A shadow over CHOGM

Recent events, including the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Russian airliner downed in Egypt, as well as escalating tensions between Russia and Turkey have dramatically altered the context against which this event was scheduled to take place. 

In a sense, it was more than just the weather that cast a shadow over this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta.

It seems a long time ago now, when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat volunteered to host this year’s event after the surprise pull-out of Mauritius. Few could have predicted that the global security situation would deteriorate so alarmingly in the interim. There was no reason to suppose that hosting CHOGM in 2015 would be any different from 2005: a lot of pageantry and formality, and some opportunity for international discussion among 52 other member countries.

Certainly this has been the case so far; but underpinning the occasion is an urgency that was not present in 2005. Recent events, including the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Russian airliner downed in Egypt, as well as escalating tensions between Russia and Turkey – and all along, increasing terrorism alerts across Europe, and beyond – have dramatically altered the context against which this event was scheduled to take place. 

To put this change into perspective: French President Francois Hollande is participating in a summit of leaders ahead of the Paris climate talks. His government has just requested UN approval of a military offensive targeting ISIS encampments in Syria; and the rest of Europe is pondering whether, or to what degree, the EU as a whole should respond to an attack on one of its member states.

Weighty and consequential decisions are to be taken: in contrast to which, the declared agenda of the CHOGM meeting – important though all those topics undeniably are – suddenly feels vaguely out of place. The rest of the world is surely more interested in the immediate challenge posed by France’s response to ISIS attacks. Much more hinges on the outcome of this dilemma, than on the sum total of everything that will be discussed during CHOGM.

There is, in brief, a sensation that this event was somehow superfluous, given the urgency of the times we are living in. It is true that the original agenda for discussion has been updated to include security concerns… but still, the sensation is that a large number of world leaders is converging on Malta, to discuss virtually everything but the one issue that vitally needs discussion.

There is also a touch of the surreal, in that one of the issues that will be discussed – the refugee crisis – will be the one most affected by any choice Europe now takes. Not only is there imminent possibility of a common European military offensive; but the heightened security situation has also forced most EU countries to radically rethink their asylum and/or immigration policies.

Having said that, CHOGM is eminently well-positioned to discuss the issue as a forum. Most of the 52 Commonwealth countries have serious asylum-related issues of their own. Some, like Australia, have for decades been dealing with much larger numbers than the central Mediterranean route.

This however only raises the question of whether a CHOGM meeting can deliver any meaningful outcome, when its members are so diverse. Unlike other international fora such as the EU – where member states are bound by common laws, procedures and standards – what unites Commonwealth countries is their past experience as British colonies. What happened to each country after their independence is incidental.

This may bring a wide diversity of views to the table, but the very diversity of views makes any common approach all but impossible.

Already, this difficulty can be seen in relation to the immigration issue. Different Commonwealth states range from brutally repressive regimes from which many refugees flee, to recipient countries which employ a hopelessly diverse array of policies and strategies to cope with the phenomenon.

It becomes even more conspicuous when it comes to debating another of CHOGM’s key topics: human rights. A cursory glance at some of the states attending this year’s CHOGM meeting confirms that any hope of a lasting common resolution on the issue is impossible. The Commonwealth includes some of the world’s most notorious human rights violators: from Sri Lanka, where Tamil prisoners-of-war are reportedly systematically tortured; to Nigeria, where journalists are imprisoned for criticising the government.

The equality issue likewise faces similar obstacles. One CHOGM head of state feted by Malta this weekend is Ugandan President Yoweri Musuveni, who has just passed a law to criminalise homosexuality, with life imprisonment for ‘homosexual behaviour’, and seven-year sentences for LGBT activism.

What could emerge from a round-table discussion on LGBT rights between such interlocutors? No doubt, one can argue that their own human rights records itself justifies bringing such leaders to the discussion table. But the only imaginable outcome is that each Commonwealth country will agree to continue disagreeing. 

On some issues, however, there is much that could be meaningfully discussed. CHOGM’s forum for civil society places NGOs in contact with others pursuing similar goals in other parts of the world: here, diversity becomes an advantage. 

And in areas like climate change, the collective experience of 52 countries scattered across the globe could surely provide interesting and useful insights.

All this however seems far removed from the more immediate, vital concerns of the moment. From this perspective, it feels as if CHOGM is getting in the way.

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