Commonwealth focus shifts to climate change

The Commonwealth’s biennial summit opened on Friday in Uganda with leaders focusing on climate change, a day after Pakistan, which is still under emergency rule, was suspended from the organisation.

Despite an angry reaction from Islamabad and a thinly veiled threat to withdraw from the grouping, leaders gathered in Kampala defended the suspension Pakistan’s.

”You can be assured that every country that has been suspended will say that we didn’t understand the unique circumstances that prevailed in their country at the time,” Commonwealth secretary general Don McKinnon told reporters. ”We think we did,” he added.

An ultimatum set by the Commonwealth earlier this month for Musharraf to step down as army chief, free judges and opposition supporters and lift curbs on the media expired on Thursday at 7pm GMT.

Gathered in a retreat just outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala, presidents and prime ministers from most of the Commonwealth’s 53 members were also set to discuss efforts to combat climate change.

Speaking at the heads-of-government meeting’s opening ceremony, officials emphasised the urgency of the issue and the need to step up cooperation between member states.

”There is little doubt that in order to keep the adaptation challenge in manageable bounds we must work decisively towards the aim of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 50% below 1990 levels, and this to be reached by 2050,” said Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.

”The challenge of climate change not only requires a united front, but an unprecedented level of cooperation and firm action,” said Gonzi, also the summit’s outgoing chairperson.

Yet it remained unclear whether all members would sign up to Gonzi’s proposal in the summit’s final declaration on Sunday. ”There are still differences,” McKinnon admitted in a press conference.

The loose federation of mostly former British colonies includes some of the world’s major polluters, but also some of those countries most at risk from the consequences of global warming.

Among the major polluting countries at the gathering are Britain, Canada and Australia, one of few rich nations not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases.

But Commonwealth members in the front line of climate change’s effects include Kiribati, a Pacific island group in acute danger of being washed away by rising sea levels.

Gonzi added: ”We must send a strong message of support to the forthcoming climate-change conference in Bali.”

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Bali aims to see countries agree to launch a road map for negotiating cuts in climate-changing carbon emissions from 2012. That is the date when current pledges under the Kyoto Protocol expire.

Meetings leading up to the Bali talks begin in the Indonesian resort on December 3 and the summit concludes on December 14.

McKinnon said that heads of state were likely to discuss further the nine-country ministerial committee’s decision to suspend Pakistan in spite of continued United States support for Musharraf.

He also admitted that there had been divisions within the group, notably objections from Sri Lanka, but stressed the move was the result of consensus.

Musharraf’s bloodless coup in 1999 had already earned Pakistan a Commonwealth suspension. It was brought back in the fold in 2004 when the general promised to hang up his uniform, a promise he failed to keep.

The last countries to be suspended were Fiji last year and Zimbabwe in 2002. — Sapa-AFP

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Simon Sturdee
Simon Sturdee
South Asia news editor for AFP news agency based in Delhi.

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