Politics of the Commonwealth

Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
November 14, 1999

FOR ALL the pre-summit focus by the Commonwealth Secretariat on "democracy and good governance", what would be of particular concern to Caribbean people is the collective position to be adopted on the future of small and disadvantaged economies by the 1999 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference that draws to a close this evening in Durban, South Africa.

Except for Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of St. Lucia, all heads of government of the independent states of the English-speaking Caribbean, including the newest and youngest, President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana, were there for the ceremonial opening Friday of the three-day bi-annual event of this unique union of sovereign nations embracing some one and half billion people.

Among the decisions to be made before returning to their respective home bases tomorrow, will be the election of a new Secretary General to succeed outgoing Nigeria-born Chief Emeka Anyaoku, from March 1, 2000.

If we are to be guided by the strange political manoeuvrings that guided their deliberations prior to and during their own 20th Summit in Port-of-Spain last July, then the CARICOM leaders would have ensured, with their own votes, the election of New Zealand's Foreign Minister, Don McKinnon.

In preference, that is - unless he withdrew - to Bangladesh's Farooq Sobhan as Asia's first-ever candidate in the 68-year-old history of the Commonwealth, and amid all the swelling rhetoric about sending "the right signals" of solidarity by the poor and developing nations in facing the challenges of the 21st century.

As the new Secretary General of one of the original four-member countries of the `old' or white Commonwealth, McKinnon will head a London-based Secretariat whose key economics, political affairs and development departments are already under the charge of officials of the other three members of the `old Commonwealth' - Britain, Canada and Australia.

And this, at a period when McKinnon's fellow countryman, Mike Moore, presides over the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as the favoured candidate of the USA, and as the Caribbean and other small and developing states struggle for "special and different" treatment from the WTO and to overcome increasing marginalisation in the rush toward a globalised economic order.

Against the background of the re-admission of Nigeria to participate in the Durban Summit, following its own years of military regimes of gross human rights violations and rampant corruption, much pre-summit attention was focused on suspension of Pakistan's right to participate as a consequence of its military regime's failure to be specific about an early return to democratic civilian government.

One-party states, military-run regimes and rigged elections, once the norm even in a number of Commonwealth states, particularly in Africa, are no longer in vogue.

The Pakistani General's coup of October 12 against Nawaz Sharif's government came as South Africa - itself once treated as a pariah state within the Commonwealth for its then apartheid system - was preparing a red-carpet welcome for the Queen and heads of government of the 54-nation multi-ethnic Commonwealth.

Clearly, the Pakistani Generals had other priorities than to bother about possible suspension of Commonwealth membership. This much was evident in their response to a Commonwealth ministerial fact-finding mission that travelled to Pakistan last month.

It is good to know that the Commonwealth now seems determined to be consistent in its disciplining of member states, even those with huge markets like Nigeria and Pakistan, when they resort to military coups against democratically elected governments.

At some stage, for all the righteous indignation displayed by the mission that visited Pakistan to ascertain the democratic intentions of General Pervez Musharraf and his colleagues who now wield the power in that second most populous member state of the Commonwealth, a clarification may be necessary.

It is a clarification that must come to terms with the difference in membership of the Commonwealth by governments resulting from rigged elections and those based on coups by the military, even when bloodless as in Pakistan.

Commonwealth countries, including member states in this region, have shown a significant capacity in the past to accommodate governments that have displayed utter contempt for multi-party democracy based on free and fair elections.

Guyana, under the long rule of the People's National Congress, may be a classic example in this region. But it has happened too often elsewhere in the Commonwealth with Zimbabwe being among current examples of what should not be.

For all its apparent contradictions and deficiencies, the Commonwealth has proven much more than a very useful association for trade and cultural relations with the Queen as the symbolic head.

For small, poor and developing states like ours in the Caribbean, and their partners in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Commonwealth has established a most encouraging track record in a consistent programme of support for a better deal for small states in overcoming social and economic problems; also in its advocacy of debt relief and forgiveness, particularly for the heavily indebted poor countries.

But while we await the outcome of the `Declaration of Durban', or whatever titled document of intent and decisions to emerge from this latest Commonwealth Summit, there will understandably be continuing debates and critical questions about the future of this association of sovereign states.

Why, for instance, must its Secretariat remain headquartered in Britain and with the Queen as head, as if any alternative arrangement could lead to destruction.

The former Prime Minister of Dominica, Eugenia Charles, knighted as a Dame by the Queen while she was in office, said last week that the Commonwealth may not exist today without the Queen as its head. Really?

If indeed the Queen is that strong, permanent unifying force (will her successor, son Charles, for example, also possess such a quality?), how come countries across the Commonwealth, including Dominica while Charles was Prime Minister, continue to remove the Queen as head of state. Even Australia almost did just recently.

Is it that a British Monarch is good enough to be a symbolic head of the Commonwealth but not as head of state of a sovereign member of the same Commonwealth? Is it really necessary for such symbolism in governance?

In those countries that remain quite wedded to the idea of a monarchical system of government - only three among the independent CARICOM countries have switched to the republican form of parliamentary democracy - it may perhaps be too much, even with the dawn of the new millennium, to conceive of a rotating chairmanship of the Commonwealth.

Or is this really too difficult to pursue, even in our rapidly changing world of globalisation? Can we not at least decentralise some of the functions of the Commonwealth Secretariat and relocate services in other Commonwealth nations to better appreciate the concept of the so-called `Commonwealth family'?

This may be an issue for the future. Right now, we await the Communique from the Durban Summit to learn of the kind of support regions like ours can expect in advancing the agenda of small and disadvantaged economies in the quest for special and different treatment from the international financial institutions and in new trade and economic negotiations.

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