Predicament in Brisbane
Stabroek News
February 27, 2002

Of all the major international organisations there is only one in which small states are a majority of the membership. It is the Commonwealth. The Heads of Government of Commonwealth States (CHOGM) will meet in Brisbane, Australia this weekend, Saturday March 2. Of the fifty-four member Commonwealth member states (about 25% of all the states in the international community) thirty-two are small states. As a grouping numbering l2 the Caricom Commonwealth Member States are thus in a position to play a catalytic role at Commonwealth meetings.

Held together not by any constituting instrument, but by links of history, language and institutions of common origin the membership has seldom been internally confrontational in the approach to issues, not even in the difficult days of the former apartheid regime. It is an organisation in which norms and rules provide to a large extent the glue, holding it together.

However it is a moot question whether in Brisbane it can insulate itself from an international milieu which is characterised by increasingly bitter North/South confrontation, unilateralism and in which the concerns for the promotion and maintenance of democracy, the rule of law and human rights are being pushed aside.

It is this growing situation of break-up in the international order which poses the predicament for small states. Small states desperately need a rule-based world, a world where standards and norms are observed. It is only in an ordered world that small states can begin to cope with the problems, vulnerabilities and intrinsic disabilities which derive from smallness. The predicament they face is that at Brisbane attention is likely to be focused exclusively on the consequences of September ll. Brisbane was to be preceded by a Commonwealth Summit on Small States. This was cancelled and will not be held.

There can be no escape from the spreading disorder. Confrontation is the order of the day. As more information becomes available, it looks as if the developing countries secured very few benefits from the WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, that they were in fact substantially outwitted, culminating with another infamous Green Room Meeting held through the night of November l3. In the same vein at the forthcoming crucial UN conference on Financing of Development in Mexico the US government has already signalled its opposition to any negotiated commitments and has stated that "a one page political declaration of will and commitment should be the primary document emerging...".

The Brisbane CHOGM will no doubt spend a lot of time on Mugabe's apparent intention to stay in power by the use of violence and intimidation and vote rigging. As the election will be held shortly after the Summit it is unlikely that there will be any action in Brisbane. On the other hand, Mugabe's misdeeds might be used at Brisbane as a tactic of distraction. The real focus should be on Pakistan which as a pariah state has already been suspended from Commonwealth Membership. Its Prime Minister, now in jail, was removed by a coup staged by General Musharraf. Then in June last year Musharraf dismissed the president from office so that he could appoint himself president. Now in the wake of the September ll events because of the strategic assistance which Musharraf has provided, Musharraf has been brought in from the cold. Tony Blair has visited with him and he has been accorded a White House reception. That is a part of a wider pattern, the murderous dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who has all dissidents in jail is now a friend of the US as he is providing the location for a rapidly expanding US base which together with other bases in two other former Soviet Republics will destabilise the delicate military balance in Asia and calls into question Putin's judgement among his own military.

Where once (may be once upon a time) the forceful expression of US concerns kept the human rights situation open, now in the name of suppressing terrorists the Russian army has resumed its atrocities in Chechnya, groups are being suppressed as extremists or separatists in Xinjiang and Tibet, and in Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, formerly deputy Prime Minister is in jail on trumped up charges.

But it is in the USA itself that there have been the main threats to the moral order. A new US anti-terrorism law gives the Federal Government the power to arrest suspects and detain them in solitary confinement, violate their mail and telephone calls and search their homes and other premises without warrant. President Bush has established military tribunals which will be held in secret, at unknown locations, including on ships and in which the death sentence can be imposed, even without a majority vote. Torture has been discussed openly on US media as a method of investigation which might be used in certain circumstances. The US Secretary of Defence has unashamedly spoken about the prospect of taking no prisoners, a remark which cannot be dissociated from the massacre of Arab prisoners near Mazar-i-Sharef in Afghanistan. All this in the land of the free, the tragic consequences of the dastardly deeds of September ll.

Other developed democracies have followed suit with similar if not as extensive anti-terrorist measures including the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

In the meantime, terrorism which provoked such consequences leading to national and international disorder appears to be reverting to such once prevalent acts of barbarism as hostage taking and murder as with the Wall street journalist in Pakistan. With their activities curtailed and under surveillance, one might predict the increasing resort to such wholly unacceptable misdeeds as hostage taking. In this way disorder breeds ever widening circles of disorder.

The likely small state predicament in Brisbane can be illustrated by way of an analogy. It is as if a small farmer with a small holding resolves in face of falling yields and profits to implement a development programme for his survival and begins to look around for assistance. Alas, while he is intent on this the region in which his farm is located is itself subject to major disruption as a result of civil disorder or natural disaster - the roads and bridges and irrigation are destroyed, communication links and transport and power supply are cut off. The farmer may find that he will be under enormous pressure to turn his attention to the larger problems.

The crisis situation of the small states of Caricom including Guyana are all too real. They have found that their comparatively high per capita income, which belies their economic fragility has increasingly disqualified them from the special and differential treatment which they so desperately need for survival. It is only such treatment in some measure within the successive treaties with the European Union which has enabled survival, in Guyana's case the viability of its sugar industry. Such special treatment is now under threat of withdrawal or dilution. They have found themselves elbowed out of the queue by the Least Developed Countries on whom international attention is now concentrated. This was the case with the EU scheme, the so called EBA (Everything But Arms) which catered to the LDC's, almost all located in Africa, and could put in jeopardy a vital part of Guyana's sugar market.

Hence there is need for a wider concept than Least Development. This concept is vulnerability (which would include LDCs) but would also attract special treatment for Caricom small states.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has been foremost in elaborating the concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability means exposure to external shocks over which the country has no control and has little ability to withstand or to recover from. It includes among other things heavy export dependence and an undiversified economy, major factors in the Guyana situation.

It had been expected in Brisbane to secure understanding and commitments which could advance the concept of the need to cope with vulnerability in such fora as the WTO and in the World Bank and the international banks. Indeed a Meeting of Ministers of Small States will be held in Brisbane on Friday. At its Belize Summit, Caricom Heads had enjoined all Member States to participate in that meeting, pointing out that it assumes greater importance in setting the agenda for small states.

It will be the diplomatic task of small states including the Caricom member states in Brisbane to ensure that these matters are not pushed off the agenda while the struggle against terrorism dominates the discussions, especially at the Caucus discussions which is a major feature of CHOGM.

Guyana will have the additional task of securing understanding and support in the context of our border problems. So far, the Commonwealth Committee entrusted to assist Guyana has been notable only for its invisibility.