy of the organization has been tested from various perspectives. Due to the apartheid-inflicted violations of human rights in South Africa, the country’s role in the Commonwealth was so intensely debated among the member states that the issue nearly threatened the existence of the budding organization. Similarly, the unknown trading terms foreshadowed by Brexit poses substantial challenges to the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) developing countries in the Commonwealth, which rely heavily on Britain’s maintenance of trade preferences with the European Union. Even in the midst of this uncertainty, though, the Commonwealth upholds the United Kingdom’s globally influential role not only in trade-based development but also as a champion of the needs of the Third World countries for benefiting from this. One way or another, the UK retains its key role in sustaining international cooperation through providing the Commonwealth countries with effective leadership for pursuing peace and prosperity in a fast-changing world.
This stabilizing role ensures the continuation of the Commonwealth in more ways than one. The voluntary participation of 53 highly diverse independent states shows that the countries value the platform for enhancing the future of the billions of citizens they represent. The common experience of colonial history may have brought them together, though what nurtures their comradeship is their willingness to work through their socio-cultural disparities in order to materialize their goals and objectives as free nations. From this standpoint, the Commonwealth symbolizes the power of resilience that human civilization possesses, despite its situational varieties, which allows people of vastly different practices to adapt to changing environments in order to garner greater understanding and responsiveness.
The high esteem for common values means that the practice of democracy is well established within the organization, which shows a remarkable commitment to the ideals of individual rights, dignity, and freedom. The values of the equality of all races, the opportunity of proper consultation among rich and poor members, and the cultivation of goodwill between democracies and dictatorships suggest that the unique strength of the Commonwealth lies in promoting acceptable compromises and viable consensuses on various issues involved in the working of the organization. The network of multi-lateral relationship among the member states and the culture of mutual help illustrate that the organization has created bonds at a level, which is much deeper than what is commonly imagined from the outward appearance of its motley crew. Thus, the opportunity of collaboration among the member states outweighs the danger of the organization’s disintegration through the countries’ prioritization of the socio-political discrepancies. Surely, the ties holding the members together are far firmer than the perfunctory assessment of their strength in our currently fractured and fracturing world.
Despite this, decolonization remains one of the enduring issues of concerns for the Commonwealth. From the eighteenth century to the present day, the concept has shaped the global system of states by referring not only to the ending of European domination over the rest of the world but also implying various socio-economic dimensions associated with it. Naturally, some of the newly decolonized member states were wary of joining the Commonwealth, lest they should end up renewing the colonial system of control. On the other hand, the organization has been charged as a launching pad for neo-colonialism across the African Continent by suppressing knowledge of realities of historic colonial violence and continuing inequalities through the negative effects of neoliberal policies. However, the sheer fact that the platform enables criticism of Britain’s historical and even contemporary policies speaks of a much more complex role of the Commonwealth in the decolonized world, which is still dominated by Western economic and geopolitical interests. Indeed, it is one of the basic strengths of the organization to recognize that decolonization is a two-way street, which has made the periphery as well as the metropole interconnected in both explicit and implicit ways. Therefore, one of the most remarkable achievements of the organization has been the deepening of interdependence among its members, despite acknowledging the tense memories of colonial confrontations. As a result, the Commonwealth has earned its place in the new world history through its introduction of unity among its members by bridging the gulf between the cultures of the East and the West, and as a pioneer of non-racial multilateral association in the 20th century, based on formal equality of status.
Clearly, the continuing relevance of the Commonwealth is demonstrable by its continued evolution as an international organisation. The organisation has mastered not only the technique of reconciling policy differences among its divergent members but also the process of endowing them with positive values, which enables them to function effectively in a global neighborhood.