Page last updated at 20:28 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2003

Viewpoints: Does the Commonwealth matter?

The Queen
The Commonwealth: An important forum or a colonial relic?
The withdrawal of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth and the divisions among participants at the recent Abuja summit have raised questions about the relevance and purpose of the body in the post-colonial era.

BBC News Online asked commentators from six Commonwealth member states to reflect on whether the body does indeed have a role in the 21st Century, or whether it is a legacy of colonialism which should have vanished with the British Empire. Please click on the quotes to read more and use the form at the bottom of the page to send us your opinions.

Tim Shaw, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Didymus Mutasa, senior Zanu-PF official, Zimbabwe

Noel Garson, South African history scholar

Shaukat Qadir, retired Pakistani brigadier general

Bala Usman
Nigerian political analyst

Eliza Francis, magazine editor, St Lucia

"The Commonwealth does nothing, is nothing, and seems to cause the UK nothing but problems, so why bother?" Sandy, UK


Professor Tim Shaw is the director of the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

The notion that the body is an ineffectual one in comparison with other international organisations does not in fact stand up to the force of logic.

True enough, there are a large number of powerful bodies - the United Nations, the World Bank - but there are very few that are prepared to suspend their members for not having an acceptable democratic government, and there are few more powerful statements than throwing someone out.

Zimbabwe, for example, is still a member of the UN, although it has been suspended from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth also has its own monitoring groups for overseeing electoral processes - not so the UN.

It also provides a forum for issues that often do not get onto the mainstream world agenda - one of its main advantages is in fact that the United States is not party to it and so members can air concerns that they might not otherwise be able to.

The US may be interested in what the Maldives for example is doing to fight terrorism, while the Maldives itself is more interested in discussing on an international level how it can stop itself sinking. The Commonwealth provides the opportunity to do this.

The Commonwealth may have its roots in colonialism but it has long since transcended this. Nonetheless, it does need a kind of leadership which Britain - handicapped by history - is unlikely to be able to provide. We should look to countries like India, South Africa and Canada to take the Commonwealth into the future.


Didymus Mutasa is foreign affairs secretary for Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party.

The Commonwealth does not serve any purpose in the world today. We joined in 1980 after we gained our independence as a mark of respect to the British but in the years since it has become clear that the sole purpose of the body is to promote white interests - that is why it was founded and that continues to be the case today. Measures taken against Zimbabwe have been imposed to protect the interests of white farmers.

We have seen some incredible double standards on the part of Britain. Britain dares to criticise Zimbabwe over the presidential elections in 2002, while Prime Minister Tony Blair is swanning around hand-in-hand with the US president, who himself had to go to court to win an election.

I do not believe there are any circumstances in which we could return. What would be the point? We are more distant from Britain as a result but that does not bother us.

As for our African Commonwealth partners, our relations with them will not suffer as a result of leaving the Commonwealth. Trade with our neighbours will continue. Britain's greatest fear is that we will pull ourselves up while we are outside of the Commonwealth, and that is precisely what we intend to do.


Noel Garson is professor emeritus at the University of Witwatersrand and a scholar of South African history in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

South Africa, like Zimbabwe has just done, also withdrew from the Commonwealth between 1961 and 1994 and as such it provides an interesting example as to what extent isolation from the body effects change.

In the South African experience, withdrawal did not make much difference. It retained useful ties with those it wanted to, notably Britain and Australia. It wasn't until the anti-apartheid era kicked in and the United Nations took a stand with sanctions that South Africa really felt isolated and suffered economically. Being outside the Commonwealth had some symbolic significance, but it was really the actions of other bodies that had the impact.

There are many important organisations in the world today with which the Commonwealth cannot hope to compete. The United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, GATT - to name but a few. Nonetheless, we shouldn't underestimate it.

It is still important. It has cultural significance for one - Commonwealth science and education programmes and exchanges are still going strong. But it also provides a forum - the fact that prime ministers, foreign ministers, finance ministers meet and share views is certainly not insignificant - particularly for smaller countries which do not otherwise have a chance to speak on the world stage.

The Commonwealth has successfully managed to get over the notion that it is a relic of colonialism - only people like Mr Mugabe come out with that line. Why would former colonies and indeed countries which have no historical ties with Britain, such as Mozambique, keep wanting to join if it was such a colonial, racist organisation? They sign up freely, and leave freely.


Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani brigadier general and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.

The problem with the Commonwealth is that it appears irrelevant to so many people. It has been unable to influence world events in any way, whether positive or negative.

Pakistan was suspended from the body after a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf. President Musharraf would like to be readmitted to the body purely for symbolic reasons - it would prove that there have been democratic developments and provide greater legitimacy. But the Commonwealth itself has no great political sway and in that sense is of no real interest to him. Pakistan has other friends in the world.

But that is not to say that the Commonwealth is doomed. People always point to the United Nations as a rival power which has stripped the Commonwealth of its reason to be. But just look at some of the problems the UN is having in terms of credibility. One of the reasons that we are seeing attacks on UN buildings and workers around the world is that increasingly it is seen as a lackey of the United States.

The Commonwealth isn't, and that is its greatest strength. But it needs to get its act together. Britain needs to distance itself from the United States, and take on a key role in steering the Commonwealth.

It is the only country in the position to do this and it should not worry about the old allegation that the Commonwealth is a relic of colonialism. That's history, and Britain needs to throw that off. The Commonwealth should do exactly what the name says - spread the wealth and forge a proper political voice with clout on the world stage.


Dr Bala Usman is from the Centre for Democratic Development Research and Training (Ceddert) in Nigeria. He tried to submit a petition to the most recent meeting asking for Britain and Australia to be suspended for breaching Commonwealth principles over their role in the Iraq war.

There is a real problem of double standards within the Commonwealth - it is one rule for some members and one rule for others. Britain and Australia launched an illegal war against Iraq - contradicting the principles of the Commonwealth's Singapore and Harare declarations - and there has been virtually no opportunity to press the two countries on the matter.

These double standards do not however render the Commonwealth redundant. It can and should be a useful forum for the English-speaking world, bringing together Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in a unique body. That is something to be celebrated.

But that is not to say it could not be improved: there does need to be more equality within the body. I for one would like to see a rotating Commonwealth figurehead rather than the position being confined to the British Queen.

The Commonwealth should be a forum - a place in which there can be debate and an exchange of ideas, maybe even a place to cut Britain down to size. No-one expects the Commonwealth to ever take on a legislative role, but it would be excellent to expand its consultative capacity.

Despite all my reservations I do want the Commonwealth to continue: I want it to be something my children and grandchildren can make use of too.


Eliza Francis is the editor of St Lucia's twice-weekly news magazine, The Star.

Commonwealth summits attract very little interest - and the issue of Zimbabwe seems very remote indeed. Nonetheless, it has started people thinking - what does it mean to be a member of the Commonwealth? What is the importance of Mr Mugabe deciding to leave the body?

For most people, being in the Commonwealth is barely something that registers. It leave the man on the street cold. It is totally unclear what we gain from membership.

In this sense, it is hard to understand why people say that Commonwealth membership is of particular use to the smaller countries as a means of expressing their opinions on the world stage.

People in St Lucia do not think of the Commonwealth when they think of organisations in which they have a voice. It is a distant body - a hangover from a time past - which means little to the majority here.


What are your thoughts on the future of the Commonwealth? Please scroll down to the form below to send us a message.

The following comments reflect the balance of opinions we have received.

What the body has done is just signing a contract that will inflict pain, misery and suffering to the common Zimbabweans
Richmond Msowoya, Malawi

The commonwealth cannot win the battle by suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. Mugabe and all top government officials will still live the type of life that cannot inflict a single pain in their daily living. What the body has done is just signing a contract that will inflict pain, misery and suffering to the common Zimbabweans.
Richmond Msowoya, Malawi

I think that the time has come for African leaders to wake up from their slumber of Master Slave relationship. African states constitute a large number of the Commonwealth but their voices are not heard. Mugabe rightly said that; has the issue of Northern Ireland and Britain ever been discussed at the Commonwealth. Africans must wake up and show that we are no more in the days of Mungo Park.
Kwame Sei, US

The Commonwealth and what it stands for only serve to benefit humanity
Allyn, USA/Canada

As a Canadian living in the US I feel that the Commonwealth has more significance than I realized. Some criticize it for it being archaic and mundane, but I see it differently. It helps us voice ourselves internationally outside the sphere of US in an association of like-minded democracies who share a similar heritage. The Commonwealth and what it stands for only serve to benefit humanity than detract from it.
Allyn, USA/Canada

Commonwealth is irrelevant. India should exit the group. It is a relic of the past. In this century, you don't need Britain to guide other countries. Big bodies like commonwealth cannot address day to day concerns.
Vish, India

After many years of membership I think Mr Mugabe should not have pull out from the commonwealth. But at the same time the commonwealth should not interfere to the countries internal affairs. Both south Africa and Nigeria said that the elections was fair.
Mousa-Alagy Jeng, Sweden

Even if the Commonwealth is just a 'club'; for world leaders and citizens, clubs give a sense of belonging and legitimacy
Joel, Trinidad and Tobago
Most people seem to see the Commonwealth as irrelevant, and I did also. But in the political world it does serve a purpose. It monitors elections, promotes democracy and human rights, brings world leaders together, and does more. While ordinary people may not participate in the Commonwealth or see its need, for world leaders it is a club with a purpose. Even if the Commonwealth is just a 'club'; for world leaders and citizens, clubs give a sense of belonging and legitimacy. When people see their country kicked out of the club, it sends a message that something is wrong with their government. And in Zimbabwe that is clearly the case.
Joel, Trinidad and Tobago

African countries should all sign out from commonwealth.
Chipango Chinyeka, Zambia

It appears that the Commonwealth does little for anyone, apart from being a trans-continental forum. It lacks the mandate to enforce much. However there are a couple of positives in the availability of scholarships, technical co-operating, somewhat less travel restrictions between member states, to name a few. Overall it probably should continue to be in existence.
Ranil, Sri Lanka/Zim/USA

It is still relevant and its function should be to set the moral standards the way the Queen is doing for the British. It should not be used to intimidate the very same disadvantaged group which was dehumanized during the colonial era, lest it revives unhealed wounds, which would further compound into more disunity and progress for the involved races.
A. Misoi, Cyprus

I can't see any point in the Commonwealth even existing. If Blair really thinks he can criticise Zimbabwe for its poor human rights, and insists Zimbabwe should not come back to the Commonwealth while Mugabe is in power, then why is it that the UK government has got good relations with Iran, the country with the worst human right record in the world?
Sam, UK

It is not irrelevant as such when we consider such issues as good governance, but the manner in which it is dominated by white countries means it may become irrelevant just like the UN where the US and Britain are calling the shots.
Ozias Moyo, Zimbabwe

Commonwealth? What's the point - all the members seem to hate us and lecture us with the same old boring argument about colonialism so why don't we just leave them to whine about the past so we can move forward with our real friends and allies. These European and North American relationships are mutually beneficial. The Commonwealth does nothing, is nothing, and seems to cause the UK nothing but problems, so why bother?
Sandy, UK

The Commonwealth clearly is an archaic institution that serves no real purpose in the 21st century. Britain decided long ago, for good or bad, that its future lay in Europe. Thus, we should participate fully in Europe so we have an accountable democratic institution that does have relevancy to us.
John George, UK

It stands to the honour of Great Britain's quest for democracy that this body exists - nations from all corners of the world stand side by side, overcoming inequalities, faces from every race and religion and economic standpoint on the planet, stepping out of the shadow of imperialism - together with common goals. To its credit, the Commonwealth nations have been able to face the past - name it for what it is - with the kind of grace and humility seen no where else in the world - and use it as a force for good embodied with hope for the future.
J. E. Seaman, USA

We as Zimbabweans are suffering because of Mugabe's continued rule. We don't think the Commonwealth is serving its purpose. Joining such a body is unnecessary. The body has come to be a platform where former colonial power Britain and its white racist cousins bully the former colonies for their own interests. Although Mugabe is a failure in Zimbabwe it does not mean he has not done anything good for his own citizens. He brought us education, freedom, although he has also brought us poverty. The UN should be the body to oversee world affairs. We say down with the Commonwealth and down with Mugabe.
Patrick Tsodzo, youth chairman for NGO Crisis Zimbabwe



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