Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

COMMONWEALTH: Come To Us, People Tell Leaders

Ferial Haffajee

ABUJA, Dec 2 2003 (IPS) - Civil society representatives have sent an urgent request to government leaders to hold talks with them Thursday, ahead of the official opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

In a letter signed and delivered Monday (Dec. 1) the 12 activists, who represent a wide variety of groups, laid a thinly veiled charge of double standards against the heads of government, when they pointed out that these leaders were expected to meet business representatives under the auspices of the Commonwealth Business Council.

"We find it bizarre that such a privilege is extended to the business community but not to civil society," said Martin Sime of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisation. At present, Abuja is also hosting a Commonwealth People’s Forum – a civil society summit that is being held alongside the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Sources say that the Nigerian government is keen for such a dialogue to take place, but that other Commonwealth leaders are hesitant about the meeting. However, the civil society advisory committee says such talks would be consistent with the Commonwealth’s plans to refashion itself for the 21st century.

The civil society letter quotes from the Coolum Declaration, which was signed at a CHOGM held in Australia last year. "We are convinced of the need for stronger links and better two-way communication and coordination between the official and non-governmental Commonwealth, and among Commonwealth NGO’s", says the declaration.

The advisory committee wants a two-hour meeting on Thursday with a selected group of six heads of state and a limited number of civil society representatives, to discuss poverty eradication, world trade, and partnerships between government and civil society. They have also asked for Commonwealth Foundation Chair Graca Machel to lead the meeting.

Pointing out that the Commonwealth always called civil groups "partners", Simes said: "We don’t feel like partners at the moment."

Since the last CHOGM held about two years ago, civil society has become more organised and grown exponentially, says Simes, adding that the sector is increasingly taking responsibility for service delivery.

But since the Coolum meeting, little had been done to make concrete the pledges and commitments on partnership.

"At present it [the Commonwealth] lags behind other international institutions such as the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, which have instituted direct links with civil society organisations," says the letter.

It adds that, "While Commonwealth meetings are valued as places where countries meet on more equal terms than in other international fora, at the same time civil society has less opportunity to engage than in other fora."

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