Commonwealth leaders fret over half-hearted Britain

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The Independent Online
THE MOST heartfelt defence of the Commonwealth during the Heads of Government meeting in Cyprus came neither from John Major nor Paul Keating but from a one-time guerrilla with a less than wholehearted commitment to multi-party democracy.

Smiling broadly, Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan President, last week described his English-style school syllabus, which left him with an understanding of the geology of Britain. The Commonwealth is useful, he argued: 'At the Organisation of African Unity I speak through interpreters. Here I speak with people from the South Pole directly. The English brought their language and forced it on us but we have captured it. I think this is a useful starting point.'

It was a rare outburst in support of an institution whose raison d'etre is the subject of much questioning as most of the 50 heads of government undertake their traditional retreat today. For most Commonwealth leaders this meeting is primarily a round of dining, drinking and diplomatic networking. Better still, all this is well away from the TV cameras. The delegates are housed in a sealed zone of seaside hotels from which they emerge, occasionally, for receptions aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Given the opportunity to network in private it is little wonder that many of the world leaders value the meeting. 'Amid all the waffle,' said one British delegate, 'there is constant contact. I saw Benazir Bhutto at the Meridien Hotel; one minute she was talking to the president of the Maldives, the next to John Major.'

Aside from its function as an elite club, there lies uncertainty about what heads of government are doing in Cyprus, and worry about a lack of leadership from Britain.

In fact many important politicians are not there at all. One veteran described the line-up of heads of government as the least impressive ever seen at such a meeting. The prime ministers of India, Canada and New Zealand are absent - these countries are holding elections. But in the case of India the failure of the Prime Minister to attend chimes with a lack of enthusiasm for the institution. Critics know that Britain is less concerned with its Commonwealth links than its European Community ties or its relationship with the United States. They sense both a lack of energy and an unwillingness to devote resources, as proved by the British decision to cut funding for the Commonwealth Institute. Some also suspect latent racism in Britain's ambivalence.

India was central to the creation of the Commonwealth as it was the first republic to stay within the grouping (unlike Ireland and Burma). But 46 years on it is a big enough regional power to forge its own alliances, diminishing the relevance of the Commonwealth as a diplomatic instrument. According to the Indian journalist G H Jansen it is 'such a large counry with such problems that we don't want anything else to worry about. We don't think about the Commonwealth'.

These doubts are multiplied by the lack of a clear and incisive agenda now that South Africa is no longer a bone of contention. This, in turn, allowed the early stages of the meeting to be taken over by the Cyprus issue. Officials believe that the attempt to hijack the opening ceremony with images of the invasion of 1974 rebounded on the Cypriots. So too, they say, did the noisy demonstration against the Queen when she was presented with keys to the city of Nicosia. Britain had fought against Cyprus being the venue but was stymied when the New Zealand government refused to host this year's meeting because of elections there. They have done the decent thing by offering to host the next event in 1995.

The other themes highlighted by the Commonwealth suffered mixed fortunes. The commitment to democracy and good government will feature in the final communique. But it was complicated by the presence of a handful of leaders with few democratic credentials, such as Captain Valentine Strasser, the designer-clad 28-year-old Sierra Leone ruler. A number of countries, including Zambia and Kenya, have moved towards democracy, but progress is slow.

On Gatt the conference had more success, agreeing to send ministers to European capitals to press for a settlement. It was seen as an effective counterblast to the French, whose Commonwealth equivalent organisation of French-speaking states recently received fierce lobbying of the Paris line on trade talks.

But there is more than a suspicion that the French are doing things better. Richard Gunn, a member of the delegation of St Vincent and the Grenadines, said: 'The Commonwealth works for us, particularly in areas like technical assistance where its agencies are of immense help. But it is seen to be slightly diminishing while the French equivalent seems to be gaining strength.'

That view is shared in London as well. As a Conservative Foreign Office minister, Sir Richard Luce, now UK chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation, helped rally UN support for the British position after the invasion of the Falkland Islands. He believes Commonwealth votes swung the decision his way. He argues that this bank of goodwill is being wasted. 'Somehow the British government is getting the perception that there is no British interest here,' he said. 'I would like to think the Government could be more positive about an institution which gives us a special link with a complete cross-section of the globe. But we are not taking advantage of it.'

(Photograph omitted)