The Commonwealth needs relevance bypass

John Kampfner is spot on in the Guardian last weekend:

The death knell of the Commonwealth has been sounded for as long as there have been summits. By accident rather than design, this anachronistic gathering of 54 states may actually say more about the state of global priorities than the participants realise. And the direction of travel is grim.

At their meeting in Perth over the weekend, the leaders rejected many of the recommendations of a report by a team of the great and good, the eminent persons group (EPG), designed to move the Commonwealth’s democratic laggards towards basic norms.

In search of a lowest-common-denominator consensus, the summit accepted some less controversial ideas, such as a charter. The idea of a human rights commissioner, however, proved too much. “There have been a few blips like in any part of the world but I don’t think it demanded a commissioner,” noted Suruj Rambachan, the foreign minister of Trinidad. Under pressure from South Africa and other states, the summit even refused to publish the EPG’s report.

The former prime minister of Malaysia, who chaired the EPG, said the summit would be remembered as a failure. Malcolm Rifkind, the former UK foreign secretary, described the unwillingness to publish the report as a disgrace. This is hardly surprising, as the Commonwealth comprises a veritable who’s who of governments with dubious human rights records – from Nigeria, Cameroon and Rwanda to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Singapore.

The prospect of progress at the next gathering in two years’ time – hosted in, of all places, Sri Lanka – is even more remote. The Colombo government denounces any attempt to call it to account for human rights abuses. In front of their Commonwealth colleagues the Sri Lankans dismissed a UN-commissioned report on massacres against the Tamils as “a travesty of justice and preposterous”. The Canadians, meanwhile, are threatening to boycott the 2013 heads of government meeting in protest.

The Commonwealth’s weakness is specific to its history and its constitution. Any whiff of British lecturing is given short shrift; at the same time, all major decisions have to be taken by consensus, allowing recalcitrant countries to stop changes in their tracks. The only sanction, and one used rarely, is expulsion.

But the problem is far bigger than the institution. It is one that has been exercising policymakers for years. What is the relationship between human rights and economic development? To what degree do they represent western or universal values? In my book, Freedom for Sale, I argued that the trade-off between liberty and prosperity had become more alluring than ever. Regimes that can satisfy what I call the “private freedoms” – such as travelling and making money – can quite easily ensure that citizens leave the public space to them. Singapore is the model in microcosm; China is rolling it out on a far bigger scale, with Russia and others not far behind. Economic growth is the motor; consumerism is the anaesthetic for the brain.