Commonwealth Heads of Government in Edinburgh 1997How the death of Princess Diana and the awarding of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines changed the world [photo: ComSec]

The Honourable Flora MacDonald, PC, OC, was Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs 1979-80 and was the Patron of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. This article is based on a talk given to The Round Table Moot and guests in Edinburgh, 15 October 1997.

Back in 1990 I was trying to get across the need to make the Commonwealth not just an intergovernmental network as it is generally perceived by the public, but a genuine commonwealth of peoples, with ties and relationships between individuals and groups and organizations that are readily apparent and are perceived as meaningful. I mentioned then that nation states as we have known them are in the decline; in their wake, cultural diversity and the demand for greater cultural and ethnic recognition are on the rise; and concurrently, globalization and supra-national political structures are growing in importance.

Two great emerging forces: cultural diversity and globalization. Since I gave that address we have had an even greater worldwide revolution. Not a revolution triggered by fighting and bloodshed—although we have seen all too much of that in the past seven years—but a revolution that has come about as a result of the explosion of communications technology: a young woman in a bus in rural India uses her cell-phone to talk with relatives in Canada; people in outer space communicate with researchers on the ground; the Internet provides the opportunity to have long conversations with new-found friends on the other side of the world. Technology is leaping over frontiers, doing away with the boundaries we have traditionally known. And how does the Commonwealth respond to all of this? Is it an association designed to cope with the challenges of today’s fast-changing world? Can it meet the demands?

Before answering these questions I mention two incidents that evoked an international response of great magnitude. One was the death of Princess Diana and the outpouring of grief that followed. A friend writing to me from England in recent weeks gave me his analysis of the reaction in the UK to the Princess’s death: ‘It was a manifestation of something much more extraordinary that has already happened in our society. The nation was saying something that they could not articulate; that the politics and institutions of privilege are dead; that there are no more second-class citizens … Though even today it has probably not dawned on most people what was really happening here, this uncontrollable peoples’ rising was surely the defining moment in a much larger national manifestation. Nothing will be the same from now on….The recent hurricane of change I am sure will manifest itself more strongly month by month. The computer for instance has made every Briton a potential citizen of the world. It in turn is making every citizen of the world one who is equal in opportunity and station. No government will be able to keep up with the pace of change but they can foster the policies to allow it to flourish, which it will, or they can die with those institutions that have stood in the way and let change pass them by. Not necessarily an ideal future, but nevertheless it seems to me, it is the future that arrived here yesterday.’

The second incident of international significance was the awarding of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize to the NGO, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. What was amazing about this incident was not the awarding of the prize to this movement—that was well deserved and in the tradition of previous peace prize winners—no, what was truly significant was and is the movement itself. Begun just six years ago by a small group, mostly women, it has in the short time since its founding transformed itself into a worldwide web of dedicated volunteers numbering in the hundreds of thousands, determined to challenge the seemingly intransigent views of governmental and defence hierarchies.

More than anything I can envisage, these two incidents depict the changes I see emerging throughout the world. And in both cases, the role of the media and telecommunications was critical. So I pose again the questions: How does the Commonwealth respond to events such as this? Is it an association designed to cope with the challenges of today’s fast-changing world? Can it meet the demands? I am not advocating that the Commonwealth suddenly convert itself into a radical movement intent on undermining the structures of its formal institutions. I firmly believe in those institutions which have done so much to take the traditions of the rule of law and parliamentary democracy to every corner of the world. But I also have a fear that if the Commonwealth is not seen as having a greater, more visible empathy with, and concern for, the many groups and communities in desperate condition in its far-flung membership, then it is in danger of becoming even less of an entity able to influence global events in a positive way—and more as ‘a relic of empire’. In the past year, two insightful and long-overdue reports about the Commonwealth were published: Derek Ingram’s Report on the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Information Programme, and Professor Tom Symons Report of the Commission on Commonwealth Studies.

To quote a paragraph from the Ingram Report: A huge and deeply worrying generation gap has developed on the subject of the Commonwealth. Because of the dramatic change that has taken place in the nature of the association well within a lifetime, many older people, especially in Britain, Australia and Canada, are not in tune with the contemporary Commonwealth. They see it in imperial terms, while younger people, quite uninformed about what it does today, see it as a leftover of empire. I alluded to the desperate conditions to which people are being subjected and which prevail in certain Commonwealth countries, tragically with little international attention even from other Commonwealth member-states. I mention only two—there are others.

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