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Debate: Commonwealth of Nations

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Should the Commonwealth be abolished?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

The Commonwealth of Nations is an organisation of 54 sovereign states, linking together countries which were once part of the British Empire (but not all, some, such as Eire and Iraq, are not members, while in 1995 Mozambique joined as the first state with no previous connection to Britain). The Commonwealth was founded in its present form in 1949 as a group of states co-operating for mutual advantage and united by common ideals, and a small secretariat was set up in 1965 to further these ends. The Commonwealth’s membership is very diverse, spanning rich world countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and poor ones such as Bangladesh, Tanzania and Nigeria. 33 of the countries are republics, 5 have their own monarchies and the remaining states have Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State. Queen Elizabeth is the Head of the Commonwealth; a largely symbolic role but one which she takes very seriously. Its Heads of Government attend a summit every two years and Commonwealth friendship is celebrated every four years in the Commonwealth Games, a sort of cut-down Olympics.

Colonial legacy: Does the Common Wealth of Nations promote an inappropriate colonial legacy?


The British Empire was founded upon colonial aggression and exploitation and should be repudiated, rather than celebrated in diluted form through the continuity the Commonwealth symbolises: International organisations should be truly global and progressive, rather than culturally anglo-centric and backward looking.


The Commonwealth does not deny the injustices of history, but instead transforms them positively into a strong and merited community: It building upon the common links between the member nations, almost all of which have English as a major language and political and legal systems modelled upon the British precedent. Today all the countries of the Commonwealth have equal status and Britain is no longer dominant in the way it was in the immediate post-colonial era. Many of the members have entered through deliberate choice, not just through an accident of history. Countries such as Rwanda and Cambodia, which have no historic link to the British Empire, are also considering joining.

Mission - Does the Commonwealth lack a valuable and useful mission in the world?


The Commonwealth has no clear role and mission: It confers no trade privileges upon its members, does not coordinate their defence or foreign policy, and lacks both the budget and the executive authority to make a practical difference in the world. Periodic meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government are at best a talking-shop and at worst an expensive junket. It would be far better for its members to commit their attention and goodwill to more meaningful international organisations, such as the UN, NATO, regional free-trade areas, etc.

The Commonwealth is an out-dated legacy of the British Empire that serves no real purpose but to honor Britain: The common wealth serves only to bolster Britain’s sense of importance in the world and to make it appear that its monarch still has a role in the modern world.


The commonwealth fosters diversity: Aside from the UN, the Commonwealth is the only major international organization to unite a diverse range of developed and developing countries, covering nearly 30% of the world’s population: This makes it valuable in fostering dialogue on democracy and development, as well as a great deal of cultural and academic exchange. The Harare Declaration of 1991 committed the Commonwealth to principles of human rights and democratic government, and the Commonwealth has provided practical and moral support for states in transition from dictatorship or colonial rule. Nor is there a conflict between membership of the Commonwealth and of other major global organisations.Smaller, developing nations perhaps gain the most from the Commonwealth, which gives their voice greater prominence than it could achieve in the much larger, more polarised United Nations. They gain technical assistance on a range of development issues, a forum in which bilateral trade and investment deals can be negotiated in an atmosphere of goodwill, and practical help in maintaining permanent missions to the UN.

The commonwealth is an important forum for dialogue between developed and developing (and misbehaving) nations: It may be true that the developed nations in the Commonwealth, such as Britain, are able to ignore the other members from time to time. Nonetheless, it acts as a forum for them to seriously commit attention and resources to the problems of the developing world and this in turn affects their actions in global bodies, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. The real winners from the Commonwealth are the smallest and least developed nations, who can use its formal and informal channels to win bilateral trade deals, development assistance and support in international negotiations.

Failing mission? Is the Commonwealth failing to execute the mission it has set forth for itself, particularly in the Harare Declaration?


The Commonwealth professes high ideas but fails to live up to them: Despite the pious words of the Harare Declaration, many Commonwealth countries are dictatorships or have poor human rights records, and the Commonwealth provides their leaders with a figleaf of international respectability.

The Commonwealth is a sham as its members always pursue their own self-interest when it conflicts with Commonwealth solidarity. Britain’s involvement in the European Union has resulted in the removal of preferential trading terms from many Commonwealth members and its support a fortress of European tariffs which help to restrict economic development in much of the third world. On important issues naked self-interest always wins out over Commonwealth solidarity. An example is Britain’s refusal to place sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s.

The Commonwealth is ineffectual. It is indecisive, dithering for years about imposing even symbolic sanctions upon Nigeria in the 1990s when it was under a corrupt and brutal military dictatorship. It also has no real means of ensuring that member states live up to the principles it preaches, for example, flagrant human rights abuses in Zimbabwe have gone unpunished, as did those of Idi Amin in Uganda in the 1970s.


Failure to currently fulfill high ideals does not invalidate an organization which actively seeks to strive towards and enforce them: The Commonwealth is helping to establish democracy and respect for human rights as international norms, and countries which have seriously repudiated these have faced sanctions and expulsion (e.g. at varying times Pakistan, South Africa and Nigeria) until they have begun to change for the better. Countries wishing to embark upon political reform gain a great deal of support from the Commonwealth; this is made even more valuable by the fact that most Commonwealth states share similar parliamentary and legal systems in the Westminster tradition.

The common wealth is not intended to be an active enforcement body: Proceeding by consensus and through moral suasion are always open to accusations of weakness, but the Commonwealth has never pretended to be a powerful organisation for enforcing international norms - and many of its members would never have joined it in the first place if it did. Instead the Commonwealth works through constructive engagement, encouraging its members to aspire to high standards of human rights and democratic accountability and running programmes which educate their citizens in these concepts. Action has been taken in the past against the worst transgressors and is all the more effective for being rare.



  • This House would abolish the Commonwealth
  • This House believes the Commonwealth has outlived its usefulness
  • This House believes the Commonwealth is an anachronism
  • This House would celebrate the end of empire

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