The Commonwealth increasingly appears to be an association of states divided by common values. A recent gathering that included some of the most distant relatives of the Commonwealth’s extended family started well enough but when it came to the subject of human rights no amount of goodwill could paper over the fundamental rift between those who see the organisation as a way to further the development of their country and those who see the Commonwealth as standing for ‘universal’ values if it is to mean anything at all.

Enshrined in the Charter adopted by Commonwealth heads of government two years ago, this codification of the organisation’s ideals built on previous affirmations of ethical standards in the Singapore Declaration, the Harare Declaration, the Langkawi Declaration, the Millbrook Action Plan, the Latimer House Principles, the Trinidad and Tobago Affirmation of Commonwealth Values, the Munyonyo Statement on Respect and Understanding, the Lake Victoria Climate Change Action Plan, the Perth Declaration on Food Security Principles, and the Commonwealth Declaration on Investing in Young People. In fact, there have been at least 33 such avowals in the last 43 years.

Yet despite making nearly one solemn attestation a year, the report of a recent conference on the organisation at Wilton Park, a forum for discrete discussion that is part of the UK’s Foreign Office, admitted that the Commonwealth was an ‘institution that struggles to uphold … its underlying principles, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law’.

‘A majority of Commonwealth members do not meet the terms set out in the Charter,’ noted the report, which has not been released to the public. It ‘faces a membership divided on issues such as gender equality, human rights, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights’.

While it was agreed that promoting economic growth through increased trade and investment was a central objective—and the organisation’s raison d’être for some at the conference—many felt this should not be at the expense of the moral agenda and the Commonwealth could in fact benefit from putting these principles front and centre. The rapporteur concluded: ‘The Commonwealth can also promote positive economic outcomes and prosperity through better enforcing its values.’

‘Values enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter, such as good governance, the rule of law, environmental protection, and sustainability, all have important implications for prosperity in Commonwealth member states. In particular, many less-developed states within the Commonwealth have trouble attracting foreign direct investment in part due to heightened market risk as a result of a lack of good governance, infrastructure provisions, and legal institutions.’

There is frank acknowledgement of the seductive charms of Chinese capital, which is offered to African and Asian states free of high-minded political conditionality. Nevertheless, the report insists: ‘The Commonwealth must not lose sight of its values and morals, which should underpin its approach to economic growth.’

It asserts that the ‘distinction between economic development and values need not paralyse the Commonwealth’ but it acknowledges that squaring this particular circle would ‘necessitate visionary leadership within the Secretariat and a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group [CMAG]’.

So how can the Commonwealth assert those values? Some conclusions were to take on board the agendas and advice of civil society groups in its work, encourage youth, entrepreneurs and technical skills with scholarships, and empowering women and girls.

And when the soft power fails to work, CMAG and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative can enforce those values (‘a Commonwealth commissioner on human rights is largely unnecessary’). A broader range of measures could be tried, it was suggested, before resorting to suspending members. ‘Rather than restricting membership to states that implement the charter in full, the Commonwealth should become a force for ensuring that its existing members work towards realising those values.’

As part of this institutional streamlining, it was widely felt that the position of chair-in-office within the Commonwealth should be abolished. The dubious relevance of this role has not been helped by the incumbent, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a leader who has never troubled himself overly with a concern for human rights or the opprobrium of the world. The report notes of the Colombo government’s stonewalling over criticism of its human rights record: ‘Failure to take action on Sri Lanka at this critical time in Commonwealth history would prove to critics and doubters that the institution has lost a sense of its values.’

As well as abolishing the chair-in-office role, the other side of this equation is that the secretary-general must drop the reliance on quiet diplomacy and get the Commonwealth’s message out there. Or as the rapporteur put it: ‘The Secretariat—particularly the secretary-general—will need to be a source of thought-leadership.’

‘The secretary-general’s work must always strike a balance between public and quiet approaches to diplomacy, but occasional pronouncements on the Commonwealth’s values and the work of the Secretariat would make the institution more visible globally.’

Other institutions were equally in need of rebranding, it was agreed, particularly the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) after the debacle in Colombo. Acknowledging that the media report on the summit less and less, unless it is as controversial as the latest one, the rapporteur referred to it as an ‘arcane acronym’ that ‘does not resonate with individual Commonwealth citizens’.

Reflecting the low opinion of many at the conference for the institution in its current form, he went on: ‘Chogm’s importance has been waning for Commonwealth heads of government, half of whom no longer attend the summit … Chogm and the meeting must be branded in a way that is accessible and relevant.’

Some suggestions included having themes for each gathering, calling it simply the Commonwealth summit, and doing more to ensure that countries sent their head of state rather than foreign ministers. LGBT rights should be on the Chogm agenda, ‘considering that 80% of its members criminalise same-sex relations’. The next hosts, Malta, indicated that they wanted to raise the profile of next year’s summit and restore the retreat to what it had originally been: a chance for leaders to meet informally to discuss the pressing issues of the day without their civil servants being there to keep them on message.

One of the main reasons for organising the conference, it became clear, was to raise the profile of the Commonwealth Business Council: ‘Empowering the CBC will allow the organisation to effectively leverage the Commonwealth’s global network and benefit all members.’ To further this, it was suggested that the CBC could take the lead in ‘drawing in desirable foreign direct investment’ and to boost commerce, ‘the Commonwealth can facilitate the establishment of low-tariff or even free trade among its members on a bilateral basis.’

