Originally Posted by Melanie Phillips
This week, 53 Commonwealth heads of government are meeting in London for their biennial conference. For years the Commonwealth, the multinational body that arose from the ashes of the British Empire, was regarded with indifference by successive prime ministers. Brexit has changed all that.
Now the government views the Commonwealth as a valuable potential source of increased British trade and influence.
At the same time, there’s controversy over whether Prince Charles should become its head on the death of the Queen, whose deep commitment to her “family of nations” has been such a distinguishing feature of her reign.
Cue attacks on the Commonwealth as a useless relic of discredited imperialism and supine monarchism. Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, says it can survive only by severing its links with the royal family.
In an article a few days ago, he scorned the notion that the Commonwealth could be of the slightest use after the “unmitigated disaster” of Brexit. His new book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth, accuses it of hypocrisy, irrelevance and meaninglessness.
Strikingly, the UN is never subjected to this kind of attack, even though the consequences of its deficiencies as the designated policeman of the world are of far greater importance.
The chemical weapons attack in Syria has exposed yet again the chronic failure of the UN to uphold security, freedom and the rule of law. Although Russia brokered the 2013 deal guaranteeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, its ally President Assad has continued to use them. Yet the UN has not sanctioned Russia for this. Instead, it remains a member of the UN Security Council where last week it again blocked an investigation into Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Worse than this, in a grotesque development Syria will next month assume the presidency of the 65-nation UN Conference on Disarmament, the very body that produced the treaty against chemical weapons that Syria has traduced.
The UN routinely makes a mockery of the very values it is pledged to uphold. Members of the UN human rights council include such notable exponents of democracy and human rights as China, Cuba, Egypt, Qatar, Pakistan, Venezuela, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At the conclusion of its four-week session last month, the council had passed one resolution on North Korea, one on Iran, two on Syria and no fewer than five on democratic Israel. How many resolutions were passed on human rights abuses in China, Cuba, Egypt, Qatar, Pakistan, Venezuela, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Zero.
No one bats an eyelid at this. The charter of the Commonwealth commits it to upholding democracy, human rights, international peace and security, freedom of expression, the rule of law and so on. Its member states may be imperfect but at least the Commonwealth tries to hold offenders to account if they cross its red lines.
In 1995 it suspended Nigeria after it executed nine environmentalists; in 2002 it suspended Zimbabwe (which eventually left) after violence during the presidential election; in 2006 and 2009 it suspended Fiji after a military coup and the abrogation of the constitution; and in 1999 and 2007 it suspended Pakistan for imposing dictatorial powers.
By contrast, the UN treats tyrants as legitimate players on the global political stage. The problem is inherent in the belief that the UN’s world membership confers legitimacy. Much of the world, though, is run by tyrannical regimes. The notion that including bad people in a global body will draw their poison is a fantasy. The reality is that the tyrants hold the democrats hostage.
Far from embodying nostalgia for imperialism, the Commonwealth’s historic links with Britain mean its members have a cultural tie to our values. The UN is based merely upon abstract ideals of peace and justice to which member states may have no cultural affinity at all.
Moreover, the royal link is not an anachronistic offence against democracy. It is essential to guard against the institutionalised abuses of the UN. The monarchy is a unifying factor precisely because it stands above the political fray. Its one concern is to keep the Commonwealth show on the road. By contrast, the UN is a gladiatorial arena where the biggest bullies win.
The Commonwealth is attractive to countries that are not aggressive but value freedom and security. Australia and New Zealand rate it as useful in helping maintain peace and stability in the Pacific. Singapore and Malaysia see it as important in helping bolster them against China.
According to Professor David Martin Jones, of King’s College London, the Commonwealth may now get a new lease of life. It could be reinvigorated in particular by India, whose free-trader prime minister Narendra Modi sees it as important to the fledgling superpower’s long-term interests.
The UN is morally bankrupt. It is not fit for purpose. It never will be while it treats human rights abusers as legitimate members and allows them to operate with impunity.
What we need instead is a United Democratic Nations which treats dictators as pariahs. Given that’s not going to happen any time soon, however, the Commonwealth is probably as good as it gets.