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Commonwealth Heads to Meet in Uganda


Commonwealth heads of government meet this week in Uganda, for a gathering the 53 nation group holds once every two years. Tendai Maphosa in London looks at why an organization dismissed by some as an irrelevant relic of the British Empire, still matters.

The first Commonwealth heads of government meeting was held in 1971 in Singapore. From 1944 until then, the meetings were known as Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conferences and were held in London, the exception being 1966 when it was held in Lagos.

Some people dismiss these meetings and the organization itself, saying it's Britain's way of trying to hold on to an empire that it lost long ago.

Eduardo del Buey, the Commonwealth's Official Spokesperson and Director of Communications, told VOA that that membership of the 53-nation association has nothing to do with history or sentimentality. Del Buey described the present day Commonwealth as a values based organization that has seen countries such as Mozambique, which have no colonial links with Britain becoming members.

"It's an organization that is made up of the very largest, very smallest economies; very largest very smallest populations, very largest very smallest in terms of geographical area," he said. "And, it's an organization that works by consensus. So I think it is more relevant than ever to have an organization that brings all these different peoples together to create a consensus view on the challenges facing humanity."

Democracy, good governance and respect for human rights are supposed to be the cornerstones of the Commonwealth but some members have been criticized for failing to live up to the ideals. Fiji's military coup in 2006 led to the island's second suspension from the organization. Pakistan, which was suspended for five years after General Musharraf staged a coup in 1999, faces suspension once again if it does not meet a list of demands including the lifting of the current state of emergency.

But del Buey emphasized that the Commonwealth is not a punitive organization, rather, he said, it helps countries in strengthening their democratic institutions.

Asked if holding the latest Commonwealth meeting in Uganda was not rewarding a government with a controversial human rights record, he said the Commonwealth was helping member states to be more democratic.

"We are working with President Museveni to improve Ugandan democracy, we are working with a lot of leaders to improve democracy in their countries. No country is perfect, we all have things to learn, we all have things to develop and the purpose of the Commonwealth is to help countries along to develop the institutions they need to be able to govern democratically," added del Buey.

Uganda's High Commissioner in London Joan Rwabyomere told VOA that holding the conference in Uganda would benefit her country in the short and long term.

She said telecommunications and other infrastructure had been built or updated for the meeting. This, she added, will create employment for Ugandans and boost tourism. Rwabyomere is a believer in the Commonwealth despite the organization having its foundation in colonialism.

"Our past no matter how painful can be a very strong instrument to keep us together, to help us consolidate the way forward. We have a shared history, we have a common language and we have so much can that we can share in common which can help us to forge ahead," said Rwabyomere.

Neville de Silva, who edits the online newspaper the Asian Tribune, said while the Commonwealth lacks the political or military clout of the United Nations or NATO it is doing a lot in terms of helping people from its developing member states.

"I think I must look at the economic and technical assistance the Commonwealth provides particularly to the developing countries and there has been a lot of work being done on various aspects from the legal to development," said de Silva.

De Silva said the Commonwealth could enhance its credibility by holding autocratic rulers to the same high standards it applies to military rulers.

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