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opinion

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

With the Queen’s death, many more countries will rapidly follow Antigua and Barbuda’s call for a referendum on whether to opt for republic status, as Barbados did last year, and to reject the King as their sovereign. New Zealand may be among those that eventually shift allegiance away from the distant Crown.

But the countries that in coming years reject the King as their head of state need not leave the Commonwealth of Nations (no longer styled “British”). Despite the rightful revived critiques of British colonialism in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, the 56-country association continues to serve a purpose.

It does so despite, or in some perverse manner because of, the vast injustices inflicted on the British conquered colonies in the centuries before this one. The King acknowledged the inhumanities of slavery when he helped to inaugurate Barbados’ republic. He spoke sharply about the “appalling atrocity of slavery” and labelled those days as “the darkest … of our past.”

The barbaric cruelties that British colonial rulers exacted on Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion, on several parts of India during the dark years of the Raj, on places like Burma when kings were deposed, and on innumerable African kingdoms that were conquered or shunted aside are not so much forgotten as absorbed by an existing Commonwealth.

Queen Elizabeth mourned at funeral by Britain and world

Britain refused to let former Botswana president Seretse Khama and his British bride reside in Botswana for fear of offending the Afrikaners of South Africa, who had recently created apartheid, and were banning so-called mixed marriages. Britain forcibly bundled Zambia and Malawi into a white-run federation with Zimbabwe despite unrelenting African opposition. It forcibly joined the traditional and Christian sections of Nigeria together with the massive Muslim north, creating untold mayhem for decades after, and now.

All of these and many more colonial-era attacks on Indigenous ways of life were and are reprehensible. Many of the telling problems and weaknesses of today’s independent states reflect the legacies of innumerable unfortunate colonial decisions.

But today the Commonwealth remains. Indeed, in recent years, non-former British colonies such as Rwanda, Gabon and Mozambique – territories with no connection whatsoever to the Crown, to London, to the common law – have opted to join its international league with headquarters in London and, its British-led secretariat.

The Commonwealth obviously still has meaning. It brings together all of those colonial possessions that were schooled in English and in English forms of jurisprudence. A belief in the rule of law, good governance, political participation, and representative democracy unites the countries of the Commonwealth, albeit some of them pay only lip service to its principles.

Tiny Belize and autocratically ruled francophone Gabon rub shoulders with bastions of the old (liberal) empire such as Australia. India and Pakistan, sworn enemies, come together in the Commonwealth. Authoritarian Uganda and carefully democratic Botswana are there, too, along with the varying political outposts of the Caribbean. Zimbabwe, ousted because of former president Robert Mugabe’s cruelties and thefts, is trying to get back in.

How does a Commonwealth country break ties with the monarchy?

The Commonwealth could be viewed as an anachronistic “talking shop,” replete with remorse and nostalgia. But its purpose now is to strengthen – where it can – governmental integrities, the rights of citizens to enjoy at least basic freedoms and a semi-religious sense of purpose which remembers the ideals rather than the brutalities of empire. In some respects, the Commonwealth permits the old colonial power to pay homage to its former subjects, and to join them by embracing, and helping to finance, the modernization of their diverse claims to legitimacy.

According to the late Queen, the Commonwealth hardly resembles the empire of the past. “It is an entirely new conception,” she said in her Christmas broadcast in 1953, “built on the higher qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace.” Those sentiments express the ideal, and lofty aspirations.

As a collective, the Commonwealth has an important role today in combating kleptocracy and rampant corruption everywhere, but particularly in its member states, in enhancing education – especially schooling for girls, and in providing assistance in overcoming poverty, pandemics and authoritarianism.

The Commonwealth, in other words, can redeem injurious colonial errors by becoming a force for vast good. The King can show the way, as a representative of very postcolonial Britain.