Commonwealth reform

Whatever proves to be the outcome of the Commonwealth's deferred decision on the fairness of next weekend's presidential election in Zimbabwe, it is clear that the existing decision-making procedures of this organisation are inadequate for the issues that face it and need reform if it is to have any credibility in the future. There are 54 members of the Commonwealth, a similar number to that of the membership of the United Nations when it first met in 1945. The architects of the UN recognised that even fifty nations would find it hard to reach agreement quickly and provided for fast-track decisions by the Security Council. The Commonwealth has a more difficult task because no votes are taken and agreement has to be reached by consensus. This is what Tony Blair described - unwisely some will think - as the “lowest common denominator” of the decision to defer judgement on the Zimbabwean election until the Commonwealth observers have reported.

It may turn out that last weekend's Commonwealth meeting in Australia will be the last of its kind. It certainly provided ammunition for those who claim that it is at best nothing more than a powerless talking shop. Many of the most valuable functions of the Commonwealth - exchanges of people and ideas in the professions, for instance could be continued without the political superstructure of the Heads of Government meetings But if these meeting are to continue and give the impression of being a political force for good in the world the Commonwealth must be provided with something similar to the UN's Security Council to enable action to be taken promptly when necessary. If such a mechanism had been in place the delays and dithering over Zimbabwe might have been avoided.


Human rights reports

The US State Department's annual human rights report has just been issued; it contains strong criticism of such old friends as Saudi Arabia and new-found friends such as Russia. China, which is neither friend nor foe at the moment is also given its usual black mark for its human rights record. It is difficult to know what to think about this report which is based on information from US Embassies and human rights organisations. It demonstrates both the idealism that persists in the best tradition of the United States and the opportunism and double standards that affect many of its policies. For instance the report describes the military campaign in Afghanistan as “a triumph for human rights” - a judgement that may well prove to be premature.

Israel is criticised for “questionable practices” and “excessive force” but the report goes on to put these abuses in the context of Israel's need to resist terrorist attacks by the Palestinians. Most countries listed as guilty of human rights infringements could make a special case for their actions. Russia, for instance, which is mentioned for its killings and arbitrary arrests in Chechnya, has been able very effectively to put these offences in the context of the global fight against terrorism.

The United States deserves praise for publishing information which cannot always be helpful to its diplomatic relations, but this information would surely have just as much, if not more, impact if it were to be compiled by one of the many conscientious international non-governmental organisations specialising in human rights?