Can the Commonwealth rise above its many problems and renew itself for the 21st century’s challenges? Pictures show Muslim Rohingya protest, newspaper hakwer in Bangladesh, G20 summit in India and Marlborough House welcome ceremony for Gabon.[Clockwise from top left] Pakistani Sikhs protest at alleged assassinations by India's RAW agents; a newspaper hawker in Bangladesh; the G20 summit in Delhi; and Patricia Scotland welcomes Gabon joining the Commonwealth at Marlborough House. [Photos: Alamy/ Commonwealth Secretariat]

With corruption and a disregard for democracy and human rights increasingly
apparent in many member states, the organisation faces urgent questions

In another tumultuous year, the world was transfixed by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, while brutal civil wars in the Global South raged almost unnoticed, such as in Sudan and Myanmar. The latter is preventing any resolution of the desperate condition of a million Rohingya refugees who fled ethnic cleansing, mostly ending up in Bangladesh. Even further below the world’s radar were conflicts such as Cameroon’s secessionist fighting, which rumbles on with no end in sight, six years after ‘Ambazonia’ declared independence.

The United Nations’ impotence was exposed, as was any remaining sense of the Commonwealth’s role ‘as a compelling force for good’ and the ‘promotion of international understanding and world peace’, as its charter puts it. After Russia invaded its neighbour, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, called it the ‘fraying of the rules-based international order’. This was seen all too clearly in the shameless realpolitik at the UN by Commonwealth states: India, South Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia, Togo, Uganda and Tanzania abstained or did not vote on a UN motion demanding Russia end the ‘illegal use of force’. This February, a year after the invasion, those countries – joined by Gabon and Grenada – maintained their amoral stance on a new resolution demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine.

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India’s studious neutrality was not just calculated with an eye on cheap Russian oil and arms – 2023 was a year when Delhi flexed its muscle on the diplomatic stage, with Narendra Modi’s government positioning India as the voice of the Global South, as when it hosted the G20 summit. The meeting capped a year of successes for India: the fourth country to land on the Moon; overtaking China as the world’s most populous country and the UK, its former colonial overlord, as the fifth-largest economy. Particularly satisfying for Modi – once banned from the US for his alleged role in Gujarat’s 2002 pogrom – was his red-carpet reception from President Biden in Washington. Whether the summit merited the huge cost of 41bn rupees ($495m), the eviction of 300,000 street vendors and demolition of 100,000 homes to beautify the capital is debatable, however.

Sikhs assassinated

But 2023 also saw India asserting itself more lethally, with its foreign intelligence agency, known as the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), allegedly assassinating Sikh separatists abroad. In June, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead in a Vancouver suburb by masked men. A Sikh plumber living in Canada for 20 years, Nijjar was a leader of the terrorist Khalistan Tiger Force, Delhi said. Another Sikh activist was killed in Canada a year before, while last month US prosecutors charged an Indian national with orchestrating another Sikh activist’s attempted assassination. The family of Avtar Singh Khanda, a 35-year-old Sikh activist in the UK who died suddenly in June, have called for police to investigate his death. The asylum seeker, who was a vocal advocate of the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh state, had allegedly been the subject of an intense harassment campaign in the Indian press.

Modi is always keen to slap down critics at home, and in March the government banned a BBC documentary about his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, when he was Gujarat’s chief minister. BBC offices in Delhi were raided and its editors detained; compliant Indian media claimed the British broadcaster was ‘funded by China’.

India is far from the only Commonwealth state to curtail media pluralism, suppress unfavourable reporting or harass journalists. Pakistan and Bangladesh were also classified as ‘very bad’ for press freedom in this year’s index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), with Dhaka ranked 161st of 180 countries. No Commonwealth state was among eight countries RSF considered ‘good’, with New Zealand highest in 13th place and Canada 15th, though Namibia and Samoa were also praised.

Many Commonwealth countries slated in RSF’s index also featured for the wrong reasons in Transparency International’s annual snapshot of global corruption. Nigeria – ranked 123rd globally by RSF – was the Commonwealth’s worst, in 150th place. South Asia was again conspicuous, with dishonourable mentions for Bangladesh and Pakistan (India was a mediocre 85th). Eswatini (ex-Swaziland) and Cameroon were also among both indices’ worst offenders; uncoincidentally, the former is ruled by one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, King Mswati III, while the latter’s president, Paul Biya, thinks he is an absolute monarch after holding power since 1982.

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The newest members, Togo and Gabon, also flouted the Commonwealth’s ‘core principles’ of ‘transparency, accountability, legitimacy’. In a case dragging through French courts since 2018, the tycoon Vincent Bolloré’s company is accused of financing the re-election of Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbé, in return for contracts at Lomé port. All of the accused deny wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Gabon’s former oil chief was jailed for 12 years for corruption and no less than nine children of Gabon’s late president Omar Bongo face embezzlement charges over their father’s €85m property empire. All deny any knowledge of the assets’ allegedly fraudulent origins.

Gabon coup

It was no surprise to most observers – except in Marlborough House – when Gabon’s kleptocratic ruling family were deposed in August, after Bongo Sr and his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, had been in power for 56 years. The coup came barely a year after Gabon joined the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali. The secretary-general claimed then that Gabon and Togo were ‘attracted to the Commonwealth’s values’.

With the role of the Commonwealth headship practically bequeathed by Queen Elizabeth to her son without debate; members such as Uganda passing one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ laws (making ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by death); and people murdered at a hint of blasphemy by Nigerian and Pakistani lynch mobs; it is unclear what these values are any more.

Progressive forces are certainly at work in member states – the redoubtable Mia Mottley’s Bridgetown Initiative, the slavery reparations campaign, and Australia’s welcome to Tuvalu’s climate refugees being notable examples – but whether the Commonwealth can rise above its many problems and renew itself for the 21st century’s challenges has perhaps become a moot point.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.