The Commonwealth Update

An authoritative, nation-by-nation review of events across the Commonwealth, with an update now published six times a year in an issue of The Round Table.

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From 2008, the review is being written by Oren Gruenbaum, the Commonwealth Update editor, and currently Senior Sub-Editor at The Guardian in the UK

In 2007, the review was written by Judith Soal, a journalist who has worked extensively in South Africa and is currently deputy night editor at The Guardian in the UK.

Until 2007 the review was written by Derek Ingram, who was the Founding Editor of Gemini News Service until 1993, and is the author of a number of books about the Commonwealth and is active in the CJA, CPU, CHRI and the RCS, as well as a member of the Moot.

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Commonwealth Update - Issue 405

Oren Gruenbaum

Pakistan sent 30,000 troops to confront Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the tribal areas of South Waziristan. Zimbabwe's power-sharing government neared collapse again. Sri Lanka, under intense scrutiny for alleged human rights abuses, sped up the release of Tamils interned since the civil war. The Ugandan capital, Kampala, was rocked by clashes between police and supporters of Buganda's king. A dispute between Belize and a powerful British tycoon escalated. The philanthropist Mo Ibrahim did not award his $5m prize for exemplary African leaders because his foundation could not find a worthy recipient.


Zimbabwe (Left Commonwealth, 2003)
The prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, said his Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) had lifted his boycott of the unity government over the "dishonest and unreliable" behaviour of his Zanu-PF allies and President Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai stopped short of pulling out of the coalition but said fresh elections might be necessary. The decision followed the re-arrest of Roy Bennett, an MDC minister, on discredited charges of plotting against Mugabe in 2006, and mounting frustration since a power-sharing deal was struck last year. David Coltart, the MDC's education minister, said: "We're not back to where we were in November last year, yet, but there's been a deterioration in the human rights situation. If this falls apart, it will have consequences for the whole region." Earlier, the Southern African Development Community backed Mugabe by calling for sanctions against him and his senior party colleagues to be lifted. The MDC was disappointed when Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, failed to press Mugabe to fulfil his power-sharing promises.

In September, the first European Union delegation to visit Zimbabwe since 2002 said targeted sanctions would not be lifted until the political rivals had resolved their differences. However, the crippled economy was helped when the International Monetary Fund sanctioned a $510m loan, its first to the country in a decade. The sum represented half of the government's annual budget.

Zimbabwe escaped suspension from the gem trade after the Kimberley Process, which regulates trade in "blood diamonds", agreed to give the country more time to reform its mining practices at its meeting in Namibia. Human rights groups say soldiers killed about 200 people at the notorious Marange diamond field last year.

The United Nations torture investigator recommended action against Zimbabwe after he was detained on arrival at Harare airport and deported. Manfred Nowak, the UN rapporteur on torture, said: "If the prime minister can invite a UN representative and is not able to get clearance from his Zanu-PF colleagues, this sheds light on where the power lies." In September the supreme court ended a case against former newsreader Jestine Mukoko, who was seized from her home in 2008 accused of sabotage and terrorism.

The Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) said that after a six-year battle the Daily News had won permission to resume publishing. In practice, it cannot get a licence until a new Zimbabwe Media Commission is set up. However, the media ministry has allowed a new state-owned paper, Harare Metro, to be launched. A new daily, Newsday, was due to be launched in November by Trevor Ncube, owner of the Independent and the Standard.

Kampala was rocked by days of clashes between the police and supporters of Ronald Mutebi, king of the Baganda, Uganda's largest ethnic group, in September. At least 24 protesters were killed. A talk-show host, Kalundi Serumaga, was charged for remarks in a televised debate about the struggle between President Yoweri Museveni and Mutebi. Four radio stations were shut down. Edward Echwalu, of the Kampala Observer, was beaten by police for photographing a riot. The CJA said Museveni was using libel laws to crack down on independent journalists. Andrew Mwenda, of the Independent magazine, faces charges of sedition and inciting sectarianism, most recently over a cartoon. In Gulu, a reporter for the Monitor was charged with criminal libel, and a Monitor photographer faces "criminal trespass" charges for photographing a policeman outside a courthouse.

A surge in ritualistic murders has seen 15 murders linked to human sacrifice and 200 disappearances, mainly of children. "We have had more occurrences of people attempting to sell their children to witchdoctors as part of ritual ceremonies to guarantee wealth," said Moses Binoga, head of a police taskforce. In May the US said Uganda was an international hub for human trafficking. Human rights groups condemned a bill broadening the definition of gay sex, which is illegal, to make any same-sex relations punishable by life imprisonment and "promotion of homosexuality" with seven years in prison. A new offence of "aggravated homosexuality" would carry the death penalty.

Hunting of elephants and buffalo was reintroduced to boost tourism and help farmers whose crops were threatened but environmentalists said animal populations were too small.

Kofi Annan said urgent reforms and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission were needed to prevent further violence. The former UN secretary-general, who brokered a peace deal after 1,300 people died in 2008's riots, gave a list of suspects, which include ministers and prominent businessmen, to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague after a deadline expired for Kenya to set up a tribunal. No one has yet faced justice for the killings. The justice minister, Mutula Kilonzo, said the ICC could hold its trials in Kenya and suspects would be arrested.

The head of Kenya's anti-corruption commission and his two deputies resigned in September after MPs rejected their reappointment by President Mwai Kibaki. Retired judge Aaron Ringera, whose £20,000-a-month salary made him the top-paid civil servant, has not successfully prosecuted any official for corruption but claimed he had recovered about $60m in looted funds since 2003. Meanwhile, Kibaki's son, Jimmy, entered politics in what is seen as an attempt to establish a dynastic succession similar to Kenya's previous presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi.

The devastating drought has prompted the government to evict 20,000 families from the Mau forest, the country's main water catchment area. Deforestation of some 100,000 hectares-a quarter of the reserve-since the 1990s is blamed for drying up major rivers that feed six lakes and provide water for 10 million people. The drought is exacerbating ethnic conflict as Masai pastoralists blame the largely Kalenjin farmers for the loss of up to 80% of their cattle. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said: "We must act now, before the entire ecosystem is irreversibly damaged." Four million Kenyans are on food aid and Masai herders are grazing cattle in upmarket suburbs of Nairobi.

Maina Njenga, leader of the Mungiki sect, was freed from prison in October after the state dropped murder charges. He had demanded state protection to give evidence against officials allegedly involved in the secretive sect. Drawn mainly from the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group, they are seen as a mafia and blamed for attacks in last year's post-election communal violence. Njenga denounced the sect on his release and claimed to be a born-again Christian.

Somalia's Islamist rebels, al-Shabab, accused Kenya of recruiting ethnic Somalis in Kenya to fight them. Nairobi denies this, although it supports Somalia's weak UN-backed government. In a move described as a first for Africa, Kenya's National AIDS/STD Control Programme (Nascop) launched a nationwide survey to establish the number of gay men, despite homosexuality being illegal. Plans were announced for a high-speed railway line to cut the journey between Nairobi and Mombasa from 13 hours to three.

Renamo, the main opposition party, claimed polls giving a landslide victory in November's elections to the ruling Frelimo party of President Armando Guebuza were rigged. With 89% of votes counted-only 34% voted in 2004-Frelimo had won a two-thirds majority in parliament in an election that Commonwealth observers described as fair. Guebuza, a general during Mozambique's long struggle for independence from Portugal, is credited with developing the economy and infrastructure, although corruption and crime are also seen as rising. Afonso Dhlakama, veteran leader of Renamo, which won just 15% of votes, told the state news agency AIM: "Either it's the end of democracy in Mozambique or we take power by force." Renamo, former rebels backed by Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, has alleged fraud following each poll. Daviz Simango, head of the newly formed Mozambique Democratic Movement party, won 10%. The Media Institute of Southern Africa said Alfane Momade Antonio, a Nacala Community Radio reporter, was badly beaten by Renamo officials during the election.

Carlos Fragoso, former head of DNEP, Mozambique's directorate of roads and bridges, was named by Britain's Serious Fraud Office as implicated in a bribery scandal involving Mabey & Johnson, a bridge-building firm that became the first major British company to be convicted of foreign bribery.

South Africa
Police shot dead 556 people last year, including 32 bystanders. It is almost double 2005's figure and nearing the number killed by police in 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising. Amid fears over tourists' security at next year's World Cup, President Jacob Zuma has backed calls for a return to apartheid-era laws making it easier to shoot suspects. South Africa recorded 50 murders and 196 sexual attacks a day last year. Demands are also growing to limit HIV infection among football fans by legalising prostitution and screening sex workers, half of whom are believed to have the disease.

A presidential hotline inviting citizens to call Zuma with their grievances about public services itself became a subject of complaints when it was overwhelmed with 27,000 calls on the first day. The opposition Democratic Alliance said it tested the hotline 46 times but could only register four complaints and spent 10 hours on hold.

An international row developed after a female runner, Caster Semenya, was accused of being male when she won the world 800 metres championship in Berlin last month. The government first accused her critics of racism but athletics boss Leonard Chuene was later suspended after admitting that secret gender tests had been carried out.

Six journalists jailed for two years for criticising President Yahya Jammeh were freed after growing international criticism. They had questioned Jammeh's declaration that the government was not responsible for the 2004 death of a leading journalist, Deyda Hydara. Hydara, a fierce critic of strict media laws, was gunned down but nobody has been charged with his murder. In September, Jammeh told state TV that he would kill anybody who wanted to "destabilise" The Gambia. "If you are affiliated with any human rights group, be rest assured that your security is not guaranteed ... we are ready to kill saboteurs," he said. A campaign has since been launched to move the African Union's human rights commission from The Gambia and West African justice ministers in October rejected a Gambian attempt to curb access to the court of Ecowas, the West African community, as the court hear allegations that Musa Saidykhan, editor of the banned Independent newspaper, was tortured in 2006. He emerged from custody with scars across his body and one hand broken in three places.

A hardline faction of Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), Nigeria's main armed group, ended a three-month ceasefire in October and said it would resume attacks on the oil industry, which have cut Nigeria's output by a third since 2006. It followed an amnesty that the government claimed had disarmed most Mend commanders and 15,000 militants. It said 5,000 weapons and 18 gunboats had been surrendered. The splinter group, led by Henry Okah, says the government has done nothing to address problems in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Some ex-militants threatened to take up arms at the government's failure to pay a promised 65,000 naira ($435) allowance.

The central bank bailed out four more banks with 200bn naira ($1.37bn) and sacked three chief executives. In August, the central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, sacked the management of five banks and pumped in 400bn naira to cover bad loans. Four chief executives have been charged with fraud. The anti-corruption agency said it had shut down some 800 fraudster emailers and arrested 18 "cyber crime syndicates". The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission worked with the computer giant Microsoft to crack down on the scammers. Bayo Ohu, assistant news editor of an independent daily, the Guardian, was shot dead in his home in Lagos by five men, the Media Rights Agenda reported. Police said it was an armed robbery although little was stolen.

The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) won parliamentary elections, giving President Ian Khama-son of the revered first president, Seretse Khama-a five-year term. The BDP, which has been in power since independence in 1966, won only 54% of the popular vote (3% up on the last election) but won an unassailable majority with 45 seats. The main opposition, the Botswana National Front, the Botswana Congress Party and an independent won nine seats in total. Critics said the BDP's mediocre result came despite Khama's access to more funds, helicopters and state media. Election observers said turnout was high and voting went smoothly. Over-dependence on diamonds (70% of export earnings) was an issue as gem sales have declined in the global recession and mines halved production.

Reporters sans Frontières condemned intimidation of its correspondent, Jules Koum Koum, who edits Le Jeune Observateur. "This respected journalist has published several detailed and well-researched reports on corruption implicating a number of prominent people. In so doing, he has helped Operation Sparrowhawk, an anti-corruption drive promoted by President [Paul] Biya himself." It said he had suffered break-ins by gunmen, hacked emails and phone taps. Although not filming, a TV cameraman with Canal International, Freddy Nkoue, was attacked by two policemen in a Douala court at the trial of two politicians. Police took his belongings and his hand was fractured, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange reported.

The sale of Ghana's state telecoms firm to Vodafone was "unconstitutional and illegal", a leaked government report said. The UK-based mobile company bought a 70% of Ghana Telecom (GT) for $900m last year but the report found GT was undervalued and ultimately sold for less than $267m. President John Atta Mills promised to investigate the controversial deal before his election last December. The report questioned why Vodafone's bid was approved over higher rival bids. The leaks follow allegations of bribery involving Mabey & Johnson, a British bridge-building company, that forced the resignation of the health minister, George Sipa-Adjah Yankey, and former deputy roads minister Seidu Amadu.

President Bingu wa Mutharika had four senior foreign tobacco buyers deported for flouting minimum-price rules. "For a long time I've been warning these exploitative colonialists to pay fair prices to farmers," he said. Tobacco is Malawi's main export earner and about 80% of Malawians rely on the industry. The four expatriates, who included two chief executives, worked for three of the largest tobacco-buying companies, which claimed the global recession made the prices unrealistic.

William Kamkwamba published his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, to great acclaim. In 2001, unable to pay school fees, 14-year-old Kamkwamba taught himself physics to build a windmill using scrap materials and electrified his village. The inventor went on to win a place at an elite South African school.

For the third year running, Mauritius was ranked best for governance in an index of African states ranked by economic opportunity, security, development, rule of law, corruption, and human rights by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, set up the Sudanese-born telecoms entrepreneur. Other Commonwealth countries in Africa's top 10 were Seychelles, Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and Lesotho. Zimbabwe was the only Commonwealth state in the bottom 10. The $5m Ibrahim prize for African leadership was not awarded. Time magazine called the non-award "a powerful indictment of Africa's still patchy governance".

Maxwell Nkole, head of the anti-corruption taskforce, was sacked a week after the former president Frederick Chiluba was acquitted of embezzling state funds. Nkole had resisted government pressure not to appeal. In contrast to late president Levy Mwanawasa, the new president, Rupiah Banda, has praised Chiluba. In 2007 a UK court ruled that Chiluba had defrauded the Zambian government of $50m.

Daily Post editor Fred M'membe and Professor Muna Ndulo face contempt of court charges for criticising the obscenity trial of Post journalist Chansa Kabwela, who sent pictures of a woman giving birth in the street to ministers and officials.

The US is using drone spy planes based on the Seychelles to help fight off Somali pirates. Since international warships began patrolling the Gulf of Aden last year, forcing pirates further out into the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles has been in the frontline. In September, 23 pirates were swapped for three Seychellois seamen held in Somalia.

Sierra Leone
The United Nations-backed war crimes court made its last ruling (upholding convictions against three rebel leaders), ending seven years investigating atrocities from the decade-long civil war. Liberia's ex-president Charles Taylor is still on trial in The Hague accused of backing rebels from the Revolutionary United Front. Meanwhile, 240 people were feared dead after a small boat capsized in Yawri Bay with 268 people on board.

A court sentenced three men to death for killing a 14-year-old albino boy and severing his legs. Witchdoctors claim potions with the body parts bring prosperity, encouraging more than 50 murders of albino people since 2007. The Tanzania Albino Society called for public hangings to "show the government is serious in its war on albino killers".

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The army deployed 30,000 troops against an estimated 10,000 al-Qaida fighters and Taliban militants of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by Hakimullah Mehsud, in the tribal areas of South Waziristan. It was the biggest offensive yet against the Pakistan Taliban-three previous campaigns since 2004 were abandoned. The army says 80% of 200 suicide blasts in the past two years were launched from South Waziristan. Aid groups said 160,000 people had fled aerial bombardment and fierce fighting, with another 100,000 refugees expected, but little aid was available. Journalists were not allowed into the region but the BBC said the military seemed to have made significant gains, with most Pakistanis firmly behind the campaign. Officials said most of the Mehsud heartland was now under their control. Although the military tacitly aids US drone strikes on targets in North Waziristan, it fears that two currently neutral Wazir warlords may join Mehsud.

More than 150 people were killed in bombings of crowded markets in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Taliban denied involvement but the government blames them for a series of attacks in October across Pakistan, in which more than 300 people died. These included 23 people killed at the army's Rawalpindi headquarters; attacks on police bases in Lahore and Kohat; a suicide bombing, killing five, at the UN World Food Programme offices, and separate shootings of brigadiers in the capital, Islamabad, which left two dead. There was also an attack on an Islamic university that killed eight people, forcing schools and colleges across the country to shut, and one on a bus carrying wedding guests, mostly children. A suicide bomber killed 45 people in NWFP's Malakand region, which the army has largely recaptured. However, the army was accused by human rights groups of summarily executing suspected militants as 40 bodies were found dumped across Swat.

The US granted Pakistan $7.5bn in development aid over five years but the army and opposition politicians deemed this "insulting" because of conditions that Pakistan dismantle nuclear-proliferation networks and stop supporting militants.

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Sri Lanka
The government stepped up the release of Tamils from internment camps in the north. Some 3,000 people a day are leaving the camps, where displaced civilians have been held with inadequate water, housing and sanitation since the 26-year civil war against the Tamil Tigers ended in May. A minister said 80,000 people had now been released with 190,000 remaining. The faster pace of resettlement follows intense criticism of the government over the thousands of Tamils who died in shelling in the final stages of the war and what doctors say are the deaths from malnutrition of more than 1,000 internees. After the US sought to question Sri Lanka's army chief over war crimes allegations, Colombo said it would investigate a US government report alleging human rights abuses after first dismissing it as "unsubstantiated". In September, a Unicef official was deported for investigating camp conditions and why only 5% of internees had been freed. Meanwhile, a European Union inquiry said Sri Lanka's trade privileges should stop because of human rights failures. Sri Lanka says ending the duty waiver on its $1.9bn annual textile exports to the EU would cost tens of thousands of jobs.

The government stepped up the release of Tamils from internment camps in the north. Some 3,000 people a day are leaving the camps, where displaced civilians have been held with inadequate water, housing and sanitation since the 26-year civil war against the Tamil Tigers ended in May. A minister said 80,000 people had now been released with 190,000 remaining. The faster pace of resettlement follows intense criticism of the government over the thousands of Tamils who died in shelling in the final stages of the war and what doctors say are the deaths from malnutrition of more than 1,000 internees. After the US sought to question Sri Lanka's army chief over war crimes allegations, Colombo said it would investigate a US government report alleging human rights abuses after first dismissing it as "unsubstantiated". In September, a Unicef official was deported for investigating camp conditions and why only 5% of internees had been freed. Meanwhile, a European Union inquiry said Sri Lanka's trade privileges should stop because of human rights failures. Sri Lanka says ending the duty waiver on its $1.9bn annual textile exports to the EU would cost tens of thousands of jobs.

J.S. Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist, was sentenced to 20 years' hard labour under draconian anti-terrorism laws for supporting terrorism and causing racial disunity through the independent magazine Northeastern Monthly in 2006. The court ruled that he had received money from the Tamil Tigers for his news website but Reporters Sans Frontières established that the money had come from a German aid project.

The government launched a military campaign against the Maoist Naxalites in the jungles of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra-in one district of which, more than 50 police have been killed by rebels this year.

Rajasekhara Reddy, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and an influential Congress party member, was killed in a helicopter crash in a Maoist-rebel stronghold. Naxalites in West Bengal held up a train carrying 1,200 passengers for six hours in a protest over police brutality against local tribes. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, told police chiefs that India was losing the battle against the rebels, who are linked to violence in a third of all districts. India's home minister, P. Chidambaram, promised "every support" to states battling Maoists. About 20,000 troops are joining 35,000 already in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where a battle in September between Maoists and security forces killed at least eight. However, in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, the novelist and environmentalist Arundhati Roy suggested the Maoist threat was being amplified in the interests of the mining industry: "To get 85% of India's people off their land and into the cities (which is what Chidambaram says he'd like to see), India has to ... militarise. To justify that militarisation, it needs an enemy. The Maoists are that enemy."

As the government clears an estimated 60,000 beggars off Delhi's streets before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Observer reported: "Teams of police, backed by mobile courtrooms, are roaming Delhi and dispensing summary justice to those whose faces don't fit." The city's welfare minister, Mangat Ram Singhal, said: "Before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, we want to finish the problem of beggary." The Commonwealth Games Federation chief, Michael Fennell, warned that delays and poor planning posed a "serious risk" to the Games. Meanwhile, India began an ambitious $2.5bn scheme to issue biometric identity cards to its 1.2 billion citizens. Civil liberties activists called it a move towards a "surveillance society".

China accused India of ignoring its concerns by visiting Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims sovereignty over. India reasserted its claim to the region and banned foreign journalists from covering the Dalai Lama's imminent visit to the state. India's first space mission was terminated after contact was lost with the unmanned spacecraft. A probe from the Chandrayan-1 enabled India to become the fourth country to plant its flag on the Moon. It also found water molecules on the surface. However, the national airline is finding it harder to stay airborne; the government had to inject $1.1bn to keep Air India flying but is demanding huge cost cuts.

Journalists protested in Chennai after B. Lenin, editor of the Tamil newspaper Dinamalar, was arrested and sentenced to 15 days without a hearing. Dinamalar had reported that a film actress had been arrested on prostitution allegations.

President Mohamed Nasheed ordered an investigation into reports of underage concubines being kept by religious extremists. A Maldivian Democratic Party MP said hospitals found that girls taken in for treatment had been sexually abused. Women accompanying the girls told doctors they were their husbands' concubines.

A planned 30-turbine windfarm will provide 40% of electricity needs-the highest proportion of renewable power of any country. To highlight the threat of rising sea levels, Nasheed held a cabinet meeting under water.

Up to 20 million Bangladeshis are at risk from rising sea levels, according to Bangladesh's Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, which predicts salty water could reach far inland, making it hard to cultivate staple foods. The chief highways official Khandaker Rahman was named by the SFO as being implicated in a UK bribery case by the bridge-building firm Mabey & Johnson.

Hong Kong
Some 700 journalists, politicians and residents marched to demand an investigation after Chinese police beat up and detained three Hong Kong reporters covering unrest in China's Xinjiang province between Han Chinese and Uighurs.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, the former premier Lee Kuan Yew, won another defamation action in October. The appeal court upheld a summary judgement against the Far Eastern Economic Review over an interview with an opposition politician without the case going to trial.

A court ordered a review of a woman sentenced under Islamic laws to caning for drinking beer in 2007.

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United Kingdom
At the G20 summit in Scotland, the prime minister, Gordon Brown, called for a global transaction tax on banks to pay for financial crises. Britain remained mired in its longest recession on record as official output figures shocked economists by showing the economy had shrunk for a sixth straight quarter. Lloyds bank and Royal Bank of Scotland, which were saved from collapse in the credit crunch, were banned from paying bonuses to senior staff after receiving another £39bn ($60bn) of state funds. The Labour government unveiled plans to cut the national debt, which is rising by $25bn a month, with sell-offs including the Meteorological Office, the Royal Mint and the Channel tunnel rail link. The government told British offshore financial centres, such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Jersey, to impose higher taxes amid fears that the decline in financial services might be catastrophic for smaller territories.

The opposition Conservative Party set out plans for steep cuts in government spending, reduced middle-class benefits and public-sector pay freezes, but its leader, David Cameron, backtracked from a promise to hold a referendum on the European Union's Lisbon treaty. The party, which is expected to win next year's British election, had to defend its new European alliance with far-right Polish and Latvian politicians with alleged neo-Nazi links. The former prime minister Tony Blair provoked strong opposition across Europe by seeking the post of the European Union's first president. In Parliament, MPs were ordered to repay parliamentary expenses (£12,000 in Gordon Brown's case), while the House of Lords was pressed to stop members of the upper house altering legislation for bribes. Britain's new supreme court was sworn in, replacing the law lords in the House of Lords as the highest court of appeal in most cases and marking the first break of the judiciary from Parliament in centuries.

Three British Asians were jailed for life for conspiring to kill 1,500 passengers on transatlantic airliners in 2006, using liquid explosives. The al-Qaida-inspired plot led to strict limits on carrying liquids in hand luggage. The Scottish justice minister released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am jet, on compassionate grounds. Mark Thatcher, son of the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was named as an alleged co-conspirator in a failed coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea by a mercenary leader, Simon Mann.

As the death toll of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan passed 220, the former Foreign Office minister Kim Howells revealed divisions within Labour by calling for a withdrawal troops from Afghanistan, and a soldier faces court martial for speaking at a peace rally and refusing to return to the country. A poll found 62% of Britons want a withdrawal within a year. General Richard Dannatt, a former army chief who criticised said inadequate troop levels there, became an adviser to the Conservatives. The government accused him of breaching a "sacred trust" that the armed forces should remain impartial.

Demetris Christofias, Greek Cypriot leader and Cypriot president, likened European Union concessions to Turkey to the 1930s appeasement of Adolf Hitler and played down expectations of a settlement ending Cyprus's division. Christofias said "deep, deep differences" remained despite a year of talks with his Turkish Cypriot friend and counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat. Talat is expected to lose power in April's elections in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus to nationalist hardliners, so time is running out for a deal. Christofias blamed the stalemate on Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hans van den Broek, a former Dutch foreign minister who sits on the Independent Commission on Turkey, warned that if the talks fail, "the island will certainly head towards partition. Tensions will rise in the eastern Mediterranean and EU-Turkey tension will deepen."

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Fiji (Fully Suspended)
Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth on 1 September for refusing to schedule elections before 2014-only the second full suspension in its history. Fiji had already been suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum, and some European Union aid has been halted. Amnesty International said China, which helped the military regime ignore international pressure by giving Fiji a huge rise in aid and loans, should act against "menacing" human rights abuses, including "the ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists, lawyers, clergy and government critics". The BBC said: "A spokesman admitted that the Commonwealth was not a large donor to Fiji and the sanction is largely symbolic, and the Commonwealth was still prepared to remain engaged in any talks that might lead to a return to democracy."

A strong earthquake in the South Pacific triggered a tsunami that killed at least 110 people on Samoa, 31 on American Samoa and nine on Tonga and sent waves 8,000 km to Japan. Villages were destroyed by 9-metre-high waves that spread mud miles inland. Many Samoans felt let down by the tsunami warning system, which gave those lucky enough to be listening to the radio just minutes to evacuate.

Nearly all of the nation's buses are banned from driving because their doors now open in the middle of the road after Samoa became the first nation in decades to switch the side of the road cars drive on. The move to the left allows cheaper car imports from Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

Australia breached human rights obligations when it imposed radical restrictions on Aborigines in a crackdown on child abuse in outback communities, a UN inquiry ruled. James Anaya, the UN's rapporteur on indigenous rights, said Aborigines still suffered from "entrenched racism". The government had suspended its own equality laws to ban alcohol and pornography, and set rules on spending welfare income.

Huge dust storms left millions choking as high winds dumped an estimated 5,000 tonnes of loose soil from Australia's drought-hit interior on the east coast. The country was bracing for another devastating bush-fire season after the warmest August on record. Australia's biggest river is running so low and is so salty that the nation's fifth-largest city, Adelaide, may have to ship water in to residents. Marine life was threatened over a 25,000 sq km area after a leak from an oil well in the Timor Sea in August spread by November to a slick 10 times the size of London.

Five Sydney men were found guilty of planning Islamist terrorist bombings in 2005 after a 10-month trial. Police launched a war-crimes investigation into the deaths in East Timor in 1975 of the journalists known as the "Balibo five", believed to have been killed by Indonesian soldiers.

The central bank raised the main interest rate for the second month in a row, to 3.5%. Australia was the only developed economy to avoid recession during the global slump.

A row developed with Indonesia after both countