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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Should the Commonwealth get stuck into Bangladesh?

Photo: Rex Features - A force for good? The Queen talks with the female heads of Australia, Bangladesh and Trinidad and Tobago at recently concluded Commonwealth meeting

As concern mounts over corruption in Bangladesh, expat Nick Stace wonders if it's time the Commonwealth made more effort to encourage its members to modernise.

Every time I see the spectacle of leaders representing a third of the world's population at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), I think not only of Britain's colonial past, but also the opportunities and tensions that lie ahead in forging a common future. I also wonder about the Commonwealth's continued relevance, and whether for the sake of the people it represents, it has the appetite to modernise and be a force for greater good.

CHOGM recently concluded its meetings in Perth, Australia. Although there were one or two notable absences, like India’s Manmohan Singh, the 54 leaders that could spare the time discussed two broad themes: women and change, alongside democracy and development. The agenda was relevant, if not a little uncomfortable for leaders from countries where human rights and functioning democracies are regarded with disdain. And you don't need to look too far. 12 members still allow the abhorrent practice of forced marriage and homosexuality is criminalised in 41 member states.

The role of the Commonwealth is brought into even sharper focus when one looks through the lens of one member. Bangladesh is a country I know well and the CHOGM themes were certainly pertinent to their challenges too.

For a start, Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina is only one of three female heads of government in the Commonwealth (along with Australia and Trinidad and Tobago); but ironically women's rights in Bangladesh are pretty non-existent. According to the UN, 47 per cent of Bangladeshi women are victims of domestic violence and one human rights group cited 181 acid attacks against women last year.

In common with many other Commonwealth members, the Bangladeshi prime minister also faces some of the greatest challenges of leadership, with corruption endemic and a system of historically unstable government to contend with. In 2009 her party was swept into office on the promise of stamping out corruption, but nearly three years on it looks like Bangladesh will be crowned top of both Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and Bribe Payers Index (BPI).

During the past three years Sheikh Hasina has reduced the powers of the Anti-Corruption Commission; supported a growing number of mobile police tribunals, giving "justice" instantly at the side of the road; and attempted a smash-and-grab of the Grameen social businesses, with indications that this would bring commercial benefits to the prime minister's own family. The Economist recently concluded that there was increasing corruption at the heart of the Bangladeshi government. Hardly surprising then that the World Bank has suspended funding of a $2.9bn bridge across the Padma river on grounds of corruption.

It seems to me that Bangladesh along with many other members of the Commonwealth could do with the active support, guidance and firm hand of a revitalised Commonwealth. The challenges of protecting human rights and decency, promoting high standards in public office and the foundations for democracy, women’s rights and sustainable growth, are not only particular to Bangladesh but to a sizeable majority of Commonwealth members.

Decades of inaction over Zimbabwe, and the more recent expulsion of Fiji, illustrate a weakness in the Commonwealth's ability to influence change. Of course expulsion should always be an option, but proactively guiding and supporting change where it is most needed, could be more effective in bringing it about. The problem with relying on the nuclear option of expulsion is that if the values of the Commonwealth were genuinely applied to all members, it might actually see the expulsion of the vast majority, including Bangladesh.

Influence would almost certainly be enhanced if the Commonwealth could help to guide and advise financial aid and investment decisions between members. For example, UK aid in Bangladesh doubled last year, at a time when democracy in Bangladesh took a significant step backwards. Sheikh Hasina might change her ways if she thought her actions would likely result in the loss of more investment, like the suspension of the Padma Bridge project.

Last week saw the publication of a report from the 11-member Eminent Persons Group (including former UK Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and retired Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby). The report called for radical reform of the Commonwealth if it isn't to be seen as "hypocritical". In its 106 detailed recommendations, the report talked of the Commonwealth's failure to speak out when its values are violated. Among the recommendations is a tough new draft charter for the Commonwealth and the appointment of an independent Human Rights Commissioner, empowered to monitor violations and propose action.

Not surprisingly the report was kicked into the long grass by India, South Africa and one or two other members. Resistance to change alongside the report's conclusion that "the most serious threat to the continued relevance and vitality of the Commonwealth itself" is the "complacency and inertia" of the London Secretariat, does not bode well. But change will always be difficult, and there are many influential members like Britain and Australia that support reform. The Queen also noted in her opening comments in Perth, that the challenge is to ''keep the Commonwealth fresh and fit for tomorrow'' and ''not forget that this is an association not only of governments but also of peoples''.

Never has it been a better time for the Commonwealth to redefine its purpose and be a force for good across the world. To do so it needs to be clearer about its purpose, its underlying principles and values and strengthen its ability to influence change. Alternatively the Commonwealth could resign itself to being just a talking shop, with declining influence, relevance and attendance at meetings for those whom have nothing better to do. It may also stand accused of providing a veil of legitimacy that is bestowed simply by membership, to those regimes that commit the most appalling acts of inhumanity.

As Martin Luther King once proclaimed, "If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values - that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control". I urge the Commonwealth members and in particular the Secretariat in London, to take seriously the report from the Eminent Persons Group and reform the Commonwealth for the sake of Bangladesh, the majority of its members and, most importantly, a third of the world's people.

First published in The Telegraph, Britain, Saturday 05 November 2011

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