WHATEVER BECAME OF THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH? Now it's the Commonwealth of Nations, a diverse group whose diplomats gather before international meetings to discuss issues and adopt informal positions. In the words of its secretary-general, it `helps the world negotiate.'
Next month the heads of the Commonwealth of Nations will hold their biennial gathering in Nassau, the Bahamas.Skip to next paragraph
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Is this association -- whose main purpose is to foster cooperation among states currently or formerly affiliated with the British Crown -- an anachronism? Is it a remnant of an imperial age with little point in a world riven by East-West disputes, terrorism, and nuclear deterrence?
Sir Shridath Ramphal, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, thinks not. Interviewed in his office, once the sitting room of Queen Mary, Sir Shridath explained why.
How useful is the Commonwealth today?
I think it has become more useful and more relevant as it has devolved from the British Commonwealth to the Commonwealth, because that meant a shift from an Anglo-centric Commonwealth to a more realistic community of countries.
What has emerged is a grouping of  countries so diverse that their very variety is a source of strength. It is the fact that a group of different countries can work together in a habitual and broadly harmonious manner that makes it unique.
There is almost no process of harmonization taking place at the international level. In the Commonwealth we have a facility that allows a big sample of the international community a better chance of harmonizing views.
It is true that the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world; but it can help the world to negotiate. That is our primary responsibility now. We [also] have special obligations and responsibilities regarding cooperation among Commonwealth countries.
Can you give a couple of specific examples of where the Commonwealth has been useful?
Perhaps the most significant and recent of these developments is the work that a Commonwealth group of eight countries [set up in 1981] did in the context of international economic reform. What they have been attempting to do is to develop approaches to common policies in the areas of money and finance. I don't hesitate to claim that that work is a valid contribution despite the absence of any dramatic achievement on the international level because of two things.
First of all, I believe progress in these areas is going to be slow and by small steps. Second, because the Commonwealth is about the only group that now reaches across the divides of North and South and does any work together.
Is the United Nations too big?
The UN is so vast that nothing is happening. There is no discussion in the General Assembly. At the global level, the dialogue has virtually ended. Our job is to use the Commonwealth facility of bringing North-South views together and explore . . . . ways that stand some chance of commanding support on a global basis.
Can we look at some of these issues, one of them being South Africa, which is no longer a member of the Commonwealth?
That's right. It was expelled In 1961.
You have been a little bit vague in asking for economic sanctions. Are you actually advocating disinvestment, rather than no further investment?
I'm advocating that the Commonwealth should be in the vanguard of the movement for economic pressure on South Africa.
It should come through selective sanctions . . . not the comprehensive and mandatory sanctions for which African countries have been calling, but sanctions selected with a view to their effectiveness, and programmed so as to provide incentives for South Africa to start the process of real change.
The vast majority of Commonwealth countries voluntarily applies economic sanctions against South Africa. India was the very first many years ago. Canada and New Zealand, I believe, will go in the direction of the disinvestment process as this gets on the way in the United States.
What do you do about such places as Zimbabwe, which depends economically on South Africa?