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

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 who played golf wanted their scores to be publicly known.

It was 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 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.

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 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: "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.

According to Amnesty International, 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 intends 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 warned Cameroon it is failing to live up to its promised standards.

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 Mitchell O'Brien, an Australian project officer for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a New Delhi-based charity funded with aid money, said: "The Commonwealth ministerial action group needs its own human rights commissioner. 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."

Reporters Sans Frontieres, 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, it said, 21 journalists had been killed in Commonwealth countries and hundreds more arrested or tortured.

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."

AT A re-enactment yesterday of an Anglo-Boer war battle, Celia Sandys sustained a few more injuries than did her grandfather, Winston Churchill, who covered the war as a journalist 100 years ago. Ms Sandys felt the blast of a miniature cannon she lit to start the Churchill Run centenary road race. It backfired in her face, covering her in black powder. "All my grandfather got was a flesh wound. I had my face blown up," she said.

Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments