No room for principles as Commonwealth club meets

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Indy Politics

By an accident of the alphabet, Tony Blair was placed next to the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, the latest member of the Commonwealth club to fall into disgrace for ignoring the organisation's founding principles by throwing an opposition leader in jail. Yet Mr Museveni was not the only offender of the Commonwealth's ideals. The Maldives President and the Kenyan delegate could see their countries accused of undermining the democratic values on which the Commonwealth now stakes its reputation. The Pakistani Prime Minister, whose country has been readmitted to the club despite President Pervez Musharraf's refusal to abandon his military uniform in violation of another Commonwealth principle, is also present. And the European countries in the hall last night have been accused by Mr Museveni of being "sinful" in their unfair trade practices.

The Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, whose country is about to execute a drug smuggler from Melbourne, is rubbing shoulders with John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, who attracted universal opprobrium at home for saying he would not raise the case of Nguyen Tong Van with Mr Lee during the Malta summit.

Mr Howard says he believes raising the case would be pointless. But his position has only led to more questions in Malta: if such issues cannot be raised over last night's dinner of crab mousse and sea bass after the summit was opened by the Queen, what is the Commonwealth for?

Mr Museveni was given a taste of what was in store for him in a meeting with Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth secretary general, who spent an hour on Thursday explaining that the arrest and military trial of the opposition leader Kizza Besigye, after he returned from exile to challenge Mr Museveni in next year's presidential election, "is leaving a lot of people disturbed". Mr Blair has also used the opportunity to urge Mr Museveni to use due process in Mr Besigye's trial.

Mr Museveni told journalists: "Nobody is trying to stop him from [running in] elections." He accused Britain, the former colonial power, of not having done anything to institute democracy. But he also knows that the organisation has ex-pelled or suspended countries that fail to live up to its democratic standards.

In the case of Uganda, the foreign ministers have already approved Kampala as the next summit venue, but as Mr McKinnon said yesterday: "Twenty-four hours is a long time in politics."

The Commonwealth set out its code of principles at the Harare summit in 1991 - a fact not lost on diplomats who note that Zimbabwe is no longer a member, after President Robert Mugabe stormed out of the last summit in Abuja in 2003 following the suspension of his country's membership.

The Harare principles reaffirmed the Commonwealth's belief that "international peace and order, global economic development and the rule of international law are essential to the security and prosperity of mankind". They committed the Commonwealth to protect democracy and democratic processes, fundamental human rights, and "the freest possible flow of multilateral trade on terms fair and equitable to all".

Mr McKinnon has been peppered with questions about the relevance of the Commonwealth today, as it is far from being the only forum to unite the developed and developing world. He argues that the fact that new members are knocking on the door is a sign of its continued vigour.

But while the leaders themselves insist on the value of the closed-door sessions, lower-level delegates openly describe the meeting as a waste of time.

Lord Triesman, attending on behalf of Jack Straw, could not even be bothered to turn his United Kingdom sign the right way up. An Asian delegate said: "I've always managed to avoid the Commonwealth, as it seems to be a neo-colonial organisation in which even the neo-colonials have lost interest."

On the agenda

* INTERNATIONAL LAW Tony Blair and the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, are accused of having broken international law by joining the US-led invasion of Iraq without UN authorisation. The Commonwealth's principles include upholding "the rule of international law".

* HUMAN RIGHTS The Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, below left, whose country is to host the next Commonwealth summit in 2007, is under fire for the arrest on treason charges of his main opposition leader who planned to challenge him in next year's presidential election. Kizza Besigye faces a military tribunal on terrorism and firearms charges in a trial seen as politically motivated. Diplomats and journalists are barred from the proceedings. The Commonwealth is supposed to guarantee "fundamental human rights".

* FAIR TRADE The three European Union countries at the summit - Britain, Cyprus and host government Malta - are accused of allowing the EU to backtrack on its commitments to allow greater agricultural access to developing countries in the Doha global trade round. Among Commonwealth principles is a pledge for "the freest possible flow of multilateral trade on terms fair and equitable to all".

* DEATH PENALTY Singapore's determination to hang a drug smuggler who is a national of fellow Commonwealth member Australia has led to calls for all 53 Commonwealth states to ban the death penalty.

* CORRUPTION According to last month's annual index of the independent corruption watchdog Transparency International, corruption is still rampant in Commonwealth states such as Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon and Pakistan. Nigeria is seen as a country where severe corruption has become chronic. The Commonwealth's principles include a call for "sound international management".

* DEMOCRACY The Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki, fired his cabinet after losing a constitutional referendum, and is ignoring opposition calls for fresh parliamentary elections, raising fears of authoritarian rule. He has mandated the outgoing Foreign Minister, Chirau Ali Mwakwere, to attend the Malta summit in his place. In the Maldives, Jennifer Latheef, a political opponent of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, below right, has been jailed for 10 years on terror charges after a trial seen as politically motivated. The Commonwealth stands for "free and democratic political processes".