Fine words ­ but cruel deeds

The Commonwealth may be a 'gentleman's club', but it does not bar torturers and despots, writes Alex Duval Smith in Durban
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair had a tennis lesson with a coach whose identity was not revealed, Cherie went to the gym, and none of the heads of government opting for a game of golf wanted their scores to be publicly known.

Tony Blair had a tennis lesson with a coach whose identity was not revealed, Cherie went to the gym, and none of the heads of government opting for a game of golf wanted their scores to be publicly known.

It was yet another day in the secretive life of the Commonwealth. As the leaders gathered for their traditional summit retreat in the scenic town of George, their critics condemned them yesterday as a "gentlemen's club" for politicians, with little interest in the plight of the organisation's 1.8 billion subjects, many of whom enjoy less than perfect human rights.

So far, however, the four-day summit, has been dominated by a new spat between Britain and Zimbabwe's anti-gay President Robert Mugabe, who claimed the former colonial power was run by a cabinet of "gay gangsters". (Recently he was the target of a "citizen's arrest" in London by the campaigning group Outrage!) Britain chose to get "not very worked up" over the accusations, according to Mr Blair's spokesman, Alastair Campbell.

In George President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was expressing the hope that the retreat would provide a "quiet atmosphere, away from the glare of publicity, for reflection". The most important thing for the Commonwealth, he told reporters was "to commonise [sic] our views".

Back in the host city of Durban, however, human rights campaigners were deploring the organisation's extremely limited plans to promote democracy among its members.

The 53 countries present for the conference will tomorrow undertake to extend the role of the Commonwealth's ministerial action group, charged with dealing with offending governments, in three areas. They will condemn governments which postpone elections beyond their constitutional term; those which ban "legitimate political activities by opposition parties of the media"; and club members guilty of "systematic violations of fundamental human rights through the abrogation of the rule of law or the independent judiciary".

Ilana Cravitz of the London-based anti-censorship group, Article 19, said: "The changes represent a welcome clarification of the group's mandate, but we had hoped for a greater commitment to assisting members in improving their human rights records."

The Commonwealth contains some of the world's poorest and most undemocratic countries. Although observers welcomed Britain's move to promote the fight against Aids and illiteracy, they pointed out that these areas are mere adjuncts to a broader need for democracy.

In a review for the Independent on Sunday yesterday, Amnesty International found that 17 Commonwealth countries fall foul of the three new guidelines. They include Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Swaziland, as well as Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore.

The Commonwealth is intending to clamp down on certain offending members. Apart from giving Pakistan two years to return to democracy, it will send an investigative mission to Gambia and has sent a warning to Cameroon for failing to live up to standards promised in Edinburgh.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, told the Independent on Sunday: "It has been heartening, in meetings, to see peer-pressure at work. That is what the action group is about. Across the world and in particular in the Commonwealth, there is a strong recognition of the need for good governance."

But the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a New Delhi-based charity funded with aid money, said the necessary mechanism still needed to be put in place for real progress to be achieved. "The Commonwealth ministerial action group needs its own human rights commissioner," said Mitchell O'Brien, an Australian project officer for the human rights initiative. "At present it consists of eight foreign ministers and is chaired by Zimbabwe.

"You are never going to see action against a country like Zimbabwe when its foreign minister is sitting at the top of the table . Malaysia is also on the action group and until the membership rotates it will not be effective," he said.

Reporters Sans Frontiÿres, the Paris-based lobby group for media freedom, said 13 Commonwealth countries were currently in breach of fundamental principles of free-speech.

"Since the last conference in Edinburgh," said its representative in Durban, Vincent Brossel, "21 journalists have been killed in Commonwealth countries and hundreds have been arrested or tortured." But he welcomed the extension of the Commonwealth ministerial action group's remit. "At least the pressure groups will have something to work on."

Don McKinnon, the former New Zealand foreign minister chosen as the new Commonwealth secretary-general by a secret consensual vote, has been described as ''the politicians' choice'', and confirmed democracy campaigners' fears with his first remarks. "We must advance the democratic agen-da," he said. "But we come from different parts of the world and maybe we have different values. The Commonwealth ministerial action group is not there to be a big stick. Consensus must remain a guiding principle."

One human rights campaigner said, on condition of anomymity: "We despair. This is a gentlemen's club obsessed with the idea of consensus, and therefore produces proposals which are just too wide."

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