30 December 1998
1998 has seen the Commonwealth strengthening its democratic commitment - with notable advances in Sierra Leone and Nigeria - and demonstrating the importance it attaches to the sustainable development of its members, in a year which has seen some of the comfortable assumptions of globalisation rocked by the South-East Asian crisis. On the threshold of the 50th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth, in 1999, the association promises to be of yet greater relevance to its members and the wider world.
The Commonwealth's commitment to democracy, now the defining characteristic of the association, has been strengthened and upheld. In March, the brutal military junta in Sierra Leone was overthrown by ECOMOG forces and the democratically-elected Government of President Tejan Kabbah restored. The Commonwealth had given the lead in international opposition to the coup and had suspended the junta from participation in its own councils. The triumph of democracy implicit in the defeat of the junta was therefore enthusiastically welcomed in the Commonwealth. But the Commonwealth has a responsibility which goes further. A combination of the rebel war and the 11 months of junta rule has caused great dislocation in the economy and society. I hope that the resurgent rebel activity, which has intensified in recent days, will be swiftly and effectively dealt with. The Commonwealth has already embarked on a programme of technical assistance to Sierra Leone in assisting the restoration of law and order as a first step in the task of reconstruction. To that end, a Commonwealth Police Task Force is now on the second phase of its assistance in rebuilding the Sierra Leone police force. Other possible areas of assistance are currently under discussion with the government.
Another important political breakthrough has been in the Commonwealth's relations with Nigeria. The turning point was the accession to office of a new government headed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar in June with a credible commitment to restore Nigeria to democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. The Commonwealth has provided technical assistance to help Nigeria's Independent National Electoral
Commission in its task of organising the multiparty elections, the first phase of which was the Local Government Council Elections held at the beginning of December. It is our hope that the remaining stages of the transition will prove just as credible and lead, at the conclusion of the process, to Nigeria's restoration to full Commonwealth membership.
The four-yearly Commonwealth Games were this year held in Kuala Lumpur in
September and were the largest since their inception. In bringing together sportsmen and women from all the corners of the Commonwealth, it was a true celebration of the vibrancy of the people's Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is the stronger for its unofficial dimension.
The year under review has been one of considerable economic uncertainty. The financial crisis which began in South-East Asia last year and which has since spread to other regions of the world has now been accepted as the most serious in the last three decades. According to official estimates, it has already cost the world economy some US$260 billion, with its full impact still to be felt. The Commonwealth has played a front-line role in the efforts to find an effective international response to the crisis. The most significant Commonwealth initiative in this regard was the Ottawa Statement on the Global Economic Crisis issued by Commonwealth Finance Ministers in September. Among other things, the Statement called for a global meeting to provide high-level political impetus for agreement on reforms of the global monetary and financial system by the year 2000.
Additionally, the Commonwealth Secretariat has been helping member countries to attract and cope with private capital flows through its policy advice and technical assistance work. The Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative designed to channel long-term commercial investments to Commonwealth developing countries has now taken off. During the course of this year, the Kula Fund was established for the Pacific Region and the Tiona Fund was launched for the Commonwealth Caribbean, to operate alongside the African and Asian Funds.
Another major economic initiative launched this year was a Trade and Investment Access Facility mandated by the Edinburgh Heads of Government Meeting last year. Several projects have been launched under the Facility to help least developed and small states to maximise the opportunities of globalisation of trade and finance.
The special needs of small states arising from their vulnerability continue to be of central concern to the Commonwealth. In July, a small Ministerial Group visited Washington, Brussels and Geneva to discuss the concerns of small states with major multilateral agencies. As a result, a joint World Bank/Commonwealth Secretariat Task Force has been established to develop specific proposals and programmes to help reduce the vulnerability of small states and to accelerate their economic development.
However, much remains to be done. In addition to advancing economic development, the Commonwealth is committed to contributing to peace, democracy and stability in its member countries. In Sri Lanka every effort must be made to help bring to an end a long-running civil war which has inflicted such human suffering and has sapped development efforts for well over a decade. Cyprus remains divided. And there is the persisting problem of terrorism, which continues to destabilise the political, economic and social order of sovereign states.
The Commonwealth will of course play its part in helping to resolve these challenges in the year ahead. In this regard, 1999 is a year of special significance for the association. It marks the 50th anniversary of the London Declaration which reconciled republicanism with membership of the Commonwealth and so made possible the emergence of the modern Commonwealth. 1999 will also be the year when, for the first time, the Commonwealth will meet at the summit on the soil of a South Africa cleansed of the stain of apartheid. The one signifies imaginative flexibility, the other what the Commonwealth can achieve when guided by its highest principles. The Commonwealth will need this blend of attributes as it works in partnership with the wider international community to meet the pressing challenges of the new millennium.
98/87 30 December 1998