Can the Commonwealth Become a Normative Power It Wants to Be? Reflections on Leadership and Closer Links with Civil Society


15 March, 2016

By Uladzimir Dzenisevich 

In 2009, the Royal Commonwealth Society did a Commonwealth-wide survey to gather views about the association. The results suggest that the Commonwealth is hardly known amongst the inhabitants of its 54 member states and is having trouble maintaining its relevance in global politics. In a multi-polar world, relevance is of the utmost importance to holding together and being an influential player amongst the community of nations. Earlier, the Commonwealth played a significant role in ending apartheid and so had significant moral capital to overcome being characterised as little more than a remnant of a dicey colonial past. Fast forward twenty years and the Commonwealth finds itself questioned for its inherent usefulness as a grouping of member states who already have other multiple natural, regional, economic and military affiliations.

Any bid to regain the power and influence it once had, raises the question: Can the notion of normative power illuminate a way forward for an organisation premised on little more than professed values and principles? Can normative power be the means to strengthen human rights, good governance and democracy in the Commonwealth countries?

Look at the European Union. Initially envisioned as an economic bloc (and in the dreams of some, a military alliance), the culturally empathetic European Union has evolved into a normative power. Its normative influence and economic and diplomatic strength bolster each other. With this, it shapes global politics through the diffusion of norms and values, rather than gunboats.

The Commonwealth, by contrast, houses 53 member states with strongly differing cultures and ideologies, has no military backing, negligible economic heft, no harmonising legislative architecture, and central institutions (the Commonwealth Secretariat, Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning) that run on contributions that are apocryphally said to amount to less than the budget of the UN canteen. Yet it gamely aspires for global influence and stature.

The diversity of the Commonwealth is, indeed, stunning. Member states range from tiny Nauru to population-rich India and Nigeria. Besides, a handful most of its membership are developing states. They have arrived at their core values of democracy, rule of law and human rights put down in the 2013 Charter, from varied paths of political evolution, through military coups, dictatorships and bloody civil strife. Values and standards differ. Still, albeit imperfect, all are democracies now. And all are signed members to the Club.

The Commonwealth likes to say it works through consensus, but there are tensions. The remembrance of past political domination, racial discrimination, economic exploitation and present industrial disparity and exclusion, create continuous rip tides of dissonance. The earlier assured ascendency of those who foot the bill for its continued functioning is now challenged by pushback from others flexing collective muscle in its councils. 

With little else to hold itself together, or to offer its inhabitants or the international community, the Commonwealth must fall back for its legitimacy on what it calls is fundamental political principles. 

Though some would argue that the Charter communiques and declarations amount to little because they are not legally binding they carry mystique and potential precisely because they are voluntarily entered commitments to uphold higher moral and ethical standards arrived at through freedom of choice rather than for reasons of homogenous culture, military compulsions or business associations centred around profit and loss. 

To propel it forward it now has a fine normative frame, a language widely spoken across all its hugely diverse peoples, strongly similar systems of government and a system of law that straddle jurisdictions. The Commonwealth also houses strong civil society groups who have long linked with each other across borders to pursue common interests. The majority of its member states also have strong aspirations to ascend out of poverty. 

We can appreciate, that for an association such as the Commonwealth, without conventional enforceable powers, it is heavily reliant on state cooperation.

Without state cooperation and the right leadership it is stalled in this mission. Given that the states are the mandators of the Secretariat and that their tensions and conflicting interests often pull the organisation in different directions, it is of considerable importance that they work in cooperation with the official Commonwealth. It is equally important that the Commonwealth exercises tangible and visible leadership in order that the association achieves its potential as a whole. Put simply, leadership is required to overcome the lack of cooperation.

At the same time, for the Secretary-General to be in service of the member states does not mean to be slippery and apologetic for the lack of consensus, but to lead. The quest for consensus cannot be a survival strategy. The Secretary-General’s job is not to seek the lowest common  denominator among the member states, but to overcome it – to uplift everyone, to capacitate the stragglers, hold them up and articulate the vision that emerges as an outcome to the international community. As a representative of a value-based organisation the Secretary-General should work tirelessly to transcend the interplay of national politics, competing interests and conflicts to uphold this value system.

With the possibility of disputation so much at hand, the importance of a steady hand at the tiller and leadership becomes vital. And the Secretary-General, as the elected representative and face of the Commonwealth, is at the levers of its action or inaction.

For this to succeed, the Secretariat should embrace and strengthen its ties with its ideal partner and a natural ally – civil society organisations (CSOs) in member countries. The Commonwealth’s civil society groups – organised active citizens in free association with each other – have the potential to further its mandate based on moral rights and turn the Commonwealth into a force for good, even as some of their governments posture in counterpoise to one another. This is only possible if the Commonwealth champions their right to exist and flourish and member states nationally ensure the normative and real basis for them to blossom and engage.

For in every Commonwealth country, civil society are those people, who believe in Commonwealth values and its Charter and who, therefore, should be privileged in consultations and access to Commonwealth resources. Being in the service of governments does not preclude the Secretariat from consulting with people. After all, since we are all democracies now, people are sovereign and their voice must be assured. The Secretariat should monitor where this voice is being tamped down, where the Charter is being disobeyed, and channel its attention and its resources there. As CHRI’s report to CHOGM this year argues, the Secretariat has made some hesitations to engage civil society, however CSOs remain a vital and underutilised resource despite being the richest one available. 

In a world driven by conflict, when every sceptic and power broker would have us believe that might is right, we need this voice to articulate alternatives based on human rights to the development of the world. The Commonwealth needs to step up and embrace a normative power approach to rethink its vision and place in the world.

CHRI has repeatedly said that the Commonwealth is about human rights or it is about nothing at all. And it is not human rights that need the Commonwealth; the Commonwealth that need human rights, rule of law and democracy, if it is to survive.

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