Democracy Lab

Peer Pressure

The British Commonwealth is stirring up unaccustomed controversy -- and that's a good thing.

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.)

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.)

As Zimbabwe's example demonstrates, this low-key approach has its limits: Robert Mugabe is still in power (and, indeed, recently won yet another dubious election). Nonetheless, the restraint of the Commonwealth model looks pretty good in the wake of America's deeply problematic efforts to implant democracy at gunpoint. "With the discrediting of the neo-Conservative dream of imposing democracy by force, it is the ideal vehicle for the quiet promotion of democracy," wrote British columnist Peter Oborne a few years ago. "In the Commonwealth, the means used are never invasion, but subtlety and quiet pressure."

British Conservative Party politician Michael Ancram has argued that it's time to reboot the Commonwealth by stressing its role as a democracy promotion organization. Far from being an antiquated relic of the past, he says, the Commonwealth network makes it perfectly suited to the 21st-century era of decentralized power. He's even suggested moving the headquarters of the Commonwealth from London to New Delhi as a way of boosting its credibility as an organization that's overcome its colonial past.

I think he's on to something. The fact that even some countries that weren't British colonies have decided to join the Commonwealth (Rwanda and Mozambique) suggests that the organization still has a certain cachet. A club that encompasses 2.2 billion people is not to be sneezed at, perhaps. The citizens of some of its member countries have voting rights in others; those wishing to migrate from one Commonwealth country to another also often enjoy preferential immigration status. And even though membership in the Commonwealth club doesn't explicitly encompass commercial privileges, several studies show that member countries trade much more with each other, and under more favorable terms, than with non-members.

But the "badge of respectability" that comes with Commonwealth membership shouldn't come too cheap. While there is something to be said for the organization's consensus-based philosophy, the Commonwealth needs to make a clear stand on the need to protect democratic values in a world where increasingly assertive autocracies are challenging the primacy of freedom. British colonialism committed plenty of sins in its day, but it has also bequeathed to the world a positive legacy of respect for human rights and the rule of law that remains treasured in many of the places that have been touched by it. (I'm looking at you, Hong Kong.)

In any case, next month's summit meeting could end up giving the Commonwealth a serious reality check. The British government has so far managed to keep aloof from the Canadian's accusations against the Sri Lankan government, but that could change, now that the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has also come under fire for failing to chide Colombo for its authoritarian airs. Last week a member of the British parliament challenged  Cameron for failing to address the killing of a British citizen in Sri Lanka two years ago -- allegedly at the hands of a close adviser of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There's no question that the Commonwealth urgently needs reform. Too many of the organization's events are empty diplomatic exercises. To get things back on the right track, the group could start by holding countries to account when they show contempt for democratic norms, perhaps even culling the membership roster accordingly. Surely that would be a small price to pay for increased credibility. It's time for the Commonwealth to live up to its high standards.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

What My Daughter Deserves

The United Nations wants us to make life better for girls. It's a worthy aim. But what does that mean in practice?

I'm generally not a big fan of United Nations publicity campaigns. Just take the U.N.'s habit of setting aside particular "international observance days" as a way of highlighting various worthy causes. What, for example, are we supposed to make of gimmicks like "World Poetry Day" or the "International Day of Happiness"?

One of the problems with such campaigns is that they tend to preach a kind of ecumenical optimism that hovers high above the complexity of real-world politics. Who could possibly oppose poetry, or happiness? Even Bashar al-Assad would proclaim himself fully in favor. So what's the point, then?

Cynical though I am, I have to confess that one of those days has started me thinking. October 11 marks the U.N.'s "International Day of the Girl Child." Forget the awkwardly tautological title: The event itself offers an occasion to consider some of the specific problems faced by girls around the world. That seems like a potentially constructive provocation -- perhaps because I can't help thinking about my own 9-year-old daughter and the challenges she's likely to face precisely because she's a girl.

She was lucky enough, of course, to be born in one of the world's wealthiest and most stable societies, which makes it less likely that she'll have to confront some of the uglier injustices that plague girls in other parts of the world. But of course not even the United States is immune to threats of sexualized violence or economic discrimination.

So let's simplify matters. Let's just assume that my daughter is a global citizen -- along with the world's other 900 million girls age 15 or under. What kind of life does she have a right to expect?

