British Commonwealth: Dinosaur or dynamic force?
As summit opens, former British Empire seeks relevance
October 24, 1997
Web posted at: 1:21 p.m. EDT (1721 GMT)
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EDINBURGH, Scotland (CNN) -- A four-day summit of the
Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies -- 54 nations
in all -- opened Friday with less pageantry than in the past,
a slick video, and, for the first time, a speech by Queen
Elizabeth II, the symbolic leader of 1.7 billion people.
Economic cooperation was high on the agenda for the
Commonwealth gathering, held once every two years. But human
rights matters also will figure heavily, especially the
question of what to do with Nigeria.
This is the first time in 20 years Britain has hosted a
Commonwealth summit, and the first time in the queen's
four-decade reign that she has addressed the opening
"For all the diversity of its members, the Commonwealth can
act globally," the queen told the delegates. "It is not a
selfish organization, and self-interest has no part to play
in its policies."
In his welcoming address, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the
presidents and prime ministers at the futuristic
International Conference Center that the summit will focus on
issues designed to make the Commonwealth relevant in a
competitive international economy.
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Buckingham Palace said the Commonwealth heads of government
had invited the queen to speak. Prince Charles, heir to the
British throne, and the queen's daughter, Princess Anne, also
were participating in some of the summit events.
'Family' friction with Nigeria
There are some family tensions at the reunion.
Nigeria, suspended two years ago after it executed nine
activists, including playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, had threatened
to send delegates -- uninvited. Britain said any members
from Gen. Sani Abacha's military government would be barred.
Commonwealth foreign ministers have recommended no new
sanctions against the African nation, news that disappointed
Nigerian dissidents and human rights activists.
But British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook warned on Friday
that the expulsion of Nigeria would be considered if it fails
to return to democracy and observe human rights.
Another Commonwealth member, Sierra Leone, remains barred
because of a military coup in May.
And outside the center, turbaned Sikhs demanding a separate
state for India's Punjab demonstrated alongside Sri Lankans
opposed to separatist Tamil violence and Nigerians protesting
their military government.
Blair is seeking to modernize the image of a Commonwealth
organization that grew out of an empire.
To that end, the opening ceremony featured a video showcasing
Britain's achievements in science, engineering, fashion and
finance. It portrayed a country that has abandoned its
imperial trappings to become a modern, vibrant economy.
Inside the conference center, a single kilted piper played,
replacing the pomp and musical performances at previous
conferences. Drummers then pitched in, and there was a
display of free-form dancing. Actor John Thaw intoned tales,
both modern and traditional, from Commonwealth countries.
In remarks prior to the conference, Blair urged Commonwealth
nations -- bound together by a colonial past -- to "show our
citizens how we can make (the Commonwealth) more relevant to
But is that possible?
"The Commonwealth has had consistently bad press," Ben
Pimlott of Birkbeck College noted. "It was originally seen as
a kind of hangover empire. People have long predicted its
Instead, however, the group is flourishing. Even countries
with no British imperial past, like Mozambique, have joined.
Others are asking to be let in, symbolizing the
Commonwealth's "dynamism, relevance (and) usefulness,"
Commonwealth Secretary General Memeka Anyoku said.
"The Commonwealth will confirm itself as a growing force for
the sustenance and promotion of democracy and good
governance," he told CNN.
From the Caribbean to Southeast Asia, the British
Commonwealth is perhaps the most diverse of all global clubs.
The challenge now is to make sure all those differences don't
preclude any real consensus.
Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this