Mediator tipped for Commonwealth job

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A FORMER rugby player and real-estate agent from New Zealand is widely tipped to become the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth when Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria steps down next year after 10 years at the helm. Don McKinnon, the foreign minister of New Zealand, whose candidacy was formally announced yesterday in Wellington is seen as Chief Anyaoku's most likely replacement: of the 54 members of the Commonwealth, about 30 have indicated they will back Mr McKinnon.

This is partly at least because he has geography on his side. There is an informal law of rotation at work in the Commonwealth which means that the top job should go to a different region in turn. So far, Canada, the Caribbean and Africa have each provided a secretary-general. This time, the position should go to someone from the Asia-Pacific region. So far the only other candidate is Farooq Sobhan, former permanent head of the Bangladeshi foreign ministry, with the possibility of further runners from India and Malaysia. But Malaysia is in bad odour at present, and the violent, and now nuclear-fanged rivalry of India and Pakistan means that neither country is able to field a candidate acceptable to the other - or to anyone else. In any case, in the Commonwealth as in all good clubs, hidden hatreds swirl below the surface, and India has no friends among the numerous island states of the Caribbean and the Pacific.

But quite apart from the law of rotation, Mr McKinnon, who has been New Zealand's foreign minister for eight years, has established a good reputation in his own right, as a champion of small states in the matter of debt relief and as one of the Commonwealth's leading negotiators with the Nigerian military government. He is deputy chairman of the Commonwealth's Monitoring Action Group, pressuring wayward states such as Nigeria, Gambia and Sierre Leone to return to democratic government.

But his most notable success has been in his role as a peacemaker, specifically in the bloody (and weirdly under-reported) war on the island of Bougainville. About 20,000 islanders - one in seven of the population - have died in this conflict between the Papua New Guinea government and Melanesian secessionists.

When the Papua New Guinea government of Sir Julius Chan decided to bring in the British "security consultants" Sandline International to wage war in Bougainville, the PNG army threatened mutiny, riots broke out in Port Moresby and the security of the whole region stood at risk. Mr McKinnon broke a nine-year deadlock by bringing the parties - the PNG government and the squabbling separatists - to a series of meetings at an army camp and a rural college campus in New Zealand, where he arranged a ceasefire, or rather allowed it to arrange itself, without deadlines or imposed solutions. "We were on Melanesian time," he said later. "There was no rushed decision- making... We set no agendas... All the parties needed time to assume ownership of the process." The ceasefire is still holding.

It was his achievements in Bougainville which gained Mr McKinnon a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and brought him to the notice of many Commonwealth leaders. The decision on the new secretary-general will not be made until Commonwealth leaders meet in South Africa in November 1999.