Malta is preparing for power. In November, it's due to host the Commonwealth's biennial Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), at which it will start a two-year stint at the helm and show that the international body is “Adding Global Value”. The official CHOGM website credits members collectively with great clout, and promises that Malta will lead boldly on “important issues [that] have been missed by other global institutions.” Although those issues aren't identified in any detail, the government regards itself as especially well-placed to work out what they are, highlighting Malta's position “at the heart of the Mediterranean'”, and its place “throughout history as a bridge between North Africa and Europe.”
The claims, hyperbolic though they might sound, aren't precisely empty. Malta has direct experience of a crisis that needs all the leadership it can get—the current surge of emigrants fleeing poor, repressive and war-torn regions in Africa and the Middle East—and nowhere has been more affected than the Mediterranean. Some 137,000 people crossed its waters northwards during the first six months of 2015 (at least 2,000 others drowned), and though most made landfall at Lampedusa or Sicily, Malta has been the arrival point for a disproportionately large number. Indeed, the country's small population means that (if the figures for 2012 still hold true) the ratio of asylum seekers to ordinary residents there is higher than in any other European state.
Demotix/Ian Pace (All rights reserved)
Recently-landed migrants in Malta.
Nonetheless, there are many reasons why Malta might prefer to ignore the crisis on its doorstep at November's CHOGM. The first most obvious one is that it imprisons undocumented asylum seekers for up to eighteen months—a policy so exceptionally harsh that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has unequivocally branded it an arbitrary violation of international law. Hostility towards destitute foreigners is also common among both politicians and the general public. Emphasising the issue's importance might therefore expose Malta to accusations of hypocrisy, or self-interest. It would risk embarrassing fellow members of the Commonwealth as well. Australia also detains many asylum claimants (in institutions so controversial that its government has just made it a criminal offence to disclose how they are run) and it now subcontracts their incarceration to two neighbouring Commonwealth states, Papua New Guinea and Nauru. More generally, there are several countries that might be inclined to sabotage collective solutions, simply because joint action implies a more equitable sharing of the burden.
The Mediterranean in particular risks becoming—to quote the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—a “vast cemetery". Rationalisations of inactivity aren't justifications, however, and it would be extraordinary if the Commonwealth actually did nothing in November. Almost two-thirds of the organisation's 53 members have signed the international treaty that is meant to underpin basic asylum rights (the 1951 Refugee Convention) and their governments formally considered enhancing the protection of vulnerable migrants as long ago as 1999. Back then, the world contained some 22 million forcibly displaced people, whereas the figure stands today at almost 60 million—having risen more during 2014 than in any previous year since the Second World War. The Mediterranean in particular risks becoming—to quote the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—a “vast cemetery". Were Commonwealth leaders to fly into Malta for the CHOGM, and then avert their gaze from that human tragedy, observers might properly wonder what they are capable of seeing at all.
If Malta's government is to provide the decisive leadership that it's promising, it will put the refugee crisis high on the agenda in November, and it must vigorously canvas other members of the Commonwealth for fresh ideas. The country’s own fear of migrants should certainly be aired, not least because similar sentiments exist in many other member states, but there also have to be imaginative resettlement proposals. It also needs to put whatever influence the organisation might possess behind international efforts to aid those beleaguered countries in Africa and the Middle East that are presently accommodating the most refugees of all. No one could sensibly fault the CHOGM for failing to solve the immense crisis by itself—but if Malta doesn't even start looking for ways to promote solutions, its presence at the Commonwealth's helm will be unconvincing from the outset.
There is a real risk, in fact, that an unwillingness to address the refugee crisis would contribute to the undoing of the Commonwealth as a whole. The organisation's defining characteristic—descent from the British Empire—is a bond ancestral rather than ethical, and the only moral cause that ever came close to unifying its members, opposition to apartheid, is long defunct. In the hope of forging a more purposeful identity, the organisation drew up a Charter of its “core values and principles” in 2013. But its stated commitment therein to things like “human rights” and “the rule of law” has yet to prove itself. Indeed, Malta is only hosting the CHOGM in the first place because the country scheduled to run the Commonwealth, Mauritius, gave up its turn two years ago, in protest at the organisation's failure to oppose arbitrary human rights abuses by Sri Lanka's then government.
As senior Commonwealth officials doubtless appreciate, a meeting that claims to be “Adding Global Value” will renew scrutiny of the Charter. Its laudable aspirations include several which the present humanitarian disaster ought surely to trigger into practical action: a concern “for the vulnerable”, for example, support for “affordable health care, education, clean drinking water, sanitation and housing for all citizens”, and a “firm belief in international peace and security”. The political leaders of member states will soon have a very real chance to show that those words mean something. They should seize it—or risk reducing the Commonwealth to a moribund social club of nations, devoted to nothing more exalted than its own perpetuation.