Eye witness

July 9, 1999

Last month, Commonwealth secretary general Chief Emeka Anyaoku announced that his special envoy had successfully negotiated an end to civil unrest in the Solomon Islands. In the preceding three weeks observers reported on the Malawi general election, Nigeria returned to the Commonwealth after its suspension following the execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, and a Commonwealth-brokered agreement resolved a political crisis that has gripped Zanzibar for almost four years.

Promoting democracy within the Commonwealth's 54 nations has become a prime but often unsung role of the organisation. Monitors have assessed 30 elections since 1990, while the Commonwealth Ministers' Action Group (CMAG) specifically handled the Nigeria crisis. But other crises - in Kashmir and Sierra Leone - have defied solution.

CMAG's future role will feature at the heads of government meeting in South Africa in November, according to Peter Lyon, reader in international relations at London University's Institute of Commonwealth Studies. "Should CMAG shine its light of scrutiny only on military regimes, trying to influence them to re-civilianise? Or should its activities widen to promote democracy?" he asks.

Dr Lyon adds: "How these questions are answered will determine whether the Commonwealth will remain a timid association, or gain in credibility as a club that positively encourages the nurturing of democracy, not only in terms of free and fair elections, but on the wider issues of good governance, human rights and civil societies."

James Mayall, director of the Centre for International Studies at Cambridge University, says that the convention that neither Kashmir nor Sri Lanka is a subject of multilateral debate at Commonwealth summits has been maintained, but questions how long this can be sustained after the Harare Declaration's public commitment to uphold democratic values.

"The answer is not obvious, because the argument that self-determination should be understood as democratic self-government assumes that the identity of the state itself is never problematic."

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