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The Commonwealth and the international legal order


This article, based on a slightly edited transcript of a lecture delivered by the author at the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), London on 7 March 2022, offers a wide-ranging survey of the Commonwealth’s contributions to the maintenance of the international legal order against the backdrop of recent developments, including the military action launched by Russia in Ukraine.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

Utility of the Commonwealth

We should recall that the Commonwealth is a voluntary association not a treaty organisation; it is not a defence and security organisation; it is not a trade organisation; it is not a health and education organisation; and it is not an aid organisation. It does provide technical assistance, advice and advocacy through the CFTC, but while these contributions are important to developing Commonwealth countries, other agencies and other alliances with far greater resources fulfil bigger needs and, therefore, command greater allegiance.

Doubts have intensified in recent time about the utility of the Commonwealth. Claims are repeatedly made that the organisation is no longer relevant or useful. Its persistent portrayal is that of a relic of Britain’s colonial past or a hypocritical grouping, which declares commitments to shared values but fails to uphold them.


This begs the question: why be a part of it? What benefits flow to its members?

The Commonwealth’s most powerful asset is that its 54 member states come from every continent of the world; its peoples represent every religion and ethnic group; its members are developed nations and developing nations; big countries and small islands. It is, essentially, a microcosm of the world. Its greatest strength is that it has strived to find solutions to the world’s problems, not to exacerbate them. It has done so on political issues, none more celebrated than fighting racism in South Africa.

What the Commonwealth achieved politically in the 1970s and 1980s, it also did on many economic issues through the work of groups of experts from Commonwealth countries who laboured together to create blueprints that were advanced into the international community and encouraged necessary change. For instance, the concept of Climate Change, detailing its harmful effects, and warning of the impact it would have on the world, started in the Commonwealth, as did the initial work on the concept of special and differential treatment in trade for less developed countries, establishing that small states have greater vulnerabilities to their economies and particularly to exogenous shocks and natural disasters.

The need for reform of the global financial architecture was also initiated in the Commonwealth, drawing on experts from both developed and developing countries. Great leaders from every continent of the world – Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and the world’s oceans like the Pacific – have played notable roles in modernising the Commonwealth and sustaining it in its early years and since.

Its greatest benefit to each of its leaders is that it puts them in close contact with each other at first-hand, and privately at their retreats, when the leader of the smallest country can talk with the leader of the largest or richest nation as an equal, in frank discussion. Both the leaders of the wealthier countries and the leaders of the poorest gain from the candid and private exchange.

Capacity to find solutions

However, the Commonwealth ship has come unloose from these moorings in recent years, and it is to these havens that it needs to re-fasten in the interest of the organisation, its members and the global community.

If its leaders can once again tackle the issues of moment in a dialogue restricted to themselves, I have no doubt that they have the capacity either to find solutions or to begin the process of doing so. Leaders do not have to agree on everything to move forward. The matters on which they agree, even if partially, would be sufficient to create a common agenda by which Commonwealth countries can advance their own interests and contribute to international well-being.

One such pressing issue is Climate Change with its attendant global warming. Climate change is the greatest threat that now confronts all mankind. It knows no borders and it respects neither size nor economic and military power; it cannot be turned back by immigration controls; it cannot be bombed into oblivion. Every country in the world is its potential victim.

But it poses the greatest threat to the smallest on our shared planet, particularly the Island states in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and to countries with low-lying coasts and interior lands such as Bangladesh. Increasingly, several of these Islands are drowning, and their age-old civilisations are facing extinction. Data show that from 2000 to 2019, Bangladesh suffered economic losses worth $3.72 billion and witnessed 185 extreme weather events due to climate change.

Refugees from climate change could become as much a problem for rich countries in the future as are the refugees of war in the present. According to a World Bank report released in September 2021, more than 200 million people are likely to migrate over the next three decades because of extreme weather events or the slow degradation of their environments.

But, of course, the physical dislocation and the resultant unemployment and poverty would be felt most acutely in the small island-nations and countries with low-lying coasts and interior lands, such as Bangladesh. Decades of development and progress could be retarded.

That is why the Commonwealth would be wise to encourage a frank and meaningful discussion between its large and small nations on the link between the environment and poverty. That is one of the discussions that should be on the table of heads of government, not in a confrontational manner, but in a way that would cause the leaders of developed and developing nations to actually seek common solutions, however limited they might be.

This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. It is based on a slightly edited transcript of a lecture delivered by the author at the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), London on 7 March 2022. Opinions do not reflect the position of the Round Table Editorial Board.]

Sir Ronald Sanders is the Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and a member of the Round Table Internatonal Advisory Board.



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