Friday, November 23, 2007

Commonwealth flies flag for democracy

The suspension of Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth raises the question of the value of an organisation whose principles of democratic values can be so easily cast aside.

Sign about Chogm in KampalaThe crisis in Pakistan came as the Commonwealth prepared to hold its biennial session, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (known informally as Chogm), in Uganda.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf was warned by a representative group of Commonwealth foreign ministers on 12 November that Pakistan would face suspension if he had not lifted the state of emergency and promised to hold elections by the time of the Uganda meeting.

It would be naive to suppose that such a threat has had much influence on the general. He marches to a different tune.

Pakistan has been suspended from the Commonwealth before - when General Musharraf took power in a coup in 1999. It came back in 2004 after progress towards democracy.

But the warning shows how democratic values have now become central to the Commonwealth.

The old ways

In the old days, Commonwealth meetings became notorious for the presence of coup leaders.

This began to change in 1987 when Chogm was being held in Vancouver. Fiji, where there had been a military coup, was suspended. It caused something of a stir, and even led to a reporter throwing a question to the Queen for the first time that anyone could remember.

She was a bit startled but answered: "It's very sad", before moving frostily on. The reporter (from Sky TV) was later lectured by a royal official in the hurt tone that only the British civil servant can muster: "I am sorry that it was a British reporter who felt he had to do that."

The Queen, incidentally, is formally the "head of the Commonwealth". This is not a hereditary position (nor does it have power) and it is interesting that Prince Charles is to attend this year's meeting for the first time, apparently to further his claim to take over eventually.

Vancouver and the following meeting in Kuala Lumpur were also notable for the rows over sanctions on South Africa, with the then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher trying to hold back the tide.

New issues

Since then, many of the splits - between "old" and "new" Commonwealth, between richer and poorer - have subsided in a newer spirit of joint action in the newer fields of globalisation and global warming.

David Lidington, a British Conservative MP and foreign affairs spokesman (whose party once railed against the iniquities of the Commonwealth), said: "It does still have a value and its value will increase because of globalisation and the rise of the emerging economies as partners and competitors.

"The Commonwealth is not a substitute for anything, but provides a way for countries to discuss issues informally. This can help in the later formal negotiations. It is also a good place to discuss human rights and plural societies."

The Commonwealth was an early player in the climate change campaign with its declaration (it was fond of these at one time) in Langkawi in Malaysia in 1989 warning about the dangers. Several of its smaller island nations face obliteration if the sea level rises.

By 1991, the Commonwealth formalised its commitment to democracy, with the Harare Declaration in the capital of Zimbabwe. Ironically, Zimbabwe itself was suspended in 2002 and President Mugabe then withdrew from the Commonwealth the following year. Fiji has been suspended again because of another military coup there.


Others, however, have come knocking on the door. South Africa came back, post apartheid, which is a major boost. Nobody doubts that one day Zimbabwe will return, too.

The latest applicant is Rwanda, the former Belgian colony, whose President Paul Kagame is expected to attend pre-Chogm meetings in Uganda.

President Kagame has moved away from Belgium and France as influences and is pressing English as a language for Rwandans. English is the common language of the Commonwealth and one of the unifying factors in this grouping of 53 mainly ex-British territories.

Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, joined in 1995, largely as a result of its positive experience of the Commonwealth in the battle against apartheid.

The reason for this interest is not hard to find. The Commonwealth provides a useful forum for countries of different sizes and backgrounds.

There would be no point in exaggerating its power - it has virtually none. But it has a certain influence (it has lobbied on a better deal for the developing world in trade) and its smaller members especially like the way in which they get a voice.

Its obituaries are premature.

BBC NEWS | Africa | Commonwealth flies flag for democracy