Commonwealth and small states - André DeBattista

Commonwealth and small states - André DeBattista

Photo: Paul Spiteri LucasPhoto: Paul Spiteri Lucas

The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – the CHOGM – still manages to draw debate over whether the Commonwealth of nations is a relevant force in the world.

As an intergovernmental organisation, it undoubtedly has less clout than other similar organisations. However, for some states, the Commonwealth remains a vital link and a relevant source of reference.

The Commonwealth is a by-product of historical events. All Commonwealth members, except Mozambique and Rwanda, were former British colonies. This shared history is best exemplified in the figure of Queen Elizabeth II; the British monarch who retains the title of “Head of the Commonwealth” and is still sovereign of 16 Commonwealth realms.

In terms of geographical reach, the Commonwealth has 53 member states spread on six continents. They include large and prosperous global players such as Canada and Australia, remote and isolated island states such as Nauru and Tuvalu, and Mediterranean island states such as Malta and Cyprus. Although viewed by some as an anachronism, the Commonwealth remains a relevant player in several key areas.

During the third global biennial conference on small states, held in St Lucia in March 2014, the Commonwealth was hailed as a “champion of small states”.

This accolade is justified; two-thirds of the world’s smallest states are members of the Commonwealth, and they collectively account for a quarter of the votes within the UN’s General Assembly. The Commonwealth Secretariat helps in drawing international attention to the plight of such states.

Many lack the institutional capacity to formulate policy programmes which ensure long-term sustainable development. Others need capacity-building support to allow them to overcome the inherent vulnerabilities which come from being small-island states in remote parts of the globe.

Smaller countries undoubtedly appreciate the role the Commonwealth plays. In the past decade, an increasing emphasis has been placed on supporting small states. Additional funds were allocated for this purpose.

In 2011 the Commonwealth Secretariat established a ‘Small States Office’ in Geneva based on the existing Commonwealth Joint Office for Small States in New York. These two offices assist small states that need to bolster their presence at the many international organisations based in these two large cities. By offering these services at a subsidised rate, it alleviates the costs of maintaining large diplomatic missions in centres of power while increasing their profile on an international level.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has also been instrumental in developing ICT resources to allow for greater collaboration between members and various Commonwealth organisations. In the fields of education and health, the Commonwealth offers online hubs for practitioners to collaborate. Such partnerships allow for the management of already-stretched resources.

The Commonwealth proves to be excellent in the field of international advocacy, the building of networks and the exchange of information

The Commonwealth draws attention to specific challenges that small states face. Climate change and environmental degradation affect the very existence of several states in the Pacific Ocean. Countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru face being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Moreover, environmental disasters and pollution can jeopardise the economic and social well-being of various vulnerable small-island states.

Essentially, the Commonwealth proves to be excellent in the field of international advocacy, the building of networks and the exchange of information. Nonetheless, while such initiatives contribute to its aim of “building resilience” in “vulnerable” small states, they may fall short of eradicating the cancer which still plagues several small island states.

Several scholars analysed the political climate in small island states. In small, tight-knit communities, personal relationships and kinship often lead to a blurring of lines between public life and private life. Antagonism and animosity, coupled with partisanship and clientelism often distort the political system.

The legislature often seems subordinate to the executive. Thus, individual politicians increase their power at the expense of a parliament which is meant to keep them in check. This is particularly evident in several countries, including Malta.

In his book Politics and Democracy in Microstates, Wouter Veenendaal identifies some features of the political climate in small states. Politics is personalised, the executive branch of government is dominant, patron-client relations prevail, formal political institutions are circumvented, and many citizens prefer using informal channels when dealing with government authorities.

To varying degrees, this can create issues regarding good governance and democratic governance. This is an area where the Commonwealth does not always exploit its full potential. At the very least, it cannot provide a platform to despots and human rights abusers.

The collapse of the economy of Nauru in the late 1990s, the practical hijacking of the political system of St Kitts and Nevis, the various coups in the Fijian archi­pelago and the political and human rights abuses in the Maldives are just some examples of how issues of democracy and good governance keep holding back small Commonwealth states.

The case of the Maldives is particularly chilling. The country left the Commonwealth in 2016 claiming that the organisation was targeting it “in the name of democracy promotion, to increase its own relevance and leverage in international politics”. It claimed that the choice landed on the Maldives due to the “high and favourable reputation that the country enjoys internationally and also perhaps because it is a small state that lacks material power”.

The facts demonstrate otherwise. The Maldives has a sizeable per capita percentage of jihadists fighting in Syria, corruption and money laundering crippled the apparatus of government, a democratically-elected president was ousted through a coup d’état, and journalists have disappeared or face intimidation and violence. The Commonwealth was more than justified in singling out the Maldives.

Regarding advocacy, a renewed emphasis on the areas of human rights, good governance and democracy can help the Commonwealth restore its relevance to a number of small states. These areas too contribute to the strengthening of resilience and the reduction of vulnerabilities. After all, an erosion of good governance and democracy may make small states more vulnerable to unscrupulous and corrupt international players.

André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.

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