Presumably to avoid any embarrassment for some of the countries represented at the forum, there was relatively little discussion of corruption, though it is the dark side of doing business in much of the Commonwealth. It is also a fundamental barrier to development: the World Economic Forum puts the cost of corruption at more than 5% of global GDP ($2.6tn), with more than $1tn paid in bribes each year. Corruption adds up to 10% to the total cost of doing business globally, it says, and up to 25% to the cost of procurement contracts in developing countries. However, the Wilton Park report, noting that several states that rank poorly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index are members of the Commonwealth, does argue that ‘enforcing the Commonwealth’s moral agenda’ represents ‘important opportunities for the institution across agendas’. The corollary of this, it states elsewhere, is that ‘the institution must remain cognisant of growing inequality within member states.’

On this subject, it was noted that ‘debt reduction and forgiveness programmes have benefited several of its poorest members by removing over $50bn in debt.’ Similarly high hopes were expressed about the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation: ‘Commonwealth membership provides a forum for a range of small and less-developed states to interface with major developed and emerging economies.’ However, as the former Caribbean diplomat Ronald Sanders pointed out elsewhere: ‘Last year, its budget was a mere £29.7m. Even if the total resources were divided only among its 31 small states, they would each have received less than £1m a year.’

The issue of member states such as Sri Lanka not living up to the Commonwealth’s espoused values is not merely an academic one. The Secretariat has long been hampered by a lack of funds, with Sanders noting that because ‘approximately 70% of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s budget is funded by only three of its member governments, Britain, Canada and Australia … it has had to reduce its entire staff complement to … fewer than the staff at the canteen of the UN organisation in New York.’ This financial crisis worsened a fortnight after the Wilton Park conference when Canada announced that it was suspending its voluntary contribution to the Secretariat and reallocating the funds for the next two years. The foreign minister, John Baird, said: ‘We will reallocate the funds to assist in combating the practice of child, early and forced marriage, and help Commonwealth civil society advance the promotion of human rights.’

If this checklist of Commonwealth reforms all sounds familiar, it might be because various members of the ‘family’ have made like-minded suggestions for an overhaul in recent years. Similar conclusions were made in the Commonwealth Conversation, for instance. The Royal Commonwealth Society began this public consultation in 2009 by carrying out polls, convening focus groups and surveying thousands of people in more than 40 countries. It also concluded that the Commonwealth needed to ‘walk the talk’ by doing more to live by its ostensible principles, that the secretary-general needed to lead from the front and be more proactive, that it had to embrace innovation, invest and concentrate its resources, and that it must prove its worth to non-governmental organisations, which the report concluded were not very interested in interacting with the Commonwealth in its present form. It also urged the organisation to ditch the imperial baggage and the overly wordy communiqués.

In 2012 it was agreed to implement the Eminent Persons Group’s recommendations to strengthen the Commonwealth. The British Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire said then that signing the new Commonwealth Charter ‘signals an organisation that is confident, sure of its values, and committed to upholding them … at a time when human rights and democratic values are demanded more vocally by citizens across the globe.’ Two years on and concrete action on furthering that notional commitment to core values seems as distant as ever.

But perhaps the Commonwealth is unable to change at anything other than a glacial pace. Among the British government’s cabinet papers from 1948 is a memorandum on the ‘Commonwealth Relationship’ written by the prime minister, Clement Attlee, which shows that this angst-ridden consideration of the organisation’s role and future is as old as the Commonwealth itself. ‘The nature of this association has been adapted, by a slow process of evolution, to meet changing needs; and it has derived much of its continuing strength from its avoidance of formal obligations and precise definitions.’

It could perhaps be assumed then that all the former colonies and dependencies, apart from Ireland, would want to be part of the successor to the British empire. As the Wilton Park report notes:  ‘The world of 1949 made the benefits of joining the Commonwealth apparent for fledgling democracies and newly independent states … the same obvious appeal does not hold today.’

The report argues that it can overcome these huge differences in outlook if there is the same engagement that was shown in the early years: ‘Institutionally, the Commonwealth has shown that it can evolve beyond its original form as envisaged in 1949. A willingness on the part of Commonwealth leaders to take ownership of the institution via Chogm, CMAG, and other avenues has driven its evolution thus far, highlighting the fact that similar levels of commitment at the highest level of member state governments will be crucial to driving the institution forwards.’

However, that commitment will require getting over the conventions of diplomacy—and a collective reluctance to test the hallowed familial ties within the Commonwealth family—by confronting the most fiercely contested issues head-on. The very real divisions that lie barely beneath the surface were seen on the last day in a discussion on human rights. A row threatened to erupt when a diplomat from a leading Commonwealth state tried to defend the homophobic legislation recently passed in his country. But in the soothing Sussex surroundings of Wiston House the genial nature of such family gatherings was preserved, and this particular can was kicked down the road in the interests of collegiality. The rapporteur, however, summed up the tenor of the forum with a stark warning: ‘The Commonwealth will survive as a relevant institution in the 21st century only if it is able to reassert its moral authority.’