By Ras Tyehimba
December 09, 2009
Trinidad and Tobago recently hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2009 under the theme “partnering for a more equitable and sustainable future”. Fifty-three leaders of countries, formerly direct colonies, gathered in Port of Spain, under the symbolic leadership of Queen Elizabeth II. The general responses to the Summit have been quite unsatisfactory, especially in terms of the lack of critical perspectives and understanding of the operations of the Commonwealth organisation and our own government’s participation in this. The shallow mainstream media reporting and discouragement of perspectives and activities that may “embarrass the government” has meant that people of the so-called Commonwealth, in countries across the world, have been locked into the agendas of Imperial countries. By looking at the Commonwealth of Nations from a historical perspective, there can be greater awareness of how various hierarchies and systems of control have evolved from the period of direct colonialism to the present.
The British Commonwealth of Nations
It was in the period of colonial countries agitating for and gaining their independence that the Commonwealth of Nations was founded in 1949 in “free and equal association” with the London Declaration. With just eight countries initially, the Commonwealth grew out of British imperialism and the countries that became part of this grouping were countries that were directly colonised by the British. The very term commonwealth is rooted in the British empire; as early as 1884 the British Prime Minister Lord Rosebury described the British Empire as a “Commonwealth of Nations”. Imperial conferences involving the various leaders and heads within the British empire that occurred from 1887 onwards was soon named the British Commonwealth of Nations, until the ‘British’ was dropped as part of the 1949 London Declaration.
According to the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth is a champion of democracy, of development and dignity of its people, and of respect for diversity. ‘Queen’ Elizabeth in her speech opening the summit spoke of “our shared pledge to the pursuit of peace, liberty, and progress” and that the Commonwealth means as much today as it did in 1949.
These fancy words of democracy and liberty are shallow rhetoric without substance that disguise the origins and development of the Commonwealth, which are not based on liberty and democracy.
Under the British Commonwealth of Nations, countries were required to owe a common allegiance to the British crown, but under the 1949 London Declaration countries instead recognized King George VI as the symbol of their ‘free and equal’ association. The Commonwealth of Nations can thus be understood as the successor of the British Empire as it became the framework created by a declining Imperial power to interact with various regions as they moved from direct colonialism to political independence. As an intergovernmental association, the Commonwealth of Nations meets every two years and puts forward its policies and recommendations via successive declarations.
Queen Worship and the Stolen Wealth
The ‘Queen’ visits the country with the air of an imperial ruler visiting her territory, and leaders partake in this charade, with their grand banquet, sipping on golden goblets. Certainly, the tendency to venerate Imperial powers and their leaders is an issue that has never been properly addressed in the Caribbean and throughout much of the world. In the Caribbean, several islands including Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Lucia, although having gained political independence, are still under the authority of the British monarchic system — that is, Queen Elizabeth II. In other words, they form part of the realms of the British Empire under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II.
The preservation of the Queen as a symbolic head of the Commonwealth represents a continuation of the tendency of imperial powers to lord over various countries. As a continuation of this very specific hierarchy, the Commonwealth continues the paternalistic relationship between imperial powers and various politically independent countries. It says a lot about the mindset of leaders of various countries that they submit willingly to this arrangement that elevates the same world powers that are responsible for acts of pillage, enslavement, genocide, theft, invasion and other abuses from the colonial period to the present.
However, the problem with the Commonwealth arrangement goes far past the mere submission to the symbolic authority of the Queen. The very origins, structure and objectives of the Commonwealth of Nations are rooted in the hierarchies, values, and aims of British Imperialism and their desire to maintain some control over the peoples and resources of their former colonies. Having an organisation conceptualized and created by a colonial power is very much different to formerly colonized countries creating an organisation to forward their own perspectives and concerns. The interests and values of an imperial power could never be the same as those countries which have been colonized by that colonial power.
One important consequence of a framework or organisation that is created by an Imperial power is that it will not properly address the negative impact of colonialism. In this case, European writers and European institutional frameworks were never able to address the negative realities of colonialism in various parts of the ‘Third World’, far less for the continuing mechanisms of domination and abuse by European and American world powers. The notion of a commonwealth puts forward an illusion of common wealth and common values, which disguises the power hierarchies and dynamics of domination which continues to disadvantage and abuse Caribbean peoples. There is no mention of the stolen wealth in terms of raw materials being pillaged from various areas of the European empires, land stolen from indigenous people and the economic proceeds from slavery and colonialism that were all a major part of the economic, industrial and material development of Europe. It is this history that is still swept under the carpet in academic institutions and dismissed from the annals of mainstream accounts of history. It is in recognition of this history that protests at a previous Commonwealth meeting was called Stolen Wealth.
The Commonwealth of Nations is a morally bankrupt institution as certainly Queen Elizabeth II, Britain and other Euro-American powers are in no position to be examples or moral leadership to the rest of the world. Certainly, if Britain wants to make amends, then they should initiate the process of reparations, which naturally would involve return of land stolen under their colonial rule, and return of all the pillaged treasures taken as colonial loot that are presently in various museums and private collections across Europe.
It is by no coincidence that the agenda topics of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting are preoccupied by issues of climate change and HIV/AIDS — issues that they feel they can manipulate to serve their own agendas — while totally ignoring other burning issues, particularly ones that implicate Western powers. Of course, climate change and HIV/AIDS, are relevant issues and should be addressed, but they are being raised as mere smokescreens, distractions from other issues. What about the trillions of dollars being spent on illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of which Britain and other European powers are complicit? What about the continued sanctions against Cuba and Zimbabwe that are causing immense human suffering? What about the effects of neoliberal ideology that gives multinational corporations great liberties to abuse and exploit, not only the peoples of the ‘Third World’, but also the environment in which they inhabit? What about the Western monopoly on the production of information, where the vast majority of books, news, documentaries and studies that shape how people think, value and generally see the world comes from dominant Western countries. What about the plight of Haiti? African Haitians had the courage to fight for their freedom, and as a consequence, have been subjected to various forms of isolation, exploitation by Multi National Corporations looking for cheap labour, kidnapping and overthrow of their democratically elected president, and callous indifference by ‘Third World’ leaders who should know better.
Should an organisation such as the Commonwealth of Nations be even recognized by the Caribbean and other countries that have the experience of European colonialism? No. Caribbean and other countries of the ‘Third World’ need to be more proactive in creating institutions and frameworks that articulate issues and interests from our perspective. Of course, this is difficult for the current crop of (mis-)leaders who seem hell-bent on accommodating Western economic interests and remaining subservient and dependent on dominant powers. In their quest to mimic the Western model of development, ordinary persons are left out from seriously participating in decision making and forwarding alternative visions for national development.
It is also quite ironic that Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning has emerged as a spokesperson for climate change when his government has never been seriously concerned about the environment. One recent example is his government being hell-bent on building several aluminum smelters in Trinidad. Manning and the other leaders of the ‘commonwealth’ have been doing a disservice to the peoples of their countries by being so subservient to the issues, values, agendas and hierarchies of various dominant world powers. Wanting to be successful in terms of the Western phony concept of development means that the government tramples over the issues, views and wellbeing of the people of this country. Of course, previous T&T administrations have been little different in terms of their vision and fundamental approach to governance, and the current crop of parties show little or no inclination to address these issues. This certainly shows that as much as Britain and other countries still continue in their colonial traditions, our local (mis-)leaders are also a major part of the problem.
Questionable Local Responses
The local responses to CHOGM and the Queen are also quite telling. Sean Douglas of the Newsday describes the Queen as “widely considered to have been a stabilising influence in the UK and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.” Another newspaper report noted that the Queen’s official title was “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.” The media response in general has been to speak in very glowing terms of this visit by ‘royalty’. This is quite similar to other visits by so-called royalty. See “Royal Visit to UWI Highlights Lingering Colonialism”.
Another ridiculous and totally bogus perspective is put forward by local writer Gerard Besson in an article in a magazine handed out as part of CHOGM. He said: “Compared to other empires of the day, the British Empire was by far the most liberal. The Empire was an institution that, despite its faults, did bestow on its subject peoples fundamental ideas concerning the responsibilities and duties of a civil society and an understanding of democratic institutions, the workings of the rule of law, the necessity of an independent judiciary and a free press, of a good colonial education, notions of respectability, and in the end, independence.”
The notion of the British being morally superior and responsible for imparting fundamental ideas of civilization to the natives in their colonies is but a myth; sadly, one that still survives today in the minds of many Caribbean people. Certainly, Britain as one of the leading colonial powers in that period, through its dominance on the production of information, was able to construct notions of its colonizers as gentlemanly, benign and leading the beacon of civilization. They did so while glossing over all the horrible atrocities of empire, and dismissing the worldviews and ways of life of non-European peoples.
If more persons were more sensitive to their own history, there would be wider questioning of these notions of royalty. Why should we in the Caribbean buy into the British monarchic system, especially one that has been so intimately involved in numerous crimes against humanity. Certainly, the tendency of such reactions highlight that it is not merely the external structures of imperialism that is acting in the Caribbean, but Caribbean peoples have internalized various values, hierarchies and ways of seeing the world. It certainly is amazing that the Queen could still be the head of state for so many Caribbean countries, so much so, that the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines recently voted in a referendum to keep the Queen as their head of state by a vote count of 56%. (www.stabroeknews.com)
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings in pictures: