The biggest achievement of the British Commonwealth, its admirers say, is the fact of its unlikely existence. That so many former British colonies and dominions should be content to coexist in a club that has the queen as its head is remarkable.
However, this is a low bar to set for the success of an organization nominally committed to promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Quite how nominally will be evident this weekend in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at a gathering of Commonwealth leaders hosted by a nasty and abusive regime.
Be in no doubt of that. The most heinous allegation against Mahinda Rajapaksa's family-based government, a battlefield slaughter of some 40,000 Tamil civilians, is complicated by the exigencies of the appalling civil war it helped end. It took ruthlessness to defeat the Tamil Tigers, and Sri Lanka is better off as a result.
However, the war also was marked by reprisals against journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians, and intimidation continues today. Rajapaksa has dug in for the long haul, having used his popularity as a war victor to scrap presidential term limits. This amounts to a textbook transgression of the Commonwealth Charter, promulgated by the Queen in March, which includes a commitment to freedom of expression, the separation of powers and the like. The meeting should never have been held in Sri Lanka.
The Commonwealth too often has failed to enforce its values. Nigeria was partially suspended from the club after it hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, as was Pakistan after its 1999 coup. The club's overall record is timid, however. With many more coups and killings left unsanctioned, membership is as likely to dignify rights-abusers as to correct them.
What, then, is the point of the Commonwealth? Hardly any of its members' citizens can say. Asked to name its head, a quarter of Jamaicans cited U.S. President Barack Obama.
Officials in the Commonwealth secretariat, housed in a splendid London mansion, toil away. It is an open secret that many Commonwealth leaders attend the biennial shindig mainly for an opportunity to be photographed with the Queen. Even that pleasure has been denied them in Colombo: For the first time in 40 years, perhaps because of her age, she is giving it a miss.
Despite these conspicuous frailties, the Commonwealth has a few things going for it. It is cheap, costing only around $26 million a year. It runs a fine quadrennial games, offers a respected annual literary prize and has a decent scholarship program.
It also could help boost prosperity among a third of the world's population. Colonial ties, including a common law and language, boost trade. By one estimate the cost of doing business within the Commonwealth is 20 per cent lower than the cost outside. By reforming its tangled and ineffective bureaucracy, then using it to strengthen these advantages, the club could make more of them. That would make membership more valuable and expulsion more costly.
Bringing reform and toughness to the Commonwealth requires leadership, however, which it lacks. Australia, Britain and Canada would like to provide this, but cannot. Whenever they seek to improve the club, which they largely pay for, they mainly succeed in uniting its poorer members in resentful opposition to their perceived postcolonial condescension. The decision of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to boycott Rajapaksa's fest has caused the regime little concern. His absence supports Sri Lanka's claim, with which many of its visitors sympathize, to be a victim of rich-world bullying.
The direction needs to come from the club's poor but powerful members: Nigeria, South Africa and, above all, India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also refused to show up in Colombo -- a decision he reached, ridiculously, only this week.
It looked like politics, not principle. A shrewder India would have insisted earlier the gathering not be held in Sri Lanka. Together with Nigeria and South Africa, Singh should use the farce in Colombo as a pretext for change.
Hold the members to high standards and deepen business ties, and this peculiar organization could be a serious one.