Angry partners put Britain in dock

Commonwealth Conference: Abacha will get most brickbats, but Major can expect censure for defending French nuclear tests
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The Independent Online

The Queen has already arrived, after travelling on a common-or-garden first-class plane ticket for the first time in her life. John Major arrives on Wednesday for talks with New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jim Bolger. Then on Friday the Main Event begins.

The Commonwealth Conference, which is being held in Auckland until next Monday, has a mixture of the good, the bad and the controversial on its agenda. First comes the historic, feel-good part. The conference - the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, known as CHOGM, to rhyme with "flog 'em" - will sound fanfares for Nelson Mandela, who is attending his first summit as South African leader.

The Commonwealth prides itself that it helped play a role in helping South Africa on the path to democracy. There is no mistaking the pride of the Commonwealth secretary-general, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, that South Africa was so quick to rejoin the organisation which the apartheid government had swept out of in a huff. Mr Mandela applied for renewed South African membership only a fortnight after his inauguration as President last year.

South Africa's return to the fold is seen as a double victory marking not only the triumph of non-racial democracy but a confirmation of the importance of the Commonwealth itself. South Africa, once the ultimate pariah, looks set to become one of the most important members in the club.

What began as a post-imperial association has become a mutual-support group for democracy and development, where Britain's role is less and less crucial. The Queen is still head of the Commonwealth, a position that she will retain; in some respects, she represents the continuity of the Commonwealth. But Britain is not the moving force that it was, nor even, perhaps, the binding glue. It is unclear whether King Charles III will be the head of the Commonwealth.

The Secretariat of the Commonwealth is still based in London. But Britain is now just one member among many (52 as of this week). These days, it is as likely to be at odds with the rest of the Commonwealth as it is to be in the mainstream.

This week Britain will spend some time in the dock. London's soft-pedalling on French nuclear testing in the Pacific is unpopular with many member- states.

In Auckland, the demonstrators look set to be out in force. Even in the politer confines of the conference hall, there are likely to be harsh words. The host country, New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific island states are all indignant at France's defiance of world opinion, and Britain's perceived snuggling up to France is not appreciated.

But the main brickbats will be aimed at General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's military leader, assuming he does not decide to stay at home.

With remarkable timing, General Abacha's courts last week pronounced a death sentence on the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. Mr Anyaoku, himself a Nigerian, did not hide his anger at the action, which triggered worldwide protests. Nigeria's trampling of human rights will figure prominently in debates this week.

Officials emphasise that the Commonwealth is not a rule-based organisation. The possibility of threatening Nigeria with expulsion is remote. Equally, however, the Harare declaration, which was signed at the Commonwealth conference of 1991, spelt out a commitment to democratic norms. The Harare declaration now serves as a kind of Commonwealth touchstone.

The revolutions that toppled Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had the knock-on effect of weakening one-party regimes elsewhere. Africa ceased to be a proxy battleground for the Cold War, where dictators could enjoy being propped up by Moscow or Washington as honoured representatives of "socialism" or "the free world". Now, in Mr Anyaoku's words, there are "only" three military regimes still in place: in Sierra Leone, Gambia and Nigeria. Mr Anyaoku sees one of the aims of the Commonwealth as being to help "the democratic ethic to take root".

Despite the controversies, the Commonwealth can afford to remain upbeat, not least because a queue is forming to join. South Africa's new membership may be the first in a long line. Cameroon's bid to join the Commonwealth was approved last week. Mozambique's ties with the Commonwealth are closer than before, and there are reports that the former Portuguese colony might join.

Mr Anyaoku says the Commonwealth can still expand, though its "special qualities" must remain. Certainly, the Commonwealth need have no fear of being declared redundant, not while its members still see it as an anchor of stability in an unstable world.