The Commonwealth is an association of 56 member countries, most of which are former territories of the British Empire. It is an intriguing paradox in the world. It is, often rightfully, asked whether the Commonwealth has delivered value to its member countries, and how it can continue to maintain its relevance in the years to come. In a world of intense global competition, no organisation can afford to rest on its laurels. Surely, relying solely on occasional sporting competition is insufficient.

Beneath the surface, the Commonwealth reveals itself as a subtle yet crucial element. It intricately connects the histories and societies of its member countries. Like a silver thread, it weaves together unlikely ties and influences the course of events. It often remains unnoticed in the mainstream.

But the Commonwealth’s relevance endures. Its future lies in adaptability and innovation. As for Bangladesh, should it envision itself as a proactive player in shaping that future of this interconnected network?

A buzzing platform, from professions to values

Be it barristers in Mauritius, New Zealand or Sri Lanka; parliamentarians in the United Kingdom, Bangladesh or Malta; cricketers in South Africa, India or Australia; chartered accountants in Pakistan, Kenya or Guyana; or arbitrators in Malaysia, Nigeria or Botswana, Commonwealth member countries boast a number of shared professional sectors. It is underpinned by shared values, which in turn shape a common worldview.

The term ‘Commonwealth’ refers to a political community formed for the common good. Its recorded use can be traced back to the English Civil War in the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell established the short-lived English Protectorate, governed by an uneasy coalition of parliamentarians and generals. Back then, the territory of modern-day Bangladesh was under the rule of the Mughal Empire.

Both Bangladesh and United Kingdom are proud bastions of literature, from William Shakespeare to Rabindranath Tagore and from Charles Dickens to Kazi Nazrul Islam.

In 1949, the modern Commonwealth was born as a community of nations. It emerged as a voluntary association of equal and sovereign states, bound together by a number of common principles and practices. The common law, for example, is integral to legal systems across the Commonwealth. In Bangladesh, its influence is felt keenly in the legal system through the principle of stare decisis, which promotes a common judicial precedent in many of the world’s legal systems.

Moreover, Bangladesh enjoys close cultural links with the United Kingdom. Both nations are proud bastions of literature, from William Shakespeare to Rabindranath Tagore and from Charles Dickens to Kazi Nazrul Islam. The most potent commonality, however, may well be cricket, a global game with a special place in the hearts of both nations.

Bangladesh and the Commonwealth in the past

The Commonwealth was the first international association that Bangladesh joined after liberation in 1971, officially acceding to membership on 18 April 1972. Among the first sovereign states to recognise Bangladesh’s independence was Commonwealth member India, alongside Bhutan.

The Commonwealth had an outsized interest in Bangladesh’s liberation struggle. This was a testament to the robust web of connections that characterise this unique global family. In early 1972, Bangladesh received recognition from far-flung Commonwealth members including Barbados, Fiji, Samoa, Cyprus, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s visionary founder, first president and later prime minister, understood the value of the Commonwealth. He eagerly sought to carve out a place for Bangladesh within it.

Group photo from the 2nd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Dignitaries including Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (standing seventh from the left), Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (sitting eighth from the left), Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh (standing first from the left), Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike (sitting seventh from the left), British Prime Minister Edward Heath (sitting second from the right) and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (sitting fifth from the left) were representing their countries at the meeting, Ottawa, Canada, August 1973 | Photo by Commonwealth Secretariat.

Speaking at his first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Ottawa in 1973, Mujib acknowledged the support that his country had received, remarking that ‘[it] was a source of strength to us in the dark and difficult days of our liberation struggle to know that we were not alone, to know that the freedom-loving people of the world were with us.’

During a period of significant global uncertainty, Mujib advocated for a ‘zone of peace’ in the Indian Ocean, ringed by Commonwealth member countries from the east coast of Africa to the Straits of Malacca. He also took a particular interest in the emancipation of oppressed peoples in Southern Africa, marking himself out as one of the loudest critics of South Africa’s apartheid regime and the rule of the white minority in erstwhile Rhodesia.

These winds of change blew just as fiercely at CHOGM 1975 in Jamaica. Bangladesh saw the gathering as an opportunity to secure multilateral support for its drive to normalise diplomatic relations in South Asia and to settle the division of assets with Pakistan.

During the leaders’ retreat in Montego Bay, Mujib privately discussed the stalemate with British prime minister Harold Wilson, noting that Pakistan had failed to offer a constructive path towards resolution. Wilson agreed. The resulting summit communiqué urged a resolution to the conflict between Bangladesh and Pakistan, which was an unprecedented Commonwealth intervention in a bilateral dispute.

Canadian Arnold Smith, the Commonwealth’s first secretary-general, was a vocal advocate of opening up new markets for Bangladeshi exports. In May 1975, Smith criticised the European Economic Community’s exclusion of Bangladesh from the Lomé Convention, which improved market access to Europe for 46 developing countries.[1] Smith’s remarks contributed to the campaign of advocacy, which eventually ensured that Bangladesh benefited from the European Union’s reformed Generalised System of Preferences.

Bangladesh and the Commonwealth in the present

It isn’t just history. The Commonwealth remains relevant to modern Bangladesh, underpinning its contemporary foreign policy objectives. One of the clearest examples relates to trade and investment. At the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2009, Bangladesh’s export policy agency, the Export Promotion Bureau, opened a Bangladesh Trade Centre in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.

This shows that the Commonwealth can be used as a strategic platform to advance Bangladesh’s goal of diversifying trade to new destinations, be these in Africa, the Caribbean or Southeast Asia. On the sidelines of Commonwealth meetings, leaders can hold trade talks.

