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Commonwealth Sec Gen Sharma on G20, Africa and human rights

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Kamalesh Sharma, 2009. Photo: UNDP

Kamalesh Sharma, 2009. Photo: UNDP

Promoting the interests of Commonwealth countries was the primary focus of Commonwealth chief Kamalesh Sharma‘s meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday night, ahead of next week’s G20 finance ministers meeting.

Radio France Internationale

Interview: Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary General, Commonwealth

Sharma represents 54 countries across the world, including a number from Africa. The Commonwealth recently observed elections in Zambia and has a team in place for this weekend’s elections in Cameroon. However, there are some criticisms over the Commonwealth’s approach to holding countries accountable for their human rights record.

What are you expecting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as the president of the G20, to do in representing Commonwealth countries?

President Sarkozy has been very pioneering in pushing the G20 to do much more in terms of what the global agenda is, not just what’s on the minds of 20 people. This is in keeping with our view that the G20 should be the T20, the trustees of the world’s issues. Last year, I recall, he posed these questions: shouldn’t the G20 be discussing development, shouldn’t the G20 be discussing innovative sources of finance. So now that he’s going to chair the G20, we thought, that together with the Francophonie, it’s a very good time to discuss some of these important issues.

Cameroon, which is a member of both the Commonwealth and the organisation Francophonie, has elections on Sunday. Your organisation is running an observer mission like in 2004. Last time the Commonwealth’s mission said the elections lacked credibility. How democratic do you think these elections can be?

All work in the direction of democracy in our member states is a work in progress. We’ve been working very closely with Cameroon on the credibility and legitimacy of the elections for the citizens of Cameroon. I’ve visited Cameroon myself and discussed these issues, particularly the constitution of an independent election body, the Elecam. The Commonwealth has had a very big role to play in it and this is the first election with an independent election body. There were some members from political parties in it, but they had to resign from the political party. Our expectation is that the elections will prove to be an important landmark.

You said, “a work in progress”. How long can a work in progress go on for?

As far as it is constitutionally, for that country – it is not a matter that the Commonwealth would take an interest. What the Commonwealth always takes an interest in is substantive issues in the rule of law, the culture of democracy, the freedoms and rights of the citizens, and matters like this.

The Commonwealth had an observer mission in Zambia for recent elections, saying they strengthened the country’s democratic process. Newly elected President Michael Sata has already started to shake things up, fighting corruption and graft. However, this is worrying many foreign investors. How can you rid a country of so-called corruption, without upsetting inward investment?

I think you have to wait and see what the president does in terms of actual policy. I don’t think you should over-interpret what any leader says in the course of campaigning, when they’re not in power, or when they’re in the opposition. Because in the end when you’re governing a country your policies have to be such and serve the country, so we should not be jumping to conclusions. What I would say is, that the political environment in Zambia has been extremely encouraging for us. Because president Banda conceded defeat in a gracious way. He was also present when the swearing-in ceremony took place for the new president. I think this is a model transfer of power, particularly important in all democracies and in the context of Africa.

A recent report underlined human rights as the key question to the Commonwealth’s future. But when it comes to homosexuality, member states such as Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda victimise the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual community. What is the Commonwealth doing to combat this?

A very large number of our member states have colonial laws that criminalise homosexuality. It is something that they have inherited. But I have pointed out that criminalisation of this nature is not in keeping with Commonwealth values. It is at odds with Commonwealth values. I’ve urged them to look at it from the legal point of view, from the constitutional point of view. And find those means that are suitable for them to address this issue nationally.

Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth in 2003. Then in 2009 a Commonwealth communiqué made reference to engagement with Zimbabwe. We understand you’ll be providing a situation report for this year’s Heads Of Goverment meeting in Perth. What have you been doing to engage with Zimbabwe?

We have been engaging with them at the level of civil society. I have been quite open in my statement that we anticipate that the time will come when Zimbabwe would wish to rejoin the Commonwealth. In fact, the Heads in their statement, which you’ve referred to, have also anticipated that. I expect that the Heads would like to get, probably from the president of South Africa, and other leaders, particularly of the Sadc region in Africa, an impression or a readout, of where the situation is as far as constitutional changes are concerned. Which would then allow Sadc to observe and to endorse the elections that have to happen. I think, taking all this into account, it is possible, that they would like to say something further.

More generally, with the increasing influence of regional blocs like the EU and African Union, are you worried about the clout of the Commonwealth?

We are the most diverse organisation in terms of membership, of any organisation. We have significant representation from Africa, from Asia, the Carribean, the Pacific – countries of all sizes, all races, all religions are represented. Whatever we decide is a global contribution, is already a global product. We managed to do it on the question of debt, on the question of a protocol when migration of skills takes place, whether health workers or teachers. We’ve done it very significantly in spreading the culture of democracy, Commonwealth countries are very much in the lead. So our contribution from the very earliest times, has already been global. It’s only that the challenges of the 21st century, in terms of various crises, require concentrated attention.

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Written by Daniel Finnan

5 October 2011 at 19:48

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