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Democratic Norms and Good Governance: the Promise of the Commonwealth

The period following the end of World War II could properly be described as the heyday of democratic triumph. Not only did the defeat of Nazi Germany dismantle the structures of authoritarianism that had been erected in the wake of Nazi military expansion, but a similar process occurred in Asia with the defeat of the militarist regime in Japan. The essence of the global spread of democracy however, lay in the dismantling of European colonial empires, which occurred in the aftermath of the war.

Beginning with proclamation of India’s Independence in August 1947, the following three decades saw the steady and deliberate dismantling of colonialism across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean alongside a concomitant rejection of the accompanying dogmas and racism and Apartheid which were progressively relegated to the margins of history. Thus, unlike its precursor the League of Nations whose collapse set the stage for global hostilities, the United Nations formed in 1945 and later bolstered by the universal declaration of Human Rights was to extend the embrace of sovereignty and democracy much more extensively; a legacy which remains to this day.

The spread of independent statehood following the collapse of European Colonialism was also to have irrevocable impact on the Commonwealth. Prior to 1945, the Commonwealth was considered primarily to comprise the so-called Dominions including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, all self-governing former settler colonies, recognizing the British Monarch as their own Head of State. Beginning with India’s Independence in 1947 however, a process got underway which has culminated in the consolidation of today’s 56 Member Commonwealth in which almost all the states were formerly under British rule. Despite that, relatively few retained any formal constitutional links with Britain or the British Monarchy.

Today’s Commonwealth bears little explicit resemblance to its pre-war forebear with its colonial appurtenances and explicit allegiances to British Monarchical traditions. In contrast, the Commonwealth, while acknowledging for the most part its historical connections to Britain is constituted as a distinct, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic international, political and organizational entity exercising significant influence and at times power on the global stage. For the most part the definite, if not always proclaimed or acknowledged aspect of the British historical connections relates to its jurisprudential and parliamentary traditions. In turn these are embodied organizationally in entities such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association.

All told, it could be claimed that the post-war expansion of the inter-state system represented not just a successful expansion of sovereignty to include Asian African and Caribbean Peoples, but that more so, it represented a triumph of democracy, and the inherent human and civil rights implicit in democratic ideals and in democratic political practice. To be sure the triumph of democracy was never an inevitability and has never been complete even today. But, it is incontrovertible that the democratic ideal is today embraced by the majority of the world’s peoples, and subscribed to not only in their national constitutions, but in regional organizations, such as the Organization of American States, The Caribbean Community, The African Union etc. Without doubt the Commonwealth has been instrumental in this, and is one such institution that embodies the democratic ideal.

Within the Commonwealth, as in other organizations the progress towards the realization of this ideal has been spasmodic at best and imperfect. In States as diverse as Ghana, Nigeria, or Grenada, the march of democracy has been interrupted by coups, and or civil wars. Other eventualities have been evident too; of electoral malpractice, or political extremism. In many of these instances however the Commonwealth was an important actor in advancing the progress. Indeed, in many of the high-profile efforts to secure majority rule in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for example, and the many and ultimately successful efforts to isolate and defeat South African apartheid, the Councils of the Commonwealth were relevant and effective.

Victory having been achieved regarding the transcendental issues of racial equality and self-determination as highlighted by the challenge to white minority rule in Southern Africa, the scope for Commonwealth diplomatic activity has become more limited, and directed toward more prosaic pathways.

The Harare Declaration of 1993 explicitly pledged Commonwealth countries to promote and protect fundamental political values including democracy; the rule of law and fundamental human rights; thus giving form and substance to the essential philosophical principles which embodied the modern Commonwealth. Ironically, Zimbabwe’s departure from these tenets was the basis of its expulsion from the Commonwealth in 2003. While events such as Zimbabwe’s expulsion from the Commonwealth, or the earlier public tussle to isolate then U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher because of her defence of South Africa’s apartheid regime certainly attracted media headlines, and were instrumental in defining the fundamental parameters of the Commonwealth’s contemporary raison d’etre, the more enduring contribution to fulfilment of the Harare Declaration and the overarching objective of democratic sovereignty at the centre of the modern Commonwealth, has been the critical technical assistance and mentoring provided by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

In many of what used to be called “New States” in the 1960s and 70s the deficiencies such as they might exist, have not centred upon the absence of a legislated democratic constitutional order. Rather, the problems relate to the deficits in the political culture, administrative practice and the management of parliamentary affairs. In the face of this, in the Caribbean and Africa, small discreet technical teams from the Commonwealth have had salutary effect in advancing an understanding of the subtler principles of parliamentary democracy such as respect for the rights of a Parliamentary Opposition, or the notions of an independent civil service. There have been many election “Watchdog” missions also. Ultimately, formal constitutional tenets are guaranteed when social and behavioural norms become established in society. Technical assistance from the Commonwealth can help to establish and consolidate these norms.

In addition, technical resources from the Commonwealth can also help in supporting the Development Agenda of the low and middle income states of the Commonwealth, regarding issues such as Climate Change or Public Debt Relief. Moreover, in all these instances, there is ample opportunity for the relatively small scale technical assistance provided by the Commonwealth to be combined with and re-enforced by the global diplomatic initiatives pursued by the wider Commonwealth as it canvasses for debt-relief for highly indebted low income countries, and small Island Developing States, or seeks to augment the resources available to these states to build their resiliency to Climate Change.

Initiatives such as these are essential not just for ensuring the continued viability of poor and middle income states, but would further enhance the prospects of a democratic ideal which is increasingly under threat on the global stage from those who proclaim authoritarian alternatives.

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