Bangladesh’s Commonwealth ties continue to deliver tangible benefits. Given their shared legal systems, commercial cultures and use of the English language, Commonwealth countries enjoy 21% lower bilateral trading costs and 21% faster dispute resolution. As Bangladesh prioritises foreign investment, this competitive edge makes Commonwealth partners particularly well matched for trade enhancement and supply chain integration.

In addition to being a bilateral relations platform, the Commonwealth has a role in upholding an open international trading system.

In addition to being a bilateral relations platform, the Commonwealth has a role in upholding an open international trading system. As Washington, Brussels and Beijing pivot towards protectionist policies, guarding their key industries against foreign competition, the Commonwealth must make a strong case for preferential trade benefits, fair competition and a better investment regime.

This dynamic group of 56 nations hosts some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It is an increasingly attractive safe harbour for trade diversification in a perceptively multipolar world.

Commonwealth members are already at the forefront of this renewed drive for open and diverse trade. Post-Brexit, the United Kingdom has signed high-profile trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, while India looks to put pen to paper on a new deal with Canada. From Barbados to Brunei, Commonwealth members are championing – and benefiting from – tariff reduction, investment liberalisation and mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

Bangladesh and the Commonwealth in the future

The Commonwealth synergy goes well beyond commercial ties. For Bangladesh, it can build on its common law heritage to build a more efficient business-friendly legal system. Like in Singapore, which is now recognised as the leading Commonwealth legal centre in Asia, Bangladesh’s legal system can be tailored to attract regional and international investors.

The Commonwealth has been a global leader in advocating proactive climate action. It shares Bangladesh’s vision of a global transition to a greener economy. The Langkawi Declaration by the Commonwealth countries, adopted in Malaysia in 1989, was one of the first collective international statements to identify greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to the planet.

The United Kingdom’s King Charles III, the Head of the Commonwealth, is a long-standing advocate of environmental stewardship, while Bangladeshi premier Sheikh Hasina is credited for proactive climate action. The Commonwealth is home to some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable states, including many small island states. It has an important role to play in bringing together these vulnerable countries with resourceful countries to achieve climate goals.

Bangladesh should ideally look to the future and integrate the Commonwealth into its long-term foreign policy thinking. As Dhaka emerges as one of the world’s great cities, the country’s decision makers can take active steps to help the Commonwealth live up to its immense potential.

Bangladesh should make an ambitious offer to host CHOGM in 2026 in Dhaka, as a symbol of its commitment to a modernised Commonwealth. Playing host to world leaders from across the 56 Commonwealth member countries would give Bangladesh an opportunity to showcase itself as an attractive investment environment, while strengthening some of its strategic partnerships.

Another unexplored avenue is closer defence and security cooperation. Bangladesh already maintains strong defence relationships with many of its Commonwealth partners. The country can perhaps tie together these bilateral initiatives under a Commonwealth mantle.

Bangladesh’s key strategic location in the Indo-Pacific, which is a growing area of interest, makes Dhaka an attractive security partner, a fact that has not gone unnoticed. In 2010, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy sold naval vessels to Bangladesh. Since 2017, the Bangladesh Navy has taken part in joint exercises with the Royal Australian Navy. A number of Commonwealth allies, including India and Malaysia, took part in the country’s first International Fleet Review in 2022.

Bangladesh’s key strategic location in the Indo-Pacific, which is a growing area of interest, makes Dhaka an attractive security partner…

Bangladesh has also announced its own Indo-Pacific Outlook, which promotes a peaceful and secure Indo-Pacific. At its heart is respect for international law under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Outlook promotes a number of global priorities, including freedom of navigation and overflight, maritime security, resilience in global value chains and the unimpeded free flow of commerce.

Closer to home, the Commonwealth should engage with Bangladesh on one of its most pressing concerns. The Rohingya crisis has presented Bangladesh with over a million refugees from Myanmar. Bangladesh is now home to the world’s largest refugee camp. The international community has praised Bangladesh for its generous humanitarian stance.

Globally, a persistent migration crisis exists. The Commonwealth, with its network of ‘source’ and ‘host’ countries, can be part of the solution. It can help strengthen migration governance networks. India, Nigeria and Zimbabwe are becoming sources for overseas health care workers. Similarly, Bangladesh’s development agenda also prioritises safe and orderly migration to destinations like the United Kingdom and Australia.

The Secretariat at Marlborough House has been consistent in its moral support for Bangladesh’s response to the Rohingya crisis. However, as a crisis of international interest, Bangladesh would value further assistance from its fellow member countries in ensuring the right of return for these refugees. This would include the restoration of citizenship and access to public services for the returnees.

End remarks

In the 19th century, the Bengal Presidency extended across large swathes of Asia, from the treacherous Khyber Pass in the west to Singapore in the east. Modern Bangladesh is the successor to this legacy and must provide regional leadership. Moreover, Bangladesh has an increasingly important role to play on the world stage. Leveraging the potential of the Commonwealth can be a central plank of Bangladesh’s foreign relations in the decades ahead.

 

[1]  The European Economic Community was a predecessor of the European Union.

 

Cover photo © Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Commonwealth’s Secretary-General Patricia Scotland at Lancaster House’s executive session, London, United Kingdom, 19 April 2018 | Photo by Commonwealth Secretariat.

Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Sam Bidwell is Founder and Director of the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs. He is a lawyer. He specialises in political campaigning and research. He pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, UK.
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Umran Chowdhury is In-House Counsel at Dr. Kamal Hossain & Associates, Dhaka. He is a lawyer. He is a member of the Bangladesh International Arbitration Centre. He has been a Research Assistant at the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs. He pursued his graduate studies at SOAS University of London, UK.