Consensus in the Commonwealth

Commonwealth Heads of Government and other Ministerial meetings operate through consensus building. At Heads of Government Meetings, the Secretary-General often plays an active part in trying to assess or create consensus on difficult issues. The first Secretary-General, Arnold Smith, described his role in this way:

A Secretary-General, it is clear, must be impartial to the extent that he is responsible to the collectivity of member states and must not favour the interests of one group against another. But this need not mean he is neutral, nor that he steps carefully down the middle between various views.

In short, the elected Secretary-General of a dynamic international community must embody for the association what Rousseau called ‘the general will’, and should act accordingly. It is also his responsibility to try, when necessary, to develop a general will, by discussion with heads of government and ministers and, when appropriate, with journalists and in public speeches. (Smith, 1981: 43–44.)

case study
Case study: The Vancouver Summit

Consensus is often interpreted as ‘the sense of the meeting’. However, in the case of sanctions against South Africa raised at the Vancouver Summit of 1987, the general sense of the meeting was that stronger economic sanctions should be applied against South Africa. Some writers have described the result of this meeting as the abandonment of consensus. Another way of looking at it, however, is to describe it as pragmatic consensus. The Commonwealth took a firm stand on economic sanctions on which one of its members, Britain, reserved judgement. The Okanagan Statement and Programme of Action on Southern Africa reflects both the ‘consensus’ and the dissenting position. The integrative goals that allowed both sides of the disagreement to tolerate each other’s position were a genuine commitment to the Commonwealth as an organisation, and a unanimous disapproval of racism and racial discrimination. Without these integrative goals, the Commonwealth might have disintegrated under the pressure of tensions over South Africa more than once in its history.