The 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that took place in Trinidad between November 27 and 29 was presaged with ambitious statements from some of the major participants. Indicating a high degree of hype, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma dramatically claimed that it was a crisis summit. Sure enough, with the Copenhagen climate summit looming large on the horizon, the subject dominated the proceedings. At the instance of the host, Trinidad Prime Minister Patrick Manning, a special session on climate change had special invitees such as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. The summit did produce a strong statement on climate change reflecting the view of the developing world. But other than that, the conference had little momentum.
Ahead of the summit there was considerable talk of CHOGM positioning itself as an effective platform of developing countries at a time of significant global changes. But there was little evidence of such a summoning up of a collective commitment to evolving a common position on other critical issues. Fiji remained suspended and Rwanda gained admission after it changed its language to English from French in 2007. Yet the overall tone was a far cry from the robust exchanges that preceded the expulsion of South Africa over apartheid, the 1995 suspension of Nigeria for executing Ken Saro Wiwa, the suspension of Pakistan in 1999 and again in 2007, respectively for a military coup and the delayed lifting of martial law, and the suspension of Zimbabwe in 2002 over flawed presidential elections. Critics say the Commonwealth has ceased to commit itself to upholding human rights and civil liberties. Despite brave words from certain of the leaders present, the organisation seems to be under-funded and under-supported. Its civil-society arm, the Commonwealth Foundation, has caused disappointment by transferring most of its funding from the prevention of HIV/Aids to cultural activities. CHOGM 2009 had a curious listlessness portending increasing irrelevance. It would have been far more useful had the grouping of 53 nations with a shared history of colonialism used the occasion more imaginatively. It would be worthwhile for the Commonwealth to transform itself into an enduring platform lending itself to consensus building on some core issues of global importance. That would have sent a clear message to the world about the high value of a multicultural, multi-faith, and multilateral body. It is a pity that instead it did precious little to stop what could be a slide to ineffectuality.