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Zimbabwe Will Not Overshadow Commonwealth Meeting, says McKinnon - 2003-10-16

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon says the group's leaders are determined not to let the controversy surrounding Zimbabwe overshadow their heads of government meeting next month. He also admits that there is no consensus among the member states as to how to handle the Zimbabwe matter.

The 54 Commonwealth heads of government meet every two years or so to discuss issues affecting them all. The next, so-called, CHOGM meeting is being held in Nigeria in early December.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon says many members feel that the controversy over Zimbabwe dominated the last heads of government meeting, held in Australia, and distracted from its other work.

"We have 54 Commonwealth leaders, and a very large proportion of those leaders have said we want to make sure this CHOGM is all about development, development and democracy," he said. "We do not want it overshadowed by Zimbabwe."

The Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe last year, after presidential elections that the group's observer mission condemned as deeply flawed. The heads of government are expected to decide at their meeting in Nigeria whether to continue Zimbabwe's suspension.

Some of the members want Zimbabwe readmitted, and Mr. McKinnon acknowledges that the suspension does not seem to have produced many concrete results.

Mr. McKinnon said there is little agreement among members on what to do next. "There is no real consensus now," he said. "I have always said there are three or four, or five different views among the African leaders I talk to on how to actually deal with Zimbabwe at the present time, as a member state. As to what the leaders will do when they gather together in CHOGM, I certainly do not have any crystal ball."

Senior Commonwealth officials say privately that they doubt the heads of government will decide to bring Zimbabwe back into the fold unless there has been some kind of breakthrough before the meeting in December.

Mr. McKinnon says the group set five conditions for Zimbabwe's readmission, including the repeal or amendment of some repressive laws, and an end to harassment of the opposition. But the key, he says, is getting the ruling party and the opposition to start talking to each other and trying to forge some kind of solution.

"The genuine feeling is, we have to engage," he said. "We have to encourage them to do certain things, and it all begins with there must be really substantial dialogue between the two major parties. And I think everyone feels that if you can get substantial dialogue between those two major parties, MDC and ZANU-PF, other things can be made a little easier."

Mr. McKinnon says every Commonwealth member country approaches the Zimbabwe matter from its own perspective, and many of them are partly driven by domestic political pressures in deciding which path to advocate.

He admits that the Commonwealth's relationship with Zimbabwe has soured in recent years, but he says the group continues to stand by the Zimbabwean people. He says he hopes the situation will change soon and they can begin to repair that damage.