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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 16:36 GMT
Is the Commonwealth an outdated institution?
Commonwealth heads of government will soon begin assembling for this week's meeting in Australia.

The organisation now comprises fifty-four independent member states that have pledged to uphold certain fundamental principles.

These include democracy, equality, the alleviation of poverty and a commitment to world peace.

Members who violate these principles risk sanctions and suspension from the organisation.

In recent years Nigeria, Pakistan and Fiji have come under scrutiny for violations of human rights and undemocratic political processes.

Now the Commonwealth is facing the decision of whether or not to suspend Zimbabwe.

Does the Commonwealth still serve a useful function for its members? Or is it simply an anachronistic legacy of the British Empire with diminishing powers?

We discussed these issues during our phone-in programme from the Commonwealth summit in Brisbane. Our guest was Richard Bourne from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.


Your reaction


We need to take the organisation to a new level

Vikram Rao, India/ USA
The Commonwealth is a unique organisation with a lot of potential, but unfortunately it has become a waste of time and a reminder of colonialism. We need to take the organisation to a new level, making it a dynamic force to reckon with and not the boring mix of people it is today.
Vikram Rao, India/ USA

Unless the Commonwealth expands its remit to include possibilities such as a common constitution, free trade agreement and common defence then there is very little point in it other than costing the member states money to send representatives to the meetings.
Steve, UK


It does a tremendous amount of good in trying to improve the situation of disadvantaged nations and their citizens

Chris Glover, Belgium
I believe that the Commonwealth does have a role to play. I work for an agency of the European Union that gives technical and financial assistance to small enterprises in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. This assistance can be in any sector from mining to fishing or tourism. Recently we have worked very hard with the help of the Commonwealth to improve the prospects of the local people of Vanuatu in the Pacific. People generally see the Commonwealth in the big picture of politics but it does a tremendous amount of good in trying to improve the situation of disadvantaged nations and their citizens. Yes, the British Empire has gone but there is still a legacy of history and it is up to more wealthy countries like the UK, Canada and Australia to help out the less fortunate, the Commonwealth is an excellent forum for this aid.
Chris Glover, Belgium

Many people in powerful countries such as the UK, Australia, India and Pakistan may question the importance of the Commonwealth. However, many members are small countries whose voice is often ignored on the international stage. These countries welcome the opportunity to be heard that the Commonwealth provides (however imperfectly) and it is in everyone's interest to listen, both for what we have in common and what we do not. Any organisation that fosters this dialogue should be supported.
James, UK


It needs to go or revamp itself

Sandhya, India
What is the purpose in having leaders of these countries get together at Commonwealth meetings when they have no concrete resolutions or plans for development? It seems to me that the only thing I have ever noticed as a result of the Commonwealth's existence is that some diplomats are called "high commissioners" rather than "ambassadors". There is nothing else that I can attribute directly to the Commonwealth. It needs to go or revamp itself in order to remain relevant in the modern world.
Sandhya, India

The Commonwealth does bring a lot of countries both rich and poor together. But so does the United Nations, which has relatively greater power. The countries have nothing in "common" except that all of them fought pretty hard to resist the "Empire", which today is saving face in the name of this ludicrous organisation. The Commonwealth as an organisation provides close to no help in either politically or economically helping any of the countries.
Wasif Khan, New York, USA


Whenever I meet someone from a Commonwealth country, I immediately get the feeling that we share a lot in common

Kamran Ezdi, Lahore, Pakistan
The Commonwealth brings together countries with common political, judicial and education systems. Whenever I meet someone from a Commonwealth country, I immediately get the feeling that we share a lot in common. Instead of the ludicrous suggestion of doing away with the organisation, it needs to be made more active and effective.
Kamran Ezdi, Lahore, Pakistan

Developed economies like the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as powerful emerging nations like India must work together to re-discover the Commonwealth. It is an important force for the future. It could become just as relevant to the UK as the EU and has immense potential. There are very strong cultural and linguistic bonds that now unite many of the countries - more so than in the 1940s. Investment in collaboration - industrial, scientific, technological - is what is needed to prime this process for the 21st century.
Somnath Mukhopadhyay, UK


It does nothing useful except hold meetings and pass resolutions

Vishal Khote, India
The Commonwealth serves no useful purpose, except to maybe to soothe British pride and the only reason former colonies are still members is because children of powerful politicians in those countries are granted Commonwealth scholarships to study abroad. Otherwise, it does nothing useful except hold meetings and pass resolutions to "uphold freedom" or something that nobody gives two hoots about anyways.
Vishal Khote, India

An organisation to promote democracy with a monarch as the head? Wake up and smell the coffee! This is not going to get nations anywhere. The Commonwealth is a white elephant that needs to be removed. It has been truly ineffective and powerless. It has no role to play in the modern world.
Stephanie, Chicago, USA

Yes the Commonwealth is an outdated institution and so for that matter is the political entity known as the United Kingdom.
Jim MacDonald, Canada


Even in regional conflicts it has provided a valuable forum for negotiations

Mayank Joshi, London, UK
The Commonwealth provides a unique forum for developing and developed countries that have the special bond of a common heritage (they were all, to some extent, for better or worse, part of an empire). These countries now choose to be part of this unique group because of this historic link. The Commonwealth has proved to be a soft catalyst for change (mainly for the good). It did have positive impacts on South Africa, Rhodesia to Zimbabwe transition, Fiji and Nigeria. Even in regional conflicts it has provided a valuable forum for negotiations. Also the cost of running the Commonwealth is relatively small and so it gives good value.
Mayank Joshi, London, UK

The Commonwealth has a great deal of potential to do good and has had some success in the past. It does need a lot of reform and should re affirm its strong commitment to democracy and human rights and poverty alleviation. The organisation itself should be made more relevant and democratic by removing the Queen as its head.
Graham, UK


It brings together rich and poor

Tom, UK
The Commonwealth is a unique organisation like no other in the world. It brings together rich and poor under one common desire for democracy.
Tom, UK

Quite obviously, if an organisation has not achieved any of its objectives then it needs to be either removed or reformed. The Commonwealth has had no real influence, positive or negative, on its member nations. Therefore, I am sure it can be dispensed with and no one would even raise an eyebrow.
Valerie, USA

The Commonwealth is a unique organisation like no other in the world. It brings together rich and poor under one common desire for democracy.
Tom, UK

The Commonwealth is still relevant. But, like Michael Ashton said it would be much better if it could build a trade zone within itself so that its much poorer members can benefit. The Commonwealth is one of the few organisations in the world that spans a host of cultures yet is united by a common past of being affiliated with the British Empire. For the Commonwealth to move forward it needs to defend its members and assist them.
Oliver John, Netherlands (Nigerian expat)

The Commonwealth could be more useful if it was to turn itself into a free trade area with common currency etc. It already has a common history, language and similar political cultures - it could build on these and do so much more like the EU.
Michael Ashton, Canada

The Commonwealth, by enforcing a sporting ban on South Africa (primarily cricket and rugby), hastened the end of the apartheid regime in that country. The organisation should re-double its efforts to preserve democracy in all its member countries.
Vish, USA

The Commonwealth does seem to have a role to play, and has been quite effective in encouraging change in South Africa and now perhaps Zimbabwe. It seems to be a small closely knit group of nations with some shared interests and history. As for my fellow Canadian's opinion (Andrew), cogent points are what matters not negative ones from a book based around the dated issues of dependency theory. Any organisation that brings differing cultures together in a positive forum is of benefit. If you would like to see a useless talking shop where supposedly similar cultures try to work out "their own problems" read the press releases from an ASEAN or even better a SAARC meeting.
Giles, Singapore


The Commonwealth has no role in the modern world

Andrew, Canada
Indeed, the very term "Commonwealth" is an oxymoron - most of the wealth being held disproportionately by the organisation's white members while non-whites are left with virtually nothing. The Commonwealth has no role in the modern world. They sponsor initiatives only when they are linked to spreading the English language (the most spoken language in the Commonwealth is Hindi, not English), rather than participating in initiatives with the intent to help people. It is essentially a neo-colonial organisation, as commented on by Indian author Amitav Ghosh. The only way for Third World countries to alleviate poverty is to stop participating in racist organisations like the Commonwealth that breed dependence.
Andrew, Canada

Unfortunately, the Commonwealth has no moral, military or economic authority to impose its will on anyone considering that it's a formation of unwilling colonialised countries and now-defunct colonial powers. The Commonwealth is largely an organisation whose basic purpose is to remind the English of how "great" they were a very long time ago and pass useless resolutions that no one cares about.
Dr. Sharad Kumar, Birmingham, UK

Sure. Some of the problems faced by Commonwealth member countries started at the time when they were ruled by the British. Britain can and should play a constructive role in solving these problems.
Srinath Kumaresh, India

 WATCH/LISTEN
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Listen now
... to both sides of the debate

Talking PointFORUM
The Commonwealth Secretary General, Don McKinnon, will take your questions on February 25 at 1130GMTDon McKinnon
Zimbabwe: Is Commonwealth tough enough?
See also:

01 Feb 02 | Country profiles
01 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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