Global Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations

Nigerian artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy works on a portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II commissioned by the Commonwealth. Reuters

With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, London hopes its Commonwealth partners can help boost trade, but critics say the group is outmoded and ineffective.

April 18, 2018

Nigerian artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy works on a portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II commissioned by the Commonwealth. Reuters
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As the United Kingdom negotiates its exit from the European Union, London has pushed its vision for an outward-looking Global Britain. Central to the goal of revitalizing the United Kingdom on the world stage is the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose-knit organization of nations, spanning nearly every continent, that evolved out of the British empire.

Critics have called the Commonwealth institutions outmoded and ineffective, and the group has at times drawn fire for its inconsistent response to human rights violations and antidemocratic governments. But supporters say the Commonwealth’s fast-growing economies, bolstered by a common history and shared language, offer an ideal platform for the UK to advance its trade agenda and deepen ties with like-minded countries.

What is the Commonwealth of Nations?

The Commonwealth is an association of fifty-three nations that largely evolved out of the former territories of the British Empire. (In recent years, several countries without historic ties to the UK, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, have also joined.) These countries, which apart from the United Kingdom include Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, and many others throughout Asia and Africa, account for some 2.4 billion people, or a third of the global population. The total gross domestic product (GDP) of members tops $10 trillion, or about 14 percent of global GDP.

Many former British colonies sought to remain part of the Commonwealth without being legally subject to the Crown.

The head of the Commonwealth is Queen Elizabeth II, the British monarch. The 1949 London Declaration, which created the Commonwealth in its current form, declared the monarch [PDF], then King George VI, the “symbol of the free association of its independent member nations.”

This association is distinct from the fifteen countries outside the UK in which the British Crown is still legally head of state. Many former British colonies, led by India, sought to remain part of the Commonwealth and benefit from a continued association with the UK without being legally subject to the British Crown. Thus, the separate title of Head of the Commonwealth, which does not necessarily need to be held by a member of the British royal family, was created.

What does it do?

The Commonwealth is a consensus-based, intergovernmental organization with many objectives, including economic development, democracy-building, free trade promotion, poverty reduction, health-care programs, and cultural exchange. Its day-to-day operations are headed by a secretary-general—currently the UK’s Patricia Scotland—who is appointed by Commonwealth leaders to no more than two four-year terms.

The secretary-general heads the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat, created in 1965 to manage the more than eighty organizations run by the Commonwealth and to organize the group’s regular meetings. The largest of these, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) brings the group’s leaders together every two years to discuss policy priorities. Government ministers of foreign affairs, trade, finance, education, health, and other areas also meet regularly to discuss Commonwealth affairs.

The secretariat provides training and technical assistance to members and has observed elections in more than forty countries. It supports numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and charities, and hosts the Commonwealth Games, the world’s third-largest sporting event, every four years.

In 2012, Commonwealth leaders agreed to an official constitution, the Commonwealth Charter, which formally commits member nations to sixteen shared principles. These include democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, sustainable development, and racial and gender equality.

How has it dealt with human rights violations?

The Commonwealth’s members have at times clashed over the group’s stated principles. While the organization is limited to consensus-based actions, it has in the past imposed sanctions and suspended members over human rights abuses. Apartheid-era South Africa was one of the most high-profile cases. The South African government withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 over the group’s opposition to its race-based governing system, and in 1986 the Commonwealth agreed to a program of economic sanctions that included bans on air travel, bank loans, and other investments in the country. After South Africa’s 1994 elections, it was readmitted to the group.

Apartheid-era South Africa was one of the Commonwealth's most high-profile cases.

The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria from 1995 until 1999 over its military regime’s human rights abuses. It suspended Pakistan for several years after its 1999 military coup and suspended Fiji twice over military coups there. Zimbabwe’s 2002 suspension was extended indefinitely after Commonwealth observers criticized the country’s elections, leading then President Robert Mugabe to withdraw from the group in 2003.

What are some criticisms of the organization?

Despite these actions, some analysts have highlighted the Commonwealth’s weak institutional structure, as it has few concrete mechanisms to influence its members’ behavior and often relies on peer pressure and moral authority. Human rights watchdogs also charge that the group has a record of overlooking rights abuses, including anti-LGBT laws in Gambia and Malawi and widespread atrocities over the course of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a country that hosted the Commonwealth summit in 2013.

More broadly, skeptics say that the group has become increasingly outmoded as the UK’s global leadership has waned. For the Economist’s James Astill, the Commonwealth has “hardly any geopolitical relevance,” since, he argues, in the area in which it has the most natural advantage—trade—it has done little. Its level of funding is also comparatively quite modest: in 2017, the budget for the Commonwealth’s main technical assistance arm, in addition to its youth fund and the rest of the Secretariat’s development funding, amounted to about $40 million. The EU spends more than $100 billion yearly on economic development and other assistance.

How does it fit in with the UK’s post-Brexit plans?

Brexit supporters skeptical of deeper integration with the European Union have long held up the Commonwealth as a more natural forum for the UK, based on historical ties, a shared attachment to the English language, and similar legal traditions. As Brexit negotiations continue, some policymakers say that the UK’s post-EU future should lie in deepening trade and immigration with the Commonwealth.

Boris Johnson, the UK foreign minister, argues that the Commonwealth’s higher growth rates in comparison with the EU offer greater economic opportunity. Commonwealth countries have grown at an average rate of 4.4 percent over the past four decades, compared with the EU’s 2 percent, with some large Commonwealth economies such as India achieving annual growth of 7 percent.

Some argue Brexit would free the UK to forge trade deals with these fast-growing regions of the world.

In this vision, Brexit would free the UK to forge trade deals with these fast-growing regions of the world. Supporters also argue that it would allow the UK to focus on boosting highly skilled immigration from Commonwealth countries and avoid unlimited immigration from Europe as EU rules require.

Other observers, however, are skeptical that the Commonwealth can match the benefits of EU membership. Nearly 42 percent of all UK exports go to the EU, and no Commonwealth countries are among the UK’s top ten largest trading partners. Trade experts point to economic research establishing that geographic proximity is among the most important factors in determining trade, meaning that EU countries are likely to remain the UK’s most natural trade partner. They also note that many Commonwealth countries have highly protected economies, and that lowering their trade barriers could prove harder than Brexit supporters anticipate. The EU has so far failed to secure a free trade deal with India, for instance, and analysts say there is little reason why the UK, on its own, would fare much better. 

Meanwhile, members are set to deliberate at the April 2018 summit on the question of how to choose Queen Elizabeth’s successor as head of the Commonwealth. Analysts say there is some appetite for democratic reforms to the Commonwealth’s operations and leadership, which could unsettle the group’s politics for the foreseeable future.

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