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British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. (SHABBIR HUSSAIN IMAM/Getty)
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. (SHABBIR HUSSAIN IMAM/Getty)

Elizabeth Renzetti

Commonwealth: quaint historical relic or meaningful bloc? Add to ...

It is the political equivalent of trying to find a 21st-century use for a typewriter, a typewriter that's been out of sight so long that most people have forgotten its existence.

The British government is seeking a new lease on life for the Commonwealth, the federation of 53 nations, including Canada, that has no legal, legislative or military function. Canada, as one of the wealthiest of the nations, has a special role to play in a revitalized Commonwealth, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, told The Globe and Mail in an interview Monday.

"I hope that Canadians, just as Britons do, see the Commonwealth as an institution with an important role in the future."

This may take some work, as a poll revealed that the profile of the 60-year-old federation is "at an all-time low." One-third of Canadians said they wouldn't care if their country were no longer part of the Commonwealth, and half of respondents failed to name even one activity carried out by the organization.

The poll, commissioned by the Royal Commonwealth Society, also found that Canadians are four times as likely to ally themselves with the United States as the Commonwealth.

That apathy was most likely to be found in the wealthier member states, with Britons the least attached to the loose federation, which is largely made up of former British colonies. Almost one-fifth of Australians said they'd be "delighted" or "pleased" to quit the Commonwealth. By contrast, a majority of people in Malaysia, South Africa and India said the Commonwealth is valuable to their countries.

Ignorance of the Commonwealth's function was spread across the seven countries polled, with one-quarter of Jamaicans naming Barack Obama as its head (it is in fact the Queen). One respondent, asked to name one of the Commonwealth's activities, responded, "fun." Another said that it ran the World Bank.

"Not enough people know much about [the Commonwealth]or have reason to love it," said the RCS's director, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah. The solution, he hopes, lies in the Commonwealth Conversation, an online dialogue open to anyone with an interest in reinventing the organization. The findings will be presented at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in November.

"I suspect for many Canadians, the Commonwealth is seen as a quaint historical relic rather than a meaningful or profitable bloc," Mr. Sriskandarajah said. "While the Commonwealth seems fondly remembered by older generations, most young people don't know of the valuable role it played in ending apartheid in South Africa or promoting economic development."

According to Mr. Miliband, the Commonwealth can be revitalized as a "soft power" that concentrates on fostering human rights and works co-operatively on global issues. Canada has a central role, especially on global warming, he said.

"Every country does something, but the richest countries do the most. That's our responsibility. … Countries like ours, in our distinctive ways, have an important contribution to make."

In addition, he said, the Commonwealth has the benefit of being one of the world's most diverse institutions. "No other organization can span the diversity of races, regions and religions that the Commonwealth includes. It gives countries like Britain or Canada access to a network of two billion people."

Formed 60 years ago, the Commonwealth was intended to bind the countries that had once formed the British Empire, although it now includes countries with no historical ties to Britain. (Membership continues to grow, with Rwanda currently making a controversial bid to join.)

While the Commonwealth Games may be its most glamorous function, the federation also provides scholarships to students and election monitors to troubled democracies, and scrutinizes human-rights records in its member states. (Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003 after being censured for human-rights abuses).

Asked whether the Commonwealth has become outdated with the rise of new global institutions, Mr. Miliband reached for a fashion metaphor: "Sixty is the new 40," he said. "The Commonwealth is entering middle age, but it can still play an important role."

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

 

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