Of Jamaica, republics and the CommonwealthSunday, January 15, 2012
SIR RONALD SANDERS
WHAT effect will Jamaica becoming a republic and leaving the 53-nation Commonwealth have on the rest of the Caribbean countries? Will they follow Jamaica to become republics and leave the Commonwealth?
Those were the questions put to me by the editor of an Internet news website just as I had begun to write a commentary after a two-day seminar at Cambridge University in the UK that grappled with the issue of the Commonwealth and its relevance to its 1.2 billion people after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Australia last October.
I will return to the outcome of the seminar in my next commentary. Suffice to say for now, that The Round Table, arguably the oldest journal on Commonwealth matters, is in its 101st year of publication in Britain and the Commonwealth. Over the decades, the material published in the journal has been both a record of Commonwealth events and a serious contributor to the shape and direction of the now 53-nation organisation.
After each Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference (CHOGM), The Round Table has convened a meeting of representatives of Commonwealth non-governmental organisations, ministers, academics and the Commonwealth secretary-general to assess the outcomes of the Conference. It did so at Cambridge University in the UK on January 9 and 10 with Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma and Lord Howells, the British minister for Commonwealth affairs actively participating.
I attended as a member of the International Advisory Board of The Round Table and a member of the Eminent Persons Group that submitted a report to last October's CHOGM in Australia on urgent reform of the Commonwealth.
The question that dominated the two-day meeting in Cambridge was whether, as a result of the Australia CHOGM, the Commonwealth is better or worse placed to serve the needs of the people and to make a meaningful contribution to the international community.
I had meant to write about the outcome of the seminar but this matter of Jamaica commands immediate attention. So, this week, I give it priority.
The posing of the editor's question shows how misunderstood the Commonwealth is, even by journalists whose breadth of knowledge about world events is considerable. It also underscores the necessity for the Commonwealth to improve significantly its own information and education machinery.
The editor's question arose because newly elected Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, in a televised debate on the eve of last month's general election, said quite clearly that she wanted "a Jamaican Queen". The remark from the leader of the People's National Party (PNP) was not a new sentiment.
The former leader of the PNP and former Prime Minister P J Patterson had also declared his party's wish to end Jamaica's monarchical status, in which it shares Queen Elizabeth with 14 other countries as its sovereign.
What was intriguing about the editor's question was the underlying assumption that if the Jamaican people choose to end Jamaica's monarchical relationship and become a republic, Jamaica would have to leave the Commonwealth of which the Queen is head.
This was the same assumption that Ireland made in 1949 when it chose to become a republic. Having made that choice, Ireland departed from the Commonwealth. India was set to follow Ireland in becoming a republic and leaving the Commonwealth, because the Government of Independent India (1948) was not about to allow the British Monarch to continue to reign over it.
However, mature and sensible heads worked out a solution which was that India would become a republic and remain in the Commonwealth recognising the British monarch as 'Head of the Commonwealth' and "a symbol of the voluntary association' of independent countries. While the Queen is the strongest champion of the Commonwealth family of nations, she has no executive authority over the organisation.
Other countries that became independent of Britain and chose to become republics have continued as members of the Commonwealth on the same basis as India. Among those countries are three in the Caribbean: Dominica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, more recently, other republics that were never colonies of Britain have become members of the Commonwealth. These are: Cameroon, Mozambique, and Rwanda.
Republican status is not incompatible with Commonwealth membership, and I am confident that Jamaica would not leave the Commonwealth if it were to become a republic. Jamaica derives no disadvantage from its membership of the Commonwealth. Indeed, its membership brings it great benefits, among which are: technical assistance in a range of skill-areas in which it lacks sufficient expertise; advocacy for dealing with issues that affect it such as debt and trade; help in training people to deal with HIV/AIDS, and mitigating the harmful effects of climate change.
Additionally, Jamaican professionals, including judges, lawyers, engineers, nurses and teachers belong to Commonwealth organisations that provide them with a vast network of contacts across more than 50 nations that help to improve their knowledge and access to resources.
The associated question put to me was also interesting: Should Jamaica decide to become a republic, will it influence governments of the remaining independent Caribbean countries that are still monarchies to do the same?
The answer is not necessarily yes. Two years ago, the Government of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in St Vincent and the Grenadines received a resounding "no" from the people when the issue was included in a referendum question. About four years ago, the Government of Barbados, under then Prime Minister Owen Arthur, had also declared itself in favour of a republic with no unanimous support for the idea. Further, the fact that three Commonwealth Caribbean countries have been republics for many years has not encouraged other Caribbean states to follow.
Circumstances in each Caribbean country are different. Their governments will each have to weigh carefully the sentiment of the people before they risk a referendum on republican status.
In Jamaica, the matter could be decided easily if the two political parties agree that the time has come to cut the monarchical knot. Such a decision will not affect Jamaica's membership of the Commonwealth, nor will it cause other non-Republican governments in the Commonwealth Caribbean to follow.
Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat
Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com
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