This week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has provoked dissent unusual, these days, within this rather anodyne, harmless and ineffectual body. Not since Margaret Thatcher used to turn up at CHOGMs in the 1980s and tease African despots about her unwillingness to implement sanctions on South Africa have tensions run so high.
The main problem is the government of the host country, Sri Lanka, whose president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is accused of serial, and serious, human rights violations, including war crimes against the Tamil Tigers and their families that led to the deaths of up to 40,000 civilians. But with the legalisation of same-sex marriage being now an obsession among some of the more western, liberal members, it is also pointed out that homosexuals suffer some form of discrimination or other in 41 out of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states. So there was a lot, mainly off the agenda, to become aerated about.
The head of the club’s most populous country, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has refused to go to Colombo. He follows the example of Stephen Harper, the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, who is not normally known for his bleeding heart. In Britain there have been loud calls, including from the Financial Times, for David Cameron to boycott the meeting too.
Others want Mr Cameron to go in order to ram his pro-same-sex marriage views down the throats of those leaders who have a different point of view. It may be a close call which of these tactics would make Britain more unpopular. The Head of the Commonwealth herself, the Queen, is not going, being represented instead by the Prince of Wales.
Mr Cameron resisted the calls to boycott the summit and will therefore have a chance to meet and have talks with Tony Abbott, who also said this week that he would not ‘trash’ the institution by joining in a boycott, and nor would he give lectures to other countries, especially those that had endured a civil war with atrocities on both sides.
This can only be a good thing from Mr Cameron’s point of view, for he seems to go out of his way to avoid meeting genuine conservatives when at home, and he may learn something.
Mr Abbott should use the opportunity to lobby Mr Cameron about the rights of Australians to enter, work and live in the United Kingdom, and he would have much popular sentiment on his side in the old country were he to do so. Most Britons find it hard to comprehend why Spaniards and Slovakians can settle in the UK as of right, whereas cricket-loving, Anglophone Australians without a British (or Greek, or Italian, and so on) grandparent cannot, beyond the registered traveller perk for easier passport controls announced by David Cameron on Wednesday. With the European Union an increasingly contentious prospect for most Britons, now would be a very good time for Britain to repair the damage done to old ties of blood and culture during the inexplicable 40-year love affair with continental Europe.
Beyond that, there would be no harm having some wider consideration, whether during the summit or after it, about the point of the Commonwealth in this day and age. Some countries participate in it — and Australia is in this category — because of a sense of history and of the closeness of the ties of similarity not just between Australia and Britain, but between Australia and other countries largely settled from Britain, such as Canada and New Zealand. Others are there because they are insignificant, and belonging to the club affords a degree (probably illusory) of security.
Others still are there because of a wish to look outwards in the world, and to engage in a benign and large-scale form of networking — India, for example. But a few others are there because the Commonwealth association seems to bestow some sort of respectability upon them. It is widely the view at the moment that Sri Lanka falls into that category; and so too do various African despotisms, where the illegality of homosexuality is the least of the cultural problems that their leaders are slow, or refuse, to address.
The Commonwealth has been pretty abysmal in the last 20 or so years at persuading some of its more radical, and radically unpleasant, members to pursue the path that includes freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom from expropriation. The usual punishment for bad behaviour of being suspended from the Commonwealth usually had no impact on anyone’s mode of behaviour.
After years of abominable behaviour Zimbabwe was eventually suspended for 12 months in 2003, which led to the country resigning. South Africa, which rejoined the Commonwealth after the end of apartheid, backed Zimbabwe to the hilt, despite the naked tyranny, election-rigging, kleptocracy, human rights violations and persecutions that caused the country to be suspended in the first place.
Zimbabwe’s absence has now lasted a decade; South Africa’s attitude towards Robert Mugabe remains little changed, the Zuma regime and the rest of the ANC being determined to take a mid-20th-century approach to dealing with post-imperial questions even though almost everyone else has moved on into the 21st.
The cultural problems of Africa are not all the club must contend with. Pakistan, which has been in and out of the club like a cuckoo in a clock over the last 40 years, is a far more serious threat to world order than nasty little tyrants such as Mugabe, because of the belief that the country’s ineffectual government is harbouring Taleban and al-Qa’eda operatives, and allowing them to be trained for export. It was hard enough to get a community of view in the former British Empire, which was not the least of the reasons why it came to an end after 1947. But the Commonwealth seems with each year that passes to consist more and more of discrete groups whose cultural separateness leads not merely to misunderstanding, but to downright hostility.
Still, it means a number of political leaders, and the few bona fide world leaders among them, get a nice, expenses-paid holiday every couple of years, usually in some exotic clime. And, if they can turn a blind eye to what else their hosts in Sri Lanka are up to, and the unpleasant way in which a large minority of their fellow members run their countries, they might even enjoy themselves. However, if they continue to pretend that the Commonwealth is anything other than the occasional jamboree or class reunion, they are deluding themselves.
Simon Heffer is author of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House), out now.