No quick fixes on the road to democracy: As the Commonwealth's leaders gather this week for their biennial summit, Emeka Anyaoku sees much cause for optimism

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The Independent Online
AT THEIR last meeting in Harare in October 1991, Commonwealth leaders set an agenda for action by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which listed among its priorities such issues as the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. When they meet at their next biennial summit on Thursday in Cyprus, the heads of government will review this agenda as part of their discussions on how the Commonwealth translate into practical action their aspirations for their countries and for a better world.

The Harare meeting agenda also called for action to alleviate poverty, and covered development and environmental issues. Leaders decided the Commonwealth would continue to work to end apartheid and establish a non-racial democracy in South Africa, to help small member states and to support the United Nations and promote international consensus on global issues.

In the past, critics have been able to point out that many Commonwealth countries were military or civilian dictatorships. The promotion of a democratic ethic is now one of the central planks in the Commonwealth's work programme. Leaders have proclaimed their belief in democracy and market economics, although they recognise that the democratic processes and institutions may have to reflect national circumstances. In pursuit of their commitment, I have concentrated on ensuring that those countries which are moving to multi-party democracy after years of military or one-party rule get the best assistance that I can provide.

During the past two years I have sent observer groups to monitor multi-party elections in Bangladesh, Zambia, Seychelles, Guyana, Ghana, Kenya and Lesotho and, most recently, Pakistan. All these countries were either taking the first difficult steps in the transition to democratic government or had a caretaker government anxious to ensure that competing political parties would not be able reasonably to cast aspersions on the electoral process. It is gratifying to me to know that soon all member states will be democratic and that the Commonwealth will be in a position to confound its enemies.

At our meeting in Cyprus this week I will be able to share with leaders some of the difficulties we have faced in carrying out this mandate. I will be able to tell them that 'one-day' democracy on polling day is only a beginning: I have had to increase considerably the work we are doing to strengthen institutions that sustain democracy and civil society, and protect and promote human rights. Technical assistance has had to be provided to strengthen electoral commissions and support administrative reform. I have also initiated and supported programmes of mutual assistance to establish and develop national human rights institutions. Key elements in these programmes are the encouragement of broad-based debate about democracy and human rights, the development of appropriate educational programmes and the training of specialist officials.

The message I will leave with Commonwealth leaders - and others struggling to come to terms with the worldwide upsurge in democratic ideals and demands for fundamental freedoms - is that democracy is best served by a patient search for constitutional and electoral arrangements which succeed locally. Such arrangements nurture the democratic culture and overcome the ethnic and religious divisions that often impede the achievement of a cohesive plural democracy. There is no alternative to this patient search, even if it sometimes fails. The collapse of Communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia shows that often only two options remain: democracy or anarchy.

This recognition has led many developing countries to embrace democracy with a fervour born of desperation. But this faith cannot be sustained in the face of an increasingly impossible economic situation; hence the equally important emphasis given to Commonwealth programmes that support members' efforts at socio-economic development. But there are no quick fixes.

There is no quick fix in South Africa either. Here the choice between democracy and anarchy is stark. Appropriate external investment will resume only when political stability is achieved and the current level of violence greatly reduced.

The Commonwealth has long worked for change in South Africa. It was given an added opportunity to continue this work when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 772 in August 1992. This called for UN observers, together with missions from the Commonwealth, the EC and Organisation of African Unity, to help to arrest violence in South Africa by observing the conduct of parties and law enforcement agencies and helping to strengthen the structures set up under the National Peace Accord.

The Commonwealth Observer Mission to South Africa has achieved results. Besides monitoring developments, Comsa members have given advice, initiated training and encouraged support for the Peace Accord. The mission's conciliation efforts have led to peace talks in troubled rural regions and the safe return of hundreds of people displaced by violence. Comsa's contribution has been welcomed in South Africa by the government and the ANC.

After the announcement of a 27 April 1994 election date, I was urged that Comsa should continue, and I have widened its expertise to meet electoral needs. A programme of technical assistance has been developed to strengthen the National Peace Accord and assist the transition to democracy.

Elections will not, however, end the Commonwealth's role, which must now work to help to build post-apartheid South Africa. The groundwork has already been laid. After the elections an international donor conference, initiated by the Commonwealth, will meet to mobilise support for the human resource needs, such as education.

There is no doubt that with the collapse of the Cold War, the international fabric needs to be restored. The world lacks effective trans-regional tools for this task. Alongside the reform of the United Nations, and rethinking and reviving of regional co-operation, the strengthening of the Commonwealth's ability to be a growing force for good among member states and in the wider world is now imperative.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

(Photograph omitted)

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