Tue, 02 Dec 2003

The Commonwealth's future in 'North-South divide'

Greg Mills, Inter Press Service, New Delhi

As the date of its summit in Abuja, Nigeria, approaches (Dec. 5-8), the Commonwealth finds itself polarized and apparently paralyzed about what to do with Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

As a result of Robert Mugabe's misrule from Harare, half of Zimbabwe's 13 million citizens face starvation, and many live under constant physical threat from his government.

This situation stands in dire contrast to the values set forth in the Harare Declaration which followed the 1991 summit, which stated the Commonwealth's commitment to "democracy, democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government" and "fundamental human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race, color, creed or political belief".

At the postponed 2001 summit held in Australia, a decision was reached to suspend Zimbabwe's membership. At the 12-month review of this decision, a troika comprising South Africa, as previous chairman, Australia, and Nigeria disagreed over the extension of the suspension. South Africa's President Mbeki said this period had now lapsed; Prime Minister John Howard said it had not; and Nigeria's president Olusegun Obasanjo leant towards South Africa's view.

In the end, Commonwealth secretary-general Don McKinnon, having canvassed opinion within the body, argued successfully for a review at the Abuja summit.

Comprising 54 countries with a combined population of 1.7 billion people, the Commonwealth ranges from the developed economies of Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand to micro- states in Polynesia. Over half of its member-states have populations under 1.5 million people, while its largest member, India, has around one billion.

As Nelson Mandela has observed, the Commonwealth is "a body straddling the North-South divide".

During the apartheid years, South Africans' views on the Commonwealth were shaped largely by the role it played as a leading critic of South Africa's racial policies and as one of the chief proponents of sanctions.

But whereas the white ruling National Party and its supporters viewed the association with hostility -- as an irrelevant, unwarranted intrusion on sovereign matters -- the South African opposition movements largely regarded its role as a positive contribution to the cause of liberation. As the ANC head Oliver Tambo said about his country's readmission, "But the people of South Africa never left the Commonwealth".

Human rights issues now threaten to divide the Commonwealth between North and South, between the developed and developing world, between the largely white and the largely black member- states. This should not come completely as a surprise, however.

At the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Millbrook in New Zealand, then President Mandela raised South Africa's head above the foreign policy parapet in soundly condemning Nigeria's human rights record and calling for the suspension of the West African regime from the association.

This event brought prominence not only to Pretoria's role in international affairs but also, less positively, to how the absence of back-up from African states for Mandela's principled stand illustrated the extent to which race and the ties between African leadership trumped human rights.

In the face of a threat of boycott from other members and also its ceremonial head Queen Elizabeth II, Obasanjo has told Mugabe to stay away from Abuja. But this is unlikely to remove Zimbabwe from the agenda given the report-back given by Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) members.

Earlier this year Australia presented a report to CMAG chronicling recent human rights abuses, including cases of beatings with sticks wrapped in barbed wire, rape, and the existence of torture camps in Zimbabwe.

No doubt, too, in spite of the labeling of the Abuja meeting as "Development and Democracy: Partnership for Peace and Prosperity", the agenda is likely to be dominated not only by Mugabe's Zimbabwe but also by the security situation in Iraq.

This is unlikely to encourage a change in Tony Blair's ambivalence thus far towards the Commonwealth as he and coalition ally John Howard come under scrutiny for their role in removing Saddam.

Even though the meeting will also discuss the Commonwealth Plan of Action on Terrorism, progress in this regard is likely to be hamstrung by the absence also of President Pervez Musharraf, given Pakistan's suspension since his 1999 coup.

Such debates run the risk of entirely obscuring the tangible benefits the association brings. Though its decisions are non- binding on its member-states, the Commonwealth provides, among many other things, a forum for sharing views on subjects as diverse as globalization and global warming, the New Partnership for Africa's Development, access to the Commonwealth's Private Investment Initiative, the provision of electoral and military- training assistance, access to the Commonwealth scholarship and fellowship plan, and benefits through the Commonwealth Science Council.

The Commonwealth will survive the Zimbabwe and Iraqi crises if, simply put, its members see unique benefits in its existence. While the smaller states in particular see it as a means of promoting their otherwise-neglected interests on the world stage, the larger emerging nations -- notably South Africa and India -- may see the importance of its role diminishing in the face of their own attempts to establish co-operative relationships more directly concerned with trade issues.

But in a divided world, the presence of a set of common interests and shared history give the Commonwealth today high value in international relations.

-- The writer is National Director of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and the author, of Poverty to Prosperity: Globalisation, Good Governance and African Recovery.