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What is it for?

Nov 16th 2013 |From the print edition

THE biggest achievement of the Commonwealth, its admirers say, is the fact of its unlikely existence. That so many former British colonies and dominions should be content to co-exist in a club which has the ueen as its head is remarkable. However this is a low bar to set for the success of an organisation nominally committed to !romoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law. "uite how nominally will be evident in Colombo this weekend#at a gathering of Commonwealth leaders hosted by a nasty and abusive regime.

Be in no doubt of that. The most heinous allegation against $ahinda %a&a!aksa's family-based government#a battlefield slaughter of some (),))) Tamil civilians#is com!licated by the exigencies of the a!!alling civil war it hel!ed end. *t took ruthlessness to defeat the Tamil Tigers, and +ri ,anka is better off as a result. -et the war was also marked by re!risals against &ournalists, human-rights activists and o!!osition !oliticians, and intimidation continues today. $r %a&a!aksa has meanwhile dug in for the long haul#having used his !o!ularity as a war victor to scra! !residential-term limits. This amounts to a textbook transgression of the Commonwealth Charter, which includes a commitment to freedom of ex!ression, the se!aration of !owers and the like, !romulgated by the ueen in $arch. The meeting should never have been held in +ri ,anka. The Commonwealth has too often failed to enforce its values. .igeria was !artially sus!ended from the club after it hanged /en +aro-0iwa in 1223, as was 4akistan after its 1222 cou!. But the club's overall record is timid. 0ith many more cou!s and killings left unsanctioned, membershi! is as likely to dignify rights-abusers as to correct them. 0hat, then, is the !oint of the Commonwealth5 Hardly any of its members' citi6ens can say7 asked to name its head, a uarter of 8amaicans cited Barack 9bama. 9fficials in the secretariat, housed in a s!lendid ,ondon mansion, toil away. *t is an o!en secret that many Commonwealth leaders attend the biennial shindig mainly for an o!!ortunity to be !hotogra!hed with the ueen. Even that !leasure has been denied them in Colombo: for the first time in () years, !erha!s because of her age,

she is giving it a miss. ;es!ite these cons!icuous frailties, the Commonwealth has a few things going for it. *t is chea!, costing only around <1=m >?@=mA a year. *t runs a fine uadrennial games, a res!ected annual literary !ri6e and a decent scholarshi! !rogramme. *t could also hel! boost !ros!erity among a third of the world's !o!ulation. Colonial ties, including a common law and language, boost trade7 by one estimate, the cost of doing business within the Commonwealth is @)B lower than the cost outside. By reforming its tangled and ineffective bureaucracy, and using it to strengthen these advantages, the club could make more of them. That would make membershi! more valuable, and ex!ulsion more costly. Come on, India -et bringing reform and toughness to the Commonwealth re uires leadershi!, which it lacks. Britain, Custralia and Canada would like to !rovide this, but cannot. 0henever they seek to im!rove the club#which they largely !ay for#they mainly succeed in uniting its !oorer members in resentful o!!osition to their !erceived !ost-colonial condescension. The decision of Canada's !rime minister, +te!hen Har!er, to boycott $r %a&a!aksa's fest has caused the regime little concern. His absence su!!orts +ri ,anka's claim#with which many of its visitors sym!athise#to be a victim of rich-world bullying. The direction needs to come from the club's !oor but !owerful members: +outh Cfrica, .igeria and, above all, *ndia. $anmohan +ingh, *ndia's !rime minister, also refused to

show u! in Colombo#a decision he reached, ridiculously, this week. *t looked like !olitics, not !rinci!le. C shrewder *ndia would have insisted earlier that the gathering not be held in +ri ,anka. Together with .igeria and +outh Cfrica, $r +ingh should use the farce in Colombo as a !retext for change. Hold the members to high standards, dee!en business ties#and this !eculiar organisation could be a serious one