Three reasons to cheer on Commonwealth Day
by Colin Robertson
March 12, 2012
Today is Commonwealth Day. At the Pearson Building, they will run up the Commonwealth flag, a golden globe set on a blue background. The flag originated from car pennants used at the 1973 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Ottawa.
The 61 spears that form a “C” around the globe on the flag represent not its members but rather the
functional work of the institution – practical, people-oriented and aimed at giving people a hand-up through technical assistance.
It is the Commonwealth’s usually overlooked functional work that deserves our first cheer. Commonwealth-supported initiatives range from setting standards and sharing best practices on everything from life-saving to lawyering. While no longer enjoying preferential arrangements, the idea of giving developing nations preferred access, now a principle of the WTO, began with the imperial preferences.
Sports play a big part in encouraging fellowship. The Commonwealth Games were first hosted in Hamilton by Canada in 1930. Every four years they bring together Commonwealth athletes in what are purposely styled the ‘Friendly Games’.
The second cheer goes to Canada’s continuing contribution.
Born out of the old British Empire, the Commonwealth is arguably the oldest continuous intergovernmental association. That it evolved from Empire to Commonwealth owes much to the initiative of then prime minister Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson, then our minister for external affairs.
The challenge in 1948-9 was how to incorporate the new republic of India, the former ‘jewel in the Crown’, into a group that still pledged allegiance to that Crown. Working with Indian prime minister Nehru and others, St. Laurent and Pearson came up with the London Declaration whereby the Crown is recognized as “symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth”.
The first Secretary General of the Commonweath was Arnold Smith, a distinguished Canadian diplomat and contemporary of Pearson. Appointed in 1965, his ten-year tenure put in place the core political values that culminated in the 1971 Singapore Declaration and the belief that “that our multi-national association can expand human understanding and understanding among nations, assist in the elimination of discrimination based on differences of race, colour or creed.”
Non-discrimination and respect for human rights are fundamental to the Commonwealth ideal. With strong leadership from Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker, South Africa was shown the door over its apartheid practices in 1961 (then readmitted in 1994 with the end of apartheid).
In the intervening years, Nigeria and Pakistan were also suspended over human rights violations and Zimbabwe and Fiji are currently outside the Commonwealth for the same reason.
Prime Minister Harper has criticized human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and he has served notice that, without progress, he’ll boycott the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM), scheduled for Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2013.
The Harper approach is consistent with Canadian leadership since the inception of the modern Commonwealth.
Canadian Senator Hugh Segal is one of the ‘eminent persons’ who are currently leading the reform movement within the Commonwealth. Inspired by the core values of non-discrimination, the Eminent Persons Group presented 106 ‘urgent’ recommendations, at the Perth 2011 CHOGM. They reported that the Commonwealth was in a state of decay and in urgent need of ‘people’ oriented reforms, including a Charter reflecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Leaders agreed to the need for “one clear, powerful statement” but there was no consensus on recommendations that, as well as the proposed Charter, included the repeal of anti-sodomy laws and the creation of a human rights commissioner.
Punted to study groups, Commonwealth foreign ministers will take another look at the reform plan this fall. It’s the kind of difficult file deserving the personal attention of John Baird, who is energetically advancing human rights.
The third ‘hurrah’ goes to the Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth. We celebrate her diamond jubilee this year and her reign virtually tracks the evolution of the modern Commonwealth. Behind the CHOGM curtain, her counsel has been described as wise, pragmatic and progressive.
In this year’s annual message for Commonwealth Day, the Queen says we “celebrate an extraordinary cultural tapestry that reflects our many individual and collective identities… however different outward appearances may be, we share a great deal in common.”
The Queen’s message of tolerance and pluralism captures the original spirit of the Commonwealth. It is one to which Canadians, in particular, can relate. Importantly, it should inspire the Commonwealth leaders as they look to the future. The useful institution is not broken but it does need to be fixed.
Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat now working as a Senior Strategic Advisor for McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP and with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. He is Vice President and Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.