Commonwealth airs world poverty problem in scene-setter to N-S summit at Cancun

The Commonwealth of nations has handed the North-South summit meeting at Cancun, Mexico, in two weeks time a draft agenda for coming to grips with the problem of world poverty.

The 41-nation body at its summit meeting here has also offered a powerful endorsement of efforts by the "contact group" of five Western nations to achieve the independence of Namibia (South-West Africa) by the end of 1982. Two of the contact nations -- Britain and Canada -- were present at the summit.

At the breakup of a week-long gathering of leaders representing one-quarter of mankind, the host to the Commonwealth meeting, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, maintained that the heart and essence of the deliberations had been a determined commitment to offer the 22-nation Cancun summit guidelines for a shift in the world's wealth from the rich to the poor.

By Commonwealth standards, and these gatherings have been taking place every two years since World War II, the Melbourne summit was not quite the achievement of the Commonwealth conference in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1979. On that occasion, the Commonwealth seized the initiative and set Rhodesia -- nowadays Zimbabwe -- on the road to independence.

This time the topics for debate were more diffuse and less clear-cut.

Mr. Fraser wanted the Melbourne summit, at which seven of the 22 nations that will be in Cancun were represented, to prefigure the coming debate on world poverty. He also tried to mobilize Commonwealth pressure on South Africa to give ground on Namibia. In the outcome, the Commonwealth declared itself solidly on the side of a successful outcome in Cancun.

Under Fraser's encouragement, the conference issued a ringing declaration on the need to close the international poverty gap. It followed the declaration up with a detailed account of what governments had to do if rich and poor nations were to work together for greater prosperity. High on the list of Commonwealth priorities was the need to break down tariff barriers and enable the poorer nations to trade their way out of poverty.

On Namibia, the Commonwealth threw its weight behind the contact group, which is about to send a team to southern Africa to explain a new independence plan for the territory. At the same time it carefully rejected a frontal attack on South Africa's recent invasion of Angola lest the South African government again turn its back on a negotiated solution.

On its two main agenda items, the conference was widely seen as a success, but there were problems along the way. One Commonwealth leader, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon of New Zealand, caused a great deal of controversy by using the summit to defend his government's refusal to halt a Springbok (South African) rugby football tour of his country.

Mr. Muldoon angered Mr. Fraser by denouncing a Commonwealth declaration on the need to improve the lot of the poor nations. He astonished his fellow leaders by calling the declaration platitudinous and vague. In the end the conference refused to accept New Zealand's interpretation of the four-year-old Commonwealth Gleneagles agreement on sporting contacts with South Africa. Muldoon argued that he had tried to dissuade the South African team from touring New Zealand. He also defended his government's determination in confronting demonstrators against the tour with strong security measures.

In the end the Commonwealth rejected Mr. Muldoon's view on his handling of the tour and reaffirmed the Gleneagles agreement. It was widely accepted at the Melbourne summit that Muldoon, who faces a general election on Nov. 28, was electioneering during his visit to Australia, trying to drum up international approval for his government's handling of the Springbok tour. He appears to have failed.

The Commonwealth summit provided opportunities for a host of bilateral meetings between Commonwealth leaders.British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Canadian counterpart, Pierre Trudeau, agreed on a provisional timetable for attempts by the government of Canada to "patriate" the country's constitution from Westminster to the Parliament in Ottawa. Under the timetable, Canada could be in control of its own constitution by the first of 1982, so long as the British Parliament raises no serious objection.

Moves by some members to return Pakistan to the Commonwealth after its departure in the early 1970s were blocked by the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Commonwealth also decided to begin monitoring more closely to observance of human rights in its member countries.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.