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When Your Only Weapon Is Shame
Using its power to ostracize and exclude, the Commonwealth has had sporadic success as a promoter of democracy; other clubs find it harder
KAMPALA, November 22, 2007 – THERE are some global clubs that do hard business, like waging war or regulating trade. And there is another sort of club, with a large, ill-defined membership, and sensible goals but little power to correct wrongs except through peer pressure.
In a cold, unsentimental world, the second type of club might seem doomed. Given that the consequences of being suspended, or even expelled, from such a group are rarely disastrous—the equivalent, at worst, of being shunned by one's schoolmates—they will surely not deter the planet's worst rogues.
But those big, loose clubs somehow shuffle on—and world figures still devote time and energy to keeping them alive. Take the 53 member states of the Commonwealth, whose leaders will gather this weekend in Uganda's capital, Kampala. Advocates of this giant talking-shop say it got a new wind after the end of the cold war made propagating democracy and the rule of law more feasible, and necessary.
“The special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of the diversity of its members with their shared inheritance in language, culture, and the rule of law.” So said the Harare Declaration, a 1991 document spelling out the values to which the Commonwealth members are supposed to adhere.
Don McKinnon, a New Zealander who has served as secretary-general since 2000, insists that the organization—with nearly 2 billion people (half Indian) in its domain—has done a decent job of holding governments to their declared values. As proof of its relevance to concrete problems, he cites its promotion of fair trading terms for poor-world farmers. Moreover, he points out, countries are still gagging to join. Having started as an ex-British club, it grew more elastic in 1995 when it admitted ex-Portuguese Mozambique and took in Cameroon, most of which was French.
In Francophone (formerly Belgian) Rwanda, young enthusiasts have been learning cricket as a token of their country's keenness to join the Commonwealth. And in ex-Portuguese Timor-Leste, President José Ramos Horta has pledged that he too will apply. Neither of these bidders would have to leave the groups they already belong to: respectively la Francophonie (whose 53 members speak varying levels of French) and a community of eight Portuguese-speaking states. For tiny states with recent memories of horrific violence, the more clubs the better, it seems. Meanwhile Somaliland, the ex-British part of Somalia, wants to join the Commonwealth as part of a drive to secede from that country's war-torn south.
If many countries want to join, that makes exclusion, or self-exclusion, somewhat more embarrassing. Fed up with being suspended, Zimbabwe's dictatorial leader, Robert Mugabe, stormed out of the Commonwealth in 2003. He said he didn't care—but it was an ugly spectacle.
In the run-up to the Kampala summit, Commonwealth foreign ministers were considering whether to re-suspend Pakistan, one of several members whose relationship with the club has fluctuated sharply. (Another problem member is Fiji, whose latest suspension was decreed in December 2006.) The Commonwealth has a record not only of ostracizing miscreants (not always with consistency) but also of readmitting repentant sinners.
If it succeeds as a talking-shop, the reasons may be as much negative as positive. While some members liked the Soviet Union, none has ever been communist (bar Mozambique)—or experienced a total suppression of the separation of powers. And there are more subtle factors: veterans of Commonwealth summitry say the mix of informality and royal glamour is a heady experience for the leaders of small countries who rarely tread the world stage.
None of the above plus points can be claimed by another idealistic and far-flung talking shop, one that extends from Vancouver to Vladivostok: the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which comprises America, Canada, all of Europe and the ex-Soviet republics.
As Queen Elizabeth, the head of the Commonwealth, packed her bags for Kampala, Spain's King Juan Carlos went to Vienna to laud the role of the OSCE (now under Spanish chairmanship) and hailed the 56-member group's labors in the service of “peace, prosperity and democracy”.
The OSCE has worthy aims. In places where the value of words like democracy and law has been debased, reinvesting them with meaning is a noble task. But it seemed easier in the euphoric days after the Soviet collapse, when almost every ex-communist state was vying to be a virtuous advocate of human rights.
It was in that atmosphere that the OSCE, on just one occasion, mustered the unity needed to discipline a wayward member: Yugoslavia (by that time reduced to Serbia and Montenegro) was suspended in 1992, and only readmitted in 2000 after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic's tyranny.
Since then, several ex-Soviet republics have become skeptical of the Western idea of human rights and multi-party democracy; but none of these awkward customers is ever likely to be suspended because unanimity would be needed. Russia's relations with the OSCE soured recently after the organization dropped its plan to send observers to the forthcoming Russian election, on grounds that the Kremlin was limiting their numbers and holding up visas. At a meeting in Madrid next week, OSCE governments will consider awarding the body's rotating chairmanship to Kazakhstan: not the worst human-rights offender in the region but not a paragon of democracy either.
If the Commonwealth half-works as a forum where miscreants can be shamed, that is because its members—in several ways—speak the same language. The OSCE's problem may be that words like freedom and democracy mean one thing in, say, Tashkent and another in Vienna.
Source: The Economist