Why SL should leave the Commonwealth


The Sunday before last, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe wrote an article to the Sunday Times, with the title "President Rajapaksa: The Prisoner of Latimer House".  This was one of the few well argued, well informed articles written on the international fallout of the impeachment written by the opposition. It is all the more remarkable in that it was not written by a political scientist or a constitutional lawyer but by an active politician. Usually one would think that an active politician would not have the time to write learned articles and often, if an article is published under a politician’s name, it would have been written for him by someone else. But in this case, in the opinion of the present columnist, this article could only have been written by RW himself and no one else. Very few individuals on the other side of the barricades had such a grasp of the subject. So even if we are not in agreement with what RW has said, we have to acknowledge his intellectual polish.

 This columnist was not able to comment on this important article last week.  The fact that it has not drawn any further comment indicates that it may have gone over the heads of many people. But make no mistake, this is by far the most significant political missive ever written by an active politician in this country.  RW paints a bleak picture for Sri Lanka in the coming months.  He has cited the specific instance of Pakistan being suspended in 2007 for being in violation of the Latimer House principles and stated that "The Sri Lankan government actions are no better than that of the Pakistani Government of the time." The upshot of RW’s article which will be dealt with more fully in the following section, is that the possibility of Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting later this year hangs in the balance.

What really is the Commonwealth?  The local press even has abbreviations like CHOGM and CMAG to describe the various meetings of the Commonwealth which would convey the impression to the public that the Commonwealth is an important world body. But in actual fact the Commonwealth is nothing but a sad joke which continues to exist only because of the subservient mentality of ex-colonials. Does anyone in this country know what the Commonwealth does for us?  In 2009, the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) conducted opinion polls about the Commonwealth in the UK, Australia, Canada, India, Jamaica, Malaysia and South Africa and found the results ‘alarming’.

They had first carried out the survey in the UK and because of the bleak feedback, had expanded the survey to the other countries mentioned above.  The RCS states that public opinion in the other member states ‘did little to assuage their fears’.  Across all these countries, the RCS had unearthed indifference, ignorance and scepticism with regard to the Commonwealth. The RCS states that they deliberately did not tone down what they had heard and felt they had a duty to accurately record what they had been told, even if it made for uncomfortable reading. Some of their findings were as follows:

*  On average, people in developing countries are twice as likely to think the Commonwealth is important compared to developed countries.

*   Only about a third of Australians or Canadians would be sorry or appalled if their country left the Commonwealth, compared to two-thirds of Indians and Malaysians.

*  Indians value the Commonwealth more than America or South Asia. South Africans value it more than America or Africa. Yet Canadians are four times more likely to value America higher, Australians are twice as likely to value Asia more, and Britons place the Commonwealth a distant third behind Europe and America. In general, of all the countries polled, the Commonwealth was least valued in Great Britain(!).

*   Only a third of people polled could name any activity the Commonwealth did, and most of those people listed the Commonwealth Games.

Indeed the Commonwealth is a joke and it would be surprising if it was not. The Commonwealth has three budgets  -  14.9 million pounds for its secretariat,  2.8 million for the Commonwealth Youth Programme and 29.1 million pounds for the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation. That has to get distributed among 54 states. Little wonder that no citizen of any member state seems to be able to name any activity that the Commonwealth does – because it does not do anything worth talking about!  According to the British Deputy Foreign Minister Alistair Burt, the number of Sri Lankan students studying in the UK alone is around 8,000 a year. Even if the cost of each student was calculated at 10,000 pounds a year (parents of students studying in the UK know that it’s much more) that would amount to 80 million pounds – about twice the entire budget of the Commonwealth!

Basically, the Commonwealth has little to offer this country and if people still continue to consider it important, that’s only because of our colonial mentality. Perhaps the Sri Lankan foreign ministry also considers the various Commonwealth meetings as junketing opportunities. In actual fact, these meetings are not worth the cost of the plane tickets they require.  There are many important international bodies, but the Commonwealth is not one of them. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is important because it brings together the strongest economies in the world. The Non-Aligned Movement, even in its inactive state, is still important because it’s a forum for all countries at the bottom end. The UN is important because that is where the whole world comes together.  Even SAARC is important because it’s a forum that brings together all countries in the South Asian region and even if it is not functioning the way it should, it at least provides a forum to talk to one another.  ASEAN is very important to its member states. NATO is still important to its member states. But of what use is the Commonwealth to its member states?

The Commonwealth has various stated objectives like advocating reform of international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, helping countries to formulate, negotiate and implement their trade policies, promoting trade facilitation, diversifying the export base, strengthening debt management, promoting and monitoring progress to ensure gender equality in budgets,  promoting private investment, supporting the development of businesses etcetera. But all this is plain nonsense.  The Commonwealth has never in the past 60 and more years of its existence, made a significant contribution in any of these spheres.  The fact is nobody knows what the Commonwealth does, because they don’t actually do anything.

 The Commonwealth does not support its non-white member states in international fora. It talks of reforming the IMF, but in 2009, when the USA and Europe tried to use their clout in the IMF to block a badly needed stand-by facility to Sri Lanka, what did the Commonwealth do? If they did anything it was to help the USA and Europe in their disreputable endeavour. India helped us in a big way, but not the Commonwealth. Instead of helping a member state, the Commonwealth is simply functioning now as a cost effective way of browbeating and exercising colonial control over the developing nations among its membership.  As RW’s letter quoted in the following section shows, instead of supporting SL in international fora, the Commonwealth is simply acting as another tool of the Western world to cow countries like Sri Lanka into submission. Putting up a fight in the UN and its subsidiary bodies is another matter, but why should we have to tolerate the same baiting in a body that is of no practical use to its member states?  

The Commonwealth in fact cannot conceive of any role for itself other than that of policing the former non-white colonies.  Last year there was an attempt to appoint a Human Rights Commissioner for the Commonwealth as well. This proposal was shot down by the non-white states. SL does not need the Commonwealth to act as a conduit to maintain relations with any of its member states.  We already have bi-lateral relations with those countries and there are plenty of other fora where interaction takes place with those countries. In the view of this columnist, Sri Lanka should ask the Commonwealth to hold their 2013 CHOGM elsewhere and leave the Commonwealth forthwith and save that money for the UNHRC session.  Last year we barely managed to escape having to host the Commonwealth Games. Sports may be a good thing, but undertaking to host events like the Commonwealth Games would only have left us with costly, underutilized sporting facilities that we can ill-afford.  States do like to engage in prestige projects. But that prestige project should confer some prestige on us – not insults and challenges to our sovereignty. If we were deriving some tangible benefit from the Commonwealth, perhaps enduring the insults would be worthwhile. But in the present context it’s certainly not.  Many member states have continued to remain in the Commonwealth mainly out of habit and consideration for tradition. If Sri Lanka leaves, many countries that derive no benefit from it will quietly drop out in the coming years. 

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