The joining of Rwanda goes to confirm the vibrancy of the Commonwealth, 60 years after establishment. Rwanda’s membership is likely to create interest in other countries keen to be part of this club, perhaps the most cohesive of blocs bringing together for British colonies By Manoah Esipisu
The Port of Spain Summit coincided with the 60th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth. In 1949 the last remnants of colonialism died when eight leaders agreed they were no longer required to owe a common allegiance to the British crown. Instead, they agreed to being ‘free and equal’ members of an association of independent countries. Since then, this group of countries – united by shared values, including democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and human rights – has grown in membership. At this CHOGM leaders unanimously agreed to welcome Rwanda as the latest and 54th member. Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma, who called President Paul Kagame to convey the leaders’ decision, said that the desire from Rwanda to join the association highlights the vibrancy of the association.
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete simply said: “It was a great decision. Rwanda deserves it.” Kikwete was joined at the meeting by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and Zambia’s Vice President George Kunda.
The Commonwealth’s vibrancy was demonstrated in the statements agreed on by leaders, covering a massive range of issues. One area of focus was the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), a unique body made up of a rotating group of nine foreign ministers, who have the authority to suspend a member that persistently flouts the association’s values. Heads agreed that consideration should be given to strengthening the role of CMAG in order to increase the effectiveness of this already unparalleled body. They also deliberated on Zimbabwe, which withdrew its membership the Commonwealth in 2003, having been suspended since the previous year. The Global Political Agreement on power-sharing in Zimbabwe was welcomed by the Commonwealth leaders who “expressed the hope that this would be implemented faithfully and effectively.” The heads also looked forward to “the conditions being created for the return of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth. When cabinet met under sea, ordinarily a cabinet meeting in the Maldives wouldn’t enjoy global news coverage, but one particular gathering in October captured the attention of media all over the world. What marked it out from others was the fact that it took place underwater.
For weeks the President, Vice-President and other cabinet ministers trained for the dive, which culminated with a meeting where whiteboards and hand signals were used to communicate, while they sat on tables fixed to the seabed. This stunt was engineered by the President Mohamed Nasheed to highlight the effects of climate change being felt in the Maldives. A month after this – the first ever underwater cabinet meeting - Nasheed flew to Trinidad and Tobago for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and had his colleagues cheering, amazed that the stunt was pulled off to great aplomb. Speaking in Port of Spain, Nasheed warned that if there is a 2 degree rise in global temperatures “we won’t be around, we will be underwater.” The existential threat posed by global warming to countries like Maldives was discussed by Nasheed and some 40 other Commonwealth leaders, whose timely meeting came just days before the long anticipated United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen.
In an unprecedented move, Commonwealth Heads of Government were joined by the UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, as well as two non-Commonwealth leaders – President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Lars Rasmussen, the Prime Minister of Denmark Recognising the opportunity afforded to them of a gathering of so many Heads shortly before talks in the Danish capital, they thrashed out a strongly-worded declaration on climate change, which commits to focusing efforts “on achieving the strongest possible outcome” in Copenhagen. “The latest scientific evidence indicates that in order to avoid dangerous climate change that is likely to have catastrophic impacts we must find solutions using all available means” the Port of Spain Climate Change Consensus stated. “We must act now.”
This declaration spoke directly to the plight of the Maldives and other small island states by welcoming “a proposal to provide immediate, fast disbursing assistance with a dedicated stream for small island states, and associated low-lying coastal states of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) of at least 10 per cent of the fund.” Heads also welcomed the initiative to establish a Copenhagen Launch Fund for developing countries, which would start in 2010 and build to $10 billion a year by 2012. This was the 21st CHOGM, and the third to be held in the Caribbean. At some of these monster meetings when policy wonks, advisers, ministers and journalists all take over a poor, unsuspecting city, you can often go the whole week stuck in the conference centre, blissfully unaware of any sense of culture.
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