Monday, November 30, 2009

Commonwealth admits Rwanda, lashes Fiji

Suva, Fiji
Temp: 82 °F / 27.8 °C
Wind: 25.7 KMH
Mostly Cloudy - November 30, 2009

Leaders of the Commonwealth have admitted French-speaking Rwanda and admonished Fiji, as they emphasized their club's commitment to promoting democracy and human rights.

The decisions were set out in a statement at the close of the three-day summit in Trinidad's capital that also threw the Commonwealth's full weight behind climate talks soon to start in Copenhagen.

The Commonwealth, a grouping that now counts 54 members with Rwanda's inclusion, asserted that it remained a vital and relevant institution in the 21st century, having evolved from its origins as an alliance of former British colonies, while maintaining Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as its symbolic head.

Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma and other officials stressed that the 60-year-old body had a unique role because it represented a mix of significant economic powers, such as Britain, Australia and India, as well as "small and vulnerable" nations such as the Maldives, Vanuatu and Tuvalu.

Its voice was all the more powerful because it represented those of two billion people, or a third of the planet's population, they said.

"We should not underestimate the influence of this institution" in deciding world issues, said Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose country is to host the next Commonwealth summit in 2011.

That heft was applied on Saturday, when the Commonwealth said it fully backed efforts to negotiate a new climate pact at the December 7-18 talks in Copenhagen.

The message was boosted by the presence of three non-Commonwealth leaders on the first day of the summit who had a stake in seeing a successful outcome in Copenhagen: Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

"Success is in sight" at Copenhagen because of the Commonwealth's resolve, and because of announcements by the two biggest polluting nations, China and the United States, setting carbon reduction targets, Ban said.

The Commonwealth's belief it can also act as a moral mentor, nurturing better regard of human rights and democracy in the world, was brought to the fore in its decisions on Rwanda and Fiji.

The admission of Rwanda, reportedly at the behest of Britain, Australia and Canada, appeared to have some connection to a behind-the-scenes political deal with France, which had influence over the former Belgian colony in Africa until ties frayed in a round of mutual accusations following its 1994 genocide.

Within hours of Rwanda proudly saying the Commonwealth had taken it in, Sarkozy's office in Paris announced that long-frozen diplomatic ties with Kigali had been restored.

"My government sees this accession as recognition of the tremendous progress this country has made in the last 15 years," said Rwandan Information Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, quoted by the Rwandan daily New Times online edition.

The Commonwealth's Sharma said Rwanda's people "aspire to our values and principles and I conveyed a warm welcome to Rwanda on behalf of us all."

A British Foreign Office spokesman said the country had "made progress towards meeting the Commonwealth's core values" in areas of democracy, rule of law and human rights.

It was only the second time the Commonwealth had allowed in a country with no ties to Britain's colonial past, after the adherence of Mozambique 14 years ago.

Although human rights groups had opposed Rwanda's admission because of its poor rights record, Commonwealth officials expressed confidence that peer pressure by other nations in the organization would prove beneficial.

The club has already shown its willingness to freeze out members who veer too deeply into autocratic or brutal rule, as in the case of Zimbabwe. That country had its membership suspended until it unilaterally withdrew from the Commonwealth.

In their statement on Sunday, Commonwealth leaders applied the same tactic to Fiji, which was suspended in September.

They called on Fiji, led by strongman Voreqe Bainimarama who toppled the elected government in a December 2006 coup, to "commit itself to a credible, inclusive and time-bound political dialogue towards the restoration of constitutional civilian democracy without further delay."

They added that a decision to exclude Fiji from the 2010 Commonwealth Games was in line with the principle that "sporting ties are inseparable from the values of the association."

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