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Commonwealth heads faced with global economic crisis

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Fri, Oct 28. 2011

Leaders of some 54 countries which make up the global grouping of nations called the Commonwealth begin their deliberations in the West Australian capital of Perth this Friday, October 28, 2011. It will be the fourth such gathering of Commonwealth leaders on Australian soil in the last thirty years, and the Conference coincides with the visit of the Commonwealth’s titular Head, Queen Elizabeth of Britain, who will officially declare the meeting open.{{more}}

The presence of Queen Elizabeth, a monarch among the Heads of independent and democratic nations, itself characterises the peculiarity of the Commonwealth as an institution. It grew out of the old British Empire (of which we were once part), and is overwhelmingly comprised of countries formerly colonised by Britain. These include the countries of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where native populations were butchered and have now become minorities in the lands of birth.

Following the wave of independence started by Ghana under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah in 1957, not only did the ranks of the Commonwealth swell, but its composition as well. Today the Commonwealth represents a wide diversity of countries and people. In geographical terms, it spawns all the continents with countries as large as the huge, almost 10-million square kilometre Canada, to tiny Nauru in the Pacific, all 21 square kilometres of territory. Nauru, too, is at the small end of the scale population-wise, having fewer than 10,000 inhabitants in contrast to India’s teeming 1-billion strong numbers, which account for half of the entire population of the Commonwealth.

Further variety has been added in recent years with the accession of four African countries – Namibia, Mozambique, Cameroon and Rwanda, not previously colonies of Britain, except for parts of the Cameroon. Although links to Britain and the English language were the common defining features, the accession of these states indicates that the issues go beyond past colonial links and are shifting to a commonality of interests.

The Conference of the Heads, best known by its acronym of CHOGM, is a biennial one, the venue of which rotates. Two of these have been held in the Caribbean, in Jamaica in 1975 under the leadership of Michael Manley, and the most recent CHOGM, in Port of Spain, 2009. The focus of these Conferences tends to go with the dominant prevailing issues of the day, fluctuating between economic, political and social issues.

Questions have been raised about the relevance of the Commonwealth in a modern world. But the Commonwealth, whatever its shortcomings, has played a major role in some contentious issues confronting the world’s peoples. Nowhere was this more evident than in the struggle to end apartheid and racial oppression in southern Africa, leading to intense international pressure and lobbying to isolate white South Africa and bring an end to apartheid.

In order to maintain its relevance, it is important that the Commonwealth play a greater role in mobilising the collective weight of its membership to harmonise common positions and advance them in the interests of its people. But this is not as simple as it seems. On apartheid, for instance, there were bitter divisions between Britain, and to a lesser extent Canada, Australia and New Zealand on one hand and the rest of the Commonwealth on the other.

More recently, differences have surfaced over economic interests. Britain as a developed country, siding with its imperial partners in Europe and the United States, on global economic, trading and environmental issues against the interests of the vast majority of Commonwealth nations which are underdeveloped or developing nations.

The current CHOGM is sure to see a manifestation of such tensions. Emphasis will be placed on the current global economic and financial crisis which threatens to engulf the entire planet. There will be a divergence of views on how to resolve the crisis. There is also the dreadful famine in the Horn of Africa and the threat to global food security. Similarly, on the burning issue of climate change, clashes between those most at risk, such as the small island-states in the Caribbean and Pacific and some of the more developed nations seem likely to occur.

The pity is that Caribbean states, while continuing to be important members of the Commonwealth, do not appear to place priority in getting that body, whatever influence it has on the world stage, to marshal and use it to protect and advance the interests of the people of the Commonwealth. Every instrument, no matter how limited, needs to be deployed to further our development.

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