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The Commonwealth at a time of threat to the international legal order

The Commonwealth, made up of 54 nations of which 32 are small states, should be deeply concerned at the grave threat to the international legal order caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and should act together to show strong disapproval.

This was the theme of a lecture I delivered at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London, on March 7, to over 100 high-level government and military participants from 47 countries, 14 of which were Commonwealth members. This week’s commentary is a brief outline of some of the points in a 45-minute lecture.

Russian military forces have invaded the sovereign territory of Ukraine in violation of the agreed principles of the United Nations and of international law. In the words of a distinguished group of international lawyers and academics, on March 4: “President Putin’s decision to launch attacks on Ukraine poses a grave challenge to the post-1945 international order. He has sought to replace the rule of law and principles of self-determination for all peoples by the use of force”.

In almost every international forum, the actions of the Russian government have been roundly condemned, and many governments have instituted measures not only to register their strong disapproval, but also to penalize the Russian government.

However, the response of the 54 Commonwealth countries to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has not been uniform. Commonwealth countries are located across the globe. Nineteen of them are in Africa, eight are in Asia, 13 are in the Americas and the Caribbean, three are in Europe and seven are in the Pacific.

The most telling evidence of the differing positions of the 54 Commonwealth countries is the vote, on March 2, in the United Nations General Assembly on a Resolution that condemned the Russian invasion. Forty-three of the 54 Commonwealth member states voted in favour of the Resolution, and eleven of them abstained or absented themselves.

Of the 11 Commonwealth countries that abstained or stayed away from the vote seven were African and four were Asian. The three other regions – the Americans and the Caribbean, the Pacific, and Europe – comprising 23 countries, all voted in favour.

To be clear, there was no meeting of governments under a Commonwealth umbrella before the United Nations General Assembly Special Emergency Session on March 2, or at any time, concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Each Commonwealth country voted at the Session, or stayed away from it, either on the basis of its own government’s conviction, or in harmony with other non-Commonwealth organisations of which it is a member. Every small state voted for the resolution of condemnation.

These small countries would almost automatically oppose any military aggression toward any country or invasion of it. Lacking the military means to defend themselves against a powerful aggressor, and also deficient in economic strength to apply sanctions, these countries depend on respect for the rule of international law and adherence to the principles of the UN Charter to safeguard their sovereignty and territorial integrity. When the walls of international law are breached, these small and militarily powerless nations become even more vulnerable to aggression from others. The arbitrary and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine demanded their immediate condemnation in what they would have considered to be their own interests.

The Commonwealth’s greatest benefit to each of its leaders is that it puts them in close contact with each other at first hand, and privately at their retreats, when the leader of the smallest country can talk with the leader of the largest or richest nation as an equal, in frank discussion.

As a practical matter, no other association of countries brings together governments and non-governmental organisations from every continent in the world that have a voice in almost all regional and multilateral groupings, including the G7, the G20, NATO and a host of multilateral organisations such as the Organisation for Co-operation in Economic Development, the Organisation of American States, the African Union, the Association of South-East Asian Nations and the Caribbean Community and Common Market. The potential of a collective Commonwealth outreach into these and other international groups remain of enormous value.

In the present dispensation of international politics and military and economic alliances, it would be impossible to form the Commonwealth today. That it already exists as a forum for international dialogue and debate in an atmosphere of intimacy is a gift to its members.

In this regard, events in Ukraine and the precedent that Russia has now set by discarding international law and replacing it with force to invade and subjugate the country, should remind the Commonwealth that it, too, has disputes that threaten its member states. Among these are India and Pakistan over Kashmir; Guatemala which claims all of Belize; Venezuela that claims two-thirds of Guyana; Argentina and Britain over the Falklands Islands; and issues with Turkey over Cyprus.

As early as 1971, in their Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, Commonwealth countries stated that they were “convinced that the Commonwealth is one of the most fruitful associations” for “international co-operation (that) is essential to remove the causes of war, promote tolerance, combat injustice and secure development among the peoples of the world”. That declaration remains valid today, with even greater urgency.

The nations of the world are now engaged in a struggle to safeguard the international legal order, which has been gravely threatened by Russia’s invasion of a sovereign State. No states are more vulnerable than small ones which are usually the first victims.

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