In 2016 Commonwealth Day falls on March 14. That may not mean much to some people, but to the 53 member nations of the Commonwealth, representing some 2.2 billion people, it means a whole range of events sponsored by governments, schools, community groups and individuals, intended to promote the inclusivity of the organization. On March 14 activities the world over will aim to promote international co-operation and “Commonwealth values.”
What are they, these “Commonwealth values”?
First outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, and later augmented in 1979 and 1989, they commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth is strongly in favor of motherhood and apple pie (and all credit to them for it) – a position finally encapsulated in the “Commonwealth Charter”, signed by Queen Elizabeth in March 2013. So the Commonwealth is indubitably a force for good in this wicked world, but dynamic or proactive it can scarcely claim to be. Perhaps the time has come for it to adopt a somewhat bolder approach to world politics.
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The Commonwealth spans the globe and has a combined population amounting to about a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire. What unites this diverse group of nations are the association’s values, to which all subscribe, strong shared trade links, and the fact that, regardless of their individual constitutions, all recognize the current British sovereign as head of the organization.
It was in 1884 that Lord Rosebery, later a British prime minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1949, when India achieved independence. Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth – and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Commonwealth members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”
That opened the floodgates for fully independent countries from all parts of the globe to join the association. All had some historic connection to the old British Empire – until two other nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied. Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join. Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from countries like South Sudan, Sudan, Somaliland and Suriname. Others expressing interest have included Yemen, Algeria, Madagascar, Senegal, East Timor and Cambodia – to say nothing of the states of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, all three of them islands lying off-shore of the British Isles.
Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.
“We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth ‘family’, closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”
Israel and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass –would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the original criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”. So, as a matter of interest, would Jordan. In point of fact, both Israel and the Palestinians have, in the past, expressed some interest in the possibility.
It is not generally known that Israel boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth. It will be marking Commonwealth Day with a reception hosted by the Australian ambassador, Dave Sharma. And indeed Israel may quite recently have come close to applying to join. It was only in 2007 that the Jewish Journal reported:
“As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”
Not then, perhaps, but how about right now? Traditionally the Commonwealth secretariat has restricted itself to considering applications from nations eager to enjoy the considerable benefits that come with membership – and sometimes to expelling members who have transgressed its principles. It has never seen promoting the expansion of the association as part of its role, and does nothing to foster interest in potential member nations in the idea of joining the organization.
Perhaps the time has come for a more proactive approach by the secretariat. The Israel-Palestine situation provides the Commonwealth with a golden opportunity to foster peace in one of the world’s major trouble spots. Thinking laterally, the Commonwealth could exercise a positive and powerful influence for good by issuing a clear invitation to both parties: “As soon as you have reached some sort of deal, join us. We will welcome you into our family of nations.”
Whatever Israel’s traditional enemies might assert, there is no doubt that Israel’s core values precisely match those of the Commonwealth. The Palestinian Authority – shorn of the malign Hamas régime that dominates the Gaza strip – could make a reasonable case for aspiring to most of them.
An offer by the Commonwealth of future membership to both – and indeed also to Jordan, which certainly has a stake in maintaining the security of the region against terrorist extremists – would provide a new, and previously unconsidered, framework within which peace negotiations might be conducted, and a peaceful outcome might flourish.
An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, and which was charged with securing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, might result in a newly conceived legal entity – a confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine, dedicated to close security and economic cooperation. Commonwealth membership of the three sovereign states, or of the confederation, would incorporate acceptance by a swathe of nations from every continent, the assurance of new markets and flourishing trade relations for all three parties, and membership of an association dedicated to democracy, freedom and peaceful co-existence.