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A Common(wealth) understanding

By Kimoy Leon Sing

Should they stay or should they go?

That was the general question posed by pupils at the 2014 Commonwealth celebrations as they sought answers from members of the Diplomatic Corps, High Commissioners and Honorary Consuls of the Commonwealth when it came to the relevancy of the Commonwealth and its functions.

Secondary school pupils from across Trinidad and Tobago came out in their numbers for the Commonwealth celebrations held at J Hamilton Maurice Room on the Mezzanine Floor, Parliament Building, Tower D, International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain on March 26.

The celebration, which is held every year on the second Monday in March, was pushed back until March 26 due to our country’s festivities, said House Speaker Wade Mark.

Dubbed as a day of information and education, many pupils expressed a desire to learn the role of the Commonwealth and ways in which they, too, could make a greater impact in Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the world.

The Commonwealth of Nations is one of the oldest voluntary international organisations in the world. Representing a quarter of the world’s governments, a third of its population and a fifth of global trade, the Commonwealth comprises 53 countries that form a diverse community.

Dr Anthony Gonzales of the Institute of International Relations at The University of the West Indies was the feature speaker at the event. 

Faced with eager, questioning minds of pupils between the ages of 14 and 17, Gonzales fielded questions posed by pupils who sought to gain a deeper insight on the function of the Commonwealth and its impact in the world.

During the conference, some pupils wanted to know if being a smaller country within the Commonwealth placed T&T at a disadvantage. They also wanted to know the relevance of the Commonwealth, its functions and goals.

Gonzales said, “There are certain challenges that the Commonwealth faces in terms of the quality of democracy.”

He admitted while many see the importance of the organisation there are still countries that have doubts.

Looking at bigger and smaller countries within the Commonwealth, Gonzales noted that it is easy for smaller countries to feel somewhat disadvantaged compared to bigger countries; however it is not something that they cannot overcome, he said.

“Often smaller countries in the Commonwealth come together to form one voice and air their issues which can serve to create a bigger impact,” he added.

Given the fact that apart from the Commonwealth there are other international organisations that do some of the same duties of the Commonwealth, its relevance has been cause for much debate.

Gonzales said, “Democracy is always a work in progress.”

Highlighting the theme for 2014, “Team Commonwealth”, Gonzales noted that it would be prudent to focus on what has been happening in terms of democracy in the Commonwealth.

Looking at the history of the Commonwealth in the promotion of democracy, Gonzales said he also wanted to look at the approaches and the means which the Commonwealth employs to achieve certain results; the achievements and challenges faced by the organisation.

He noted that while the achievements of the Commonwealth are often not widely broadcast, the organisation has worked extensively in helping to bring an end to the injustice of apartheid and aiding Sierra Leone’s return to stability. It has brokered agreements between troubled neighbours in Africa, helped calm tensions during contested elections in fragile democracies, and advised small states in international negotiations at the United Nations (UN).

Gonzales also noted that the Commonwealth gives smaller nations a chance to have their views and opinions heard on an international stage more effectively than within the wider structure of the United Nations (UN). 

The less formal setting of the Commonwealth can be an easier place to discuss issues which are significant but may not be considered as essential discussion by the UN.

He said, “The results we see today is somewhat mixed in the Commonwealth compared to times of the Harare Declaration in 1991. All Commonwealth countries today are democratic.

“Despite the many achievements and policies by the Commonwealth, there are countries where the Commonwealth democratic principles are still remote.”

Pupils came to the Office of the Parliament from 9 a.m. and were given information about the Commonwealth, invited to share their views and had the opportunity to view various educational booths from Commonwealth countries such as Nigeria, Jamaica, United Kingdom, India, Guyana, Belize, Australia and Bahamas, to name a few.

Sharing their thoughts on the conference, Teia Koat, 18, from Naparima Girls’ High School said, “This was a very eye-opening experience for me. I realised that I need to be more aware of not just the things that are going on in my country but in other countries around the world.”

Danielle Afes, 18, from Naparima Girls’ High School said, “It was very informative. I am glad they made the attempt to involve us — the youths and give us an opportunity to share our views. It also afforded me the opportunity to see that we are not as insignificant as I thought but play a far greater role in the Commonwealth.”

Daniel Dalrymple, 16, from Arima Central Secondary said, “Understanding the role of the Commonwealth and the role Trinidad and Tobago plays was indeed informative. I gained a better understanding of the way in which the Commonwealth works.”

Jordan Singh, 15, from Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College said, “This seminar was very thought-provoking. I got to hear the backgrounds of some of the Commonwealth countries.”

While some people continue to question’s the Commonwealth’s survival in these changing times, some believe the organisation continues to be a force to reckon with.

The Commonwealth will hold the next summit in Malta in 2015.

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