One Region
March 5, 2013
‘In the Ring’ – a Commonwealth Secretary-General’s memoir

(On 26 February, Sir Ronald Sanders was invited to launch “In the Ring”, a Commonwealth Memoir written by Sir Donald McKinnon, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth (2000-2008), at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. This article is adapted from Sanders’ remarks.){{more}}

No Secretary-General of the Commonwealth has an easy time. Building consensus among countries large and small, rich and poor, black and white is extremely challenging, and, in the course of it, Secretaries-General are not only referees; sometimes they become the punching bag. In this context, Sir Don McKinnon’s Commonwealth Memoir is appropriately titled: “In the Ring”.

The book is remarkable for its frank account of the events that led up to Robert Mugabe’s withdrawal of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in 2003. Mugabe took that action when it was evident that Commonwealth Heads of Government would make the decision to suspend Zimbabwe, following seriously flawed elections. Inevitably, the Secretary-General was made the villain of the piece.

However, as Don relates in the book, his own reflection over Zimbabwe was more “in sorrow than in anger”. No Secretary-General relishes the suspension, expulsion or withdrawal of a member-state under his watch. And, Don bent over backwards to encourage President Mugabe to remain faithful to the Commonwealth’s Harare Principles – principles that were agreed by all Commonwealth Heads at a meeting chaired by Mugabe himself.

No one is the more accountable custodian of the Commonwealth’s collective values than the Secretary-General. His primary touchstone is the values and principles to which all Commonwealth governments subscribe, not only as a condition of their entry to the organisation, but as a sine qua non for keeping such membership. As Don rightly observes in his book, “the Commonwealth and its institutions had to be protected”.

Don’s account of his efforts to engage Mugabe, even after he had withdrawn Zimbabwe, is an untold story which deserves to be known. And, Don has told it with clarity, but also with a sense of disappointment and frustration. He has also not deprived his readers of an appreciation of the tensions that develop among Heads of Government in their decision-making on thorny issues.

That tension makes the Secretary-General’s job a lot harder, particularly when it occurs among the Troika – the three Heads of government – the past Chair, the present Chair and the incoming Chair. The Secretary-General has to look to them for guidance over how to deal with another Head of Government, such as Mugabe who rode roughshod over Commonwealth values in pursuit of his own narrow political agenda. This memoir gives a full account of the tensions, the differences and even the vexations that occurred within the Troika.

It is a frank insight into the contest between efforts to preserve the Commonwealth’s shared values and the desire by a small number of Heads of Government to protect a fellow Head of Government who had thrown those values to the wind.

Of particular interest is Don’s account of the remarkable role played by P.J. Patterson, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, a small Commonwealth state, in the Heads of Government reaching a unanimous decision to continue the suspension of Zimbabwe. Don describes Patterson’s intervention as a “tour de force”. “We are dealing with two almost irreconcilable positions and we have a consensus”, Don reports Patterson as saying. “Certainly not everybody is happy, but we must not now show a split”. Patterson’s legal and political skills impressed the room and Commonwealth agreement was preserved. So was its commitment to its declared values.

If Don’s candid account of the tribulations that surrounded Zimbabwe is not a sufficiently compelling story of the Secretary-General’s challenging role in the Commonwealth ring, then his experience over suspended Pakistan under President Musharraf completes the tale.

As Secretary-General he was invited by the British government to the Lord Chancellor’s dinner for President Musharraf who was visiting Britain officially. This was in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities in the United States when Pakistan had overnight become the new “best friend” of the governments of Britain and the United States.

But, at the time Pakistan was suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth over very doubtful democratic institutions. Don did not regard Musharraf’s visit to London as a good thing. As he said in his well-known forthright manner, it would not have happened to Fiji, Nigeria or Zimbabwe while they were suspended. It was, as he said, an example of one policy for the Commonwealth and another policy for bilateral relations. He was then promptly ‘uninvited’ from the dinner, before being ‘re-invited’ by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but placed at a table out of sight. Quite rightly, Don declined the re-invitation. He had “no intention of being a pawn in their game”.

This was not the only occasion when a government expected the Secretary-General to act in its interest. But, as he pointed out to another government, the Secretary-General “has to work for the collective Commonwealth good, not just advance the view of one country”.

Indeed, every Secretary-General, however deeply involved he was in the affairs of his own country and its interests in the Commonwealth and the international community, has to leave that baggage at the entrance door of Marlborough House. He must become de-nationalised, colour blind, non-aligned religiously, and re-constructed as a Commonwealth being – whole and entire. Don McKinnon became that body, as every Secretary-General has had to do.

When a senior British Foreign Office official, who insisted that Britain, as the biggest contributor to the Secretariat’s funding, should always hold the post of deputy-Secretary-General, Don told him that not only was Britain not getting the post, it also would not permanently be on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.

Thirty-two of the Commonwealth’s 54 members are small states with problems and challenges that are peculiar to their vulnerabilities and lack of capacity to stand up to powerful organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

When Commonwealth small states were being pummelled by the OECD over ‘harmful tax competition’, Don in his full Commonwealth regalia – his OECD membership card as former foreign minister of New Zealand firmly put away – championed the cause of the Commonwealth’s constituency of small states and curtailed bullying and an uneven playing field.

As a chronicle that is as frank in its content as it is wide in its telling of the inner workings of life in the ring of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon’s memoir is compulsory reading.

(‘In the Ring’ by Don McKinnon is published by Elliott and Thompson, London)

(The writer is a Consultant, former Caribbean diplomat and Visiting Fellow, London University).

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