Meetings of the Commonwealth of Nations, an international grouping made up primarily of countries that were once parts of the British Empire, are generally sedate affairs. The group's summits tend to evoke the genteel aura of afternoon tea. Controversies rarely surface.
But 2013 threatens to depart from the rule. The next Commonwealth summit, set to take place in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo next month, looks like it's going to be a doozy. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper says that he's going to boycott the proceedings to protest the deteriorating human rights records of the summit's hosts. Harper accuses Sri Lanka of a slide into authoritarianism, citing "ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra-judicial killings."
Just in case anyone missed the point, the Canadians are also going after Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, of India. Last week, Canada's special envoy to the Commonwealth, Hugh Segal, accused Sharma of "acting as a shill [for the Sri Lankan leadership], defending their every mistake." Not exactly croquet and cucumber sandwiches.
As if that weren't enough, the small West African country known as The Gambia has just made good on its threat to withdraw from the Commonwealth. President Yahya Jammeh, in power for the past 19 years, denounced the group as a "neo-colonial institution" and an "extension of colonialism." His ire probably has something to do with British criticisms of his miserable human rights record. (Jammeh castigated the Commonwealth in his speech at last month's United Nations General Assembly, where he also seized the occasion to rail against homosexuality, which he described as "one of the biggest threats to human existence." He's also notorious for his claims that he can cure female infertility and that AIDS can be healed with an herbal body rub.)
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Some have said that The Gambia's exit is a sign of waning influence, signaling a darker future for the Commonwealth, whose membership roster now falls from 54 countries to 53. But I disagree. The very fact that Jammeh felt compelled to leave the club suggests that he was feeling threatened by the Commonwealth's insistence on the primacy of freedom and human rights.
Yet the Commonwealth has few formal tools for compelling its members to comply with its aims. It commands no weapons, no armed forces. It arrives at its decisions by consensus, not by fiat -- and each member has an equal vote (in stark contrast to the United Nations). One could describe it, with some justice, as a glorified social club.
And yet, as any member of a social club knows, the aspiration to remain a member in good standing can be a powerful force for persuasion. The Commonwealth proved its soft power mojo when it organized the sanctions regime against South Africa in the 1980s (successfully pushing back against then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was opposed to pinching the apartheid government). On six occasions in its history, the Commonwealth has taken the drastic step of excluding countries for backsliding on democratic principles, and the organization's defenders say that the resulting bad PR was instrumental in leading at least two of them (Pakistan and Fiji) back into the democratic fold (and back into the Commonwealth). (The black sheep is Zimbabwe, which responded to its exclusion in 2002 by withdrawing from the Commonwealth altogether a year later.)