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C'wealth leaders to meet, Pak to dominate talks

Queen Elizabeth II and government leaders from the Commonwealth meet this week for their biennial summit, with concern over the situation in Pakistan likely to dominate talks.

world Updated: Nov 20, 2007 08:44 IST

Queen Elizabeth II and government leaders from the Commonwealth meet in Uganda this week for their biennial summit, with concern over the situation in member state Pakistan likely to dominate talks.

Foreign ministers from the 53-nation grouping last week gave President Pervez Musharraf an ultimatum to restore the country's constitution and lift the state of emergency by November 22 or face suspension.

The deadline falls at the end of the foreign ministers' meeting in Kampala and on the eve of the official opening of the three-day summit, where talks about moves to democracy in Pakistan had already been put high on the agenda.

But with army general Musharraf refusing to lift the state of emergency he imposed on November 3 and growing dissent from opposition groups, the crisis could eclipse other key issues like climate change and poverty reduction.

At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on the Mediterranean island of Malta in 2005, Musharraf was urged to step down as head of the armed forces by the end of his presidential term in 2007.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon told AFP in an interview in London on November 7 that there had been some progress in Pakistan since Musharraf took over in a coup in 1999 but he should keep his promises.

Pakistan was previously suspended from the Commonwealth for five years from 1999 but welcomed back into the fold on condition he took off his uniform.

Away from Pakistan, McKinnon said tackling climate change and securing a fairer world trade deal for poorer nations were "right at the top" of the talks, all of which take place behind closed doors in "retreat".

Commonwealth countries like the Maldives and Kiribati, which lie no more than a few feet (metres) above sea level, are directly threatened by rising sea levels and have "very real concerns" about global warming, he added.

Securing a world trade deal was a key issue at the last CHOGM, with leaders urging for the Doha round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks to be successfully concluded by the end of last year.

Despite little or no movement since then, McKinnon said the Commonwealth was still keen for it to benefit developing nations, including poor African members of the post-British colonial grouping.

He urged developed nations to give ground, particularly on agricultural subsidies.

"You can't have a world trade round where everyone is a winner in the first instance. The wealthy countries have got to be prepared to give something up," he said.

Countries from the African, Caribbean and Pacific nations grouping -- many of which are Commonwealth members -- and the European Union theoretically have until year's end to reach new agreements replacing preferential tariff deals deemed illegal by the WTO.

Elsewhere, reinvigorating movement towards achieving UN poverty reduction goals by 2015 will also figure prominently. Fiji, which was suspended from the grouping in December last year after a military coup, will also feature.

Governments will also discuss two reports: one on how civil society can help address global extremism; the other on possible future members.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame will attend the pre-CHOGM Commonwealth Business Council as a guest of his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni.

Kagame has expressed an interest in the former Belgian colony joining the bloc but McKinnon told AFP a decision was unlikely at the meeting.

Not on the formal agenda, though, is Zimbabwe, which was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 and later withdrew its membership after President Robert Mugabe's re-election amid concern about human rights abuses and vote-rigging.

Activists and non-governmental organisations, including the Commonwealth's own are pressing for it to be included in the same way member state South Africa was throughout its international exile during the Apartheid era.

McKinnon defended the decision to leave it off the agenda, saying they -- like the UN, World Bank and International Monetary Fund -- had tried but failed to influence Mugabe.

Other controversial issues affecting member states -- from suspected vote-rigging in Nigerian elections to alleged cabinet level corruption in Kenya -- could be discussed bilaterally by leaders, he added.