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From Issue 43 - Summer 2002

Strengthening democracy in the Pacific

The Commonwealth is in the vanguard of the fight to safeguard political rights and the economic interests of small states, says DON McKINNON

At their meeting in Coolum, Australia, in March, Commonwealth Heads of Government reaffirmed their commitment to the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth as set out in the Harare Declaration established in 1991. But it is important to remember that the Commonwealth does not only state its commitment to democracy, freedom of expression, respect for diversity, the protection of human rights and the rule of law. We also uphold these values. In 1995, a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was established to deal with serious or persistent violations of the Harare Principles and penalise member countries that fall foul of the rules.

Until recently, the Commonwealth was the only international organisation where a group such as CMAG existed. It is encouraging to see that the Pacific Islands Forum has now adopted a similar mechanism. The Biketawa Declaration, signed in October 2000, established a detailed mechanism to assist in the resolution of political crises in member countries. The Biketawa Declaration gives Pacific leaders a range of options to help solve political crises, including the creation of a Ministerial Action Group, convening an eminent persons' group, third party mediation, and ad hoc meeting of Forum leaders and, if all else fails, the imposition of targeted measures.

At Coolum, Heads of Government increased the Commonwealth's power to uphold these fundamental political values by deciding to broaden the remit of CMAG. From now on, CMAG has a clear mandate to take effective action against member countries which are in serious or persistent violation of the Harare Principles even when there has not been any unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically-elected government. This will also reinforce CMAG's conflict prevention function: CMAG will be able to take action when there is a persistent abuse of human rights (against a minority group, for example).

Eight Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, including a representative of Samoa, will meet regularly to examine alleged violations with the aim of keeping the shared Commonwealth standards in this respect under constant review. The good offices role of the Secretary-General has also been strengthened, so that in the future we can do more work on conflict prevention. A greater focus will be given to peace-building, and post-conflict capacity building. This is precisely one of the areas where the Commonwealth has been involved in the Pacific.

I would like to give two examples of cases where the Commonwealth has intervened to help prevent conflicts and uphold democratic principles in the Pacific.

The Solomon Islands : After the October 2000 Townsville peace agreement, an international peace monitoring team was set up to monitor compliance with the agreement. The Commonwealth contributed representatives to this team. Following the national elections in December 2001, a new government led by Prime Minister Kemakeza took power. A Commonwealth observer group was present during the elections and concluded that they were successful in expressing the will of the people.

Today, Kemakeza's Government faces a huge task in rebuilding the national economy. Its main priority at the moment is to address the problems within the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force affecting the force's capability
in upholding law and order in Honiara.

Fiji : When the democratically elected government of Fiji was unconstitutionally overthrown in May 2000, I went to Fiji to call for the unconditional release of the Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and other hostages.

In June, Fiji was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth. The hostages were released in July but the 1997 Constitution remained suspended. In December 2000, I appointed Justice Pius Langa, Deputy President of the South African Constitutional Court, as a special envoy to assist Fiji to return to constitutional democracy and to
help forge a national unity.

Justice Langa has made six visits to Fiji. He has met the President, the interim government, leading opposition figures, the NGO community, religious and other interest groups, as well as the diplomatic community and has been able to intercede at high levels in order to provide timely advice. Elections were held in August and September 2001 and were determined to have been free and fair by the Commonwealth observer group.

On 15 February 2002, Fiji's Court of Appeal ruled that Section 99 of the 1997 Constitution obliged Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase to invite seven to eight Labour Party parliamentarians as members of his cabinet. While Prime Minister Qarase has appealed the court decision, he publicly declared that he would however, abide with the Court's 'final' decision. CMAG has now lifted Fiji's suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth, but retains Fiji on its agenda until such time as the issue over the constitutionality of the formation of the present government is resolved. Justice Pius Langa remains engaged in promoting national unity and reconciliation amongst the different ethnic groups.


Pacific Islands are small states, and as such, they share with other small states specific needs, interests and vulnerabilities that need to be acknowledged. Of the 54 member countries of the Commonwealth, 32 are small states.

The Commonwealth is the first organisation that recognised the special characteristics of small states and developed a set of tools to help these countries deal with the unique challenges they face. In 1999, we developed a vulnerability index showing the level of small state vulnerability. These vulnerabilities relate to a number of factors, such as remoteness and isolation, susceptibility to natural disasters, limited diversification, lack of critical mass, access to external capital, poverty - the list goes on.

More specifically, globalisation and climatic change are two of the main challenges Pacific Islands and small states in general are confronted with today. Over the past 20 years, the forces of globalisation have transformed the landscape of the world economy. Competing in the global trading market is difficult enough for a large country, but it is even harder for small states.

Many Pacific Island states have been encouraged, over the years, to liberalise their economies; but larger developed countries have, on the whole, maintained high trade barriers on agricultural products and textiles, two sectors where small nations are most competitive. Those trade barriers cost developing countries US$100 billion a year twice as much as they receive in aid.

In addition, like other small states, Pacific nations face the problem of losing professionals in every sector at a faster rate than other countries. For a Pacific island to lose one senior economist often means losing a third of its economic intelligentsia.

Climatic change is another acute problem that affects Pacific nations. The rise in sea levels constitutes a real threat for many Pacific islands. Some studies have shown that Tuvalu could be washed away within 50 years. At its meeting in March this year, the Commonwealth's ministerial group on small states renewed the Commonwealth commitment to help its members face these challenges and ensure that smaller member states have the opportunities to achieve their potential and to play their part in the global economy.

In this respect, we are active on many fronts.

First, we assist our member states in the process of integrating their economy into the global trading system. The balance is often tipped against small states in global trade negotiations. We can address this problem by providing experts who can assist them in negotiations and ensure that they do not lose out.

We have also been urging developed countries to make a sustained effort to reduce their own trade barriers and give small states and developing countries increased access to their markets. A world of free trade where some countries have more freedom to trade than others is simply unacceptable. All too often, the message to developing economies has been: you liberalise, we subsidise.

I was particularly encouraged by the World Trade Organisation's decision in Doha to launch a development round and to start the ball rolling on an agenda specifically for small states. The Commonwealth helps small states make their voices heard in international forums. That is why we set up a Small States Office to facilitate their representation at the United Nations in New York. I hope we can do the same in Geneva.

We have initiated the creation of special funds to encourage investment in small states and we have been actively involved in helping small countries find outlets for their exports and in training their trade officials.

The Commonwealth spends about 15 per cent of its annual technical assistance budget on projects in member countries in the Pacific. Over the last year, advisers have been provided in the areas of multilateral trade, marine pollution and fisheries law management


In this overview, I have tried to outline different aspects of our work in the Pacific region. I have outlined our conflict prevention initiatives, and focused on the work we do to help Pacific countries build stronger economies and provide a better future for their people. But in all that I have said, I have only talked about what the Commonwealth can bring to its members in the Pacific.

We should not forget what Pacific nations bring to the Commonwealth as a whole. Our Pacific members play a crucial role in our Commonwealth of Nations. They make us stronger. They add to our influence. They are an integral part of our diverse identity.


Mr. Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General, is a former Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand. He was also his country's longest-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He chaired the Commonwealth small states meeting at the Auckland summit in 1995, and was appointed to the five member Commonwealth ministerial mission on small states in 1998. He holds two honorary Matai (Chiefly) titles from Samoa.


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The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Mr. Don McKinnon




















Mr McKinnon addressing the Society's AGM 2002