First and foremost, she deserves to live in a free society where her individual human rights are respected, regardless of gender. Political systems aren't necessarily the best guide to this. It's great that Rwanda has equal numbers of men and women in parliament, for example, but I wonder if that really means much in a country where the president has the final say in everything. There are plenty of benign despots in the world who claim to promote women's rights by pledging equal opportunity, but I wonder how far such pledges can be taken seriously when those women can be thrown into jail at a moment's notice for making critical remarks about their leaders.

Democracy is certainly preferable to any other form of government -- though not even the existence of democratic institutions automatically guarantees proper respect for the rights of girls. Just look at India, where village girls are routinely pulled out of school, whether they like it or not, and forced to become child brides at appallingly young ages. One Indian activist recently made an observation that certainly holds true for too many other parts of the world:

Girls are considered second-class citizens. They carry your bag to school for you. They get your dinner. The sexist attitude is ingrained in the way one is brought up here. When I had my second child, and she happened to be a girl, my in-laws, who are very well-educated people, were not very happy about it.

But at least Indians can openly discuss the shortcomings of traditional ways, which facilitates evolution and change. I'm not sure we can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia.

And while we're on the subject of girl brides: No, I don't want to see my daughter married off in early adolescence to someone who's essentially offered me the highest price. I want her to be able to choose her own spouse, and I want her -- and no one else -- to choose the moment when the time is right for that.

Needless to say, long-accepted traditions in many countries weigh heavily against doing away with child marriage. The U.N. is to be applauded for drawing attention to the broader social ills caused by the practice. (To name but one, marrying off girls at early ages almost always means that their educations are cut short.) Last year, U.N. agencies used the International Day of the Girl Child to stage a global campaign focusing on the need to do away with child marriage. I'd like to see them do more.

What else? Well, my daughter deserves to have the same educational opportunities as her male counterparts. Girls shouldn't be shunted off into vocational training aimed at turning them into better housekeepers. They should have access to all the subjects that boys are allowed to study -- including math and science, all too often viewed as "inappropriate" subjects for girls. If my daughter finds that she has a knack for engineering, why not?

Sadly, there are many societies that still hew to the notion that science, technology, and mathematics (STEM) are the natural province of men. Educational systems built on such preconceptions will tend to push female students in corresponding directions. (In China, for example, women account for only about a third of the workforce in STEM-related professions.)

Speaking of school: My daughter deserves the chance to participate in sports as she sees fit. There's nothing in the Bible, the Quran, or Buddhist scripture that should prohibit her from playing soccer, baseball, or chess. (And yet this is still a matter of considerable controversy in some countries. I hope that the growing prominence of women athletes is starting to wear down some of those pathetic prejudices.)

Next: There should be no coercive exploitation of my daughter's labor. There is no justification for slavery in the modern world. Yet this, too, is still far from a given. All too often girls are regarded as chattel, property that can be bought or sold. This is unacceptable. Human beings, and especially children, cannot be owned. Unfortunately, it is often girls who have the least power to resist such pressures, both from inside and outside their families. It's only right to push for greater protections wherever possible.

Now, I realize that it's customary in some places for children to support their families with their own work, sometimes from very early ages. This is especially true in agrarian societies, where having more children is sometimes a strategy for ensuring a bigger labor force, and thus greater prosperity, for the family as a whole. So making things better for children, and especially girls, will require a wholesale change in economic conditions -- not the kind of thing that happens overnight. Yet it's important to keep the right goal in view: Wherever possible, kids should be learning, not working.

And then there's the most uncomfortable topic of all: rape. Girls everywhere deserve to be protected from sexualized violence in all its forms. You'd think this would go without saying. But recent events show us that there are still too many men in the world who think that coercing women into sex is perfectly fine. The notorious Delhi gang rape case has helped to dramatize the dimensions of the problem. (Personally, I think I've been just as shocked by what that scandal tells us about attitudes toward rape within the Indian elite as by the crime itself.)

The U.N. is also to be applauded for taking on this topic. The organization recently conducted a study (the results of which were published in the British medical journal The Lancet) that found that one-quarter of 10,000 men interviewed in six Asian-Pacific countries had forced women to have sex with them. Worse, half of the men who confessed to having committed rape had done so as adolescents -- strongly suggesting that this is a horror that affects girls as much as it does women.

This is not the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in. She deserves to live on a planet where people treat her and other girls like her as full-fledged human beings, not as playthings or economic assets. Honoring their promise and potential will often require huge changes in established institutions and traditional ways of doing things. I'm glad that the U.N. has the gumption to take on this controversial subject by drawing attention to the problems specifically facing girls. I know it will be hard to change. But we have to try. Anything else is a betrayal.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images