OTTAWA — The 54-nation Commonwealth needs a radical 21st century overhaul, says an international report that was released on March 8 Commonwealth Day.
The report by the London-based Royal Commonwealth Society says the international group is viewed by many across the world as a ceremonial anachronism that is failing to live up to its potential as a “meaningful voice” in international affairs.
It also calls upon member countries, including Canada, to invest more in the Commonwealth.
After the United Kingdom, Canada is the second largest financial contributor to Commonwealth institutions, but at $40 million, the amount is relatively small and half the amount it contributes to the 55-member la Francophonie, which Foreign Affairs describes “one of the main thrusts of Canada’s foreign policy.’ La Francophonie is, more or less, a group of countries bound together by the French language.
Royal Commonwealth Society director Danny Sriskandarajah said the Commonwealth needs more money and more new ideas.
“More money will help,” he said, “but to fulfil its potential, the Commonwealth must make more innovative use of its resources and networks.”
The society’s report, called the Commonwealth Conversation, solicited opinion from almost every member country through conventional polling, online focus groups and extensive use of social media. The process took eight months and is the largest study of its kind.
Once a major player on the world stage, the report says that weak, unfocused leadership and poor messaging has contributed to the Commonwealth’s decline along with lack of resources that has seen funding to the London-based nerve-centre of the Commonwealth drop by 20 per cent in the past 20 years despite an increasing in membership during that period from 48 to 54 countries.
The modern Commonwealth was established with eight members, including Canada, in 1949 and represents about two billion people worldwide. Its role is to promote democracy, development and diversity within member countries.
Although it has had many notable successes, including the Canadian-led effort to rid South Africa of apartheid, it has been criticized in recent years for being overly tolerant of human rights abuses in member countries.
The Commonwealth, currently led by recently installed Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, has a tradition of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy that has become an excuse for “an overly timid Commonwealth,” suggests the report.
Member states, which appoint the secretary general, need to decide what role he should play, the report adds.
“If the secretary general were to adopt a more visible role,” says the report, “it would do a great deal to raise the profile of the Commonwealth, to define its modern identity and, in so doing, to tackle the misperceptions and apathy which surround it.”
Commonwealth scholar Derek Ingram said Sunday the report needs to be take seriously by Commonwealth leaders.
“It makes points that needed to be made,” he said. “The Commonwealth is too timid and too diplomatically careful. There are millions of smooth words churned out about the Commonwealth but I expect these could actually make a difference.”
But much depends on the attitude and personalities of the Commonwealth’s 54 leaders, added Ingram who singled out late prime minister Pierre Trudeau as one of the most effective in the group’s history.
“When he came to power, Trudeau had absolutely no interest in the Commonwealth,’ said Ingram, “and then he got deeply into it. But he was surrounded by some very intelligent leaders. The Commonwealth has had good batches of leaders and poor batches and unfortunately we now have a poor batch.”
The full report is available online at www.thecommonwealthconversation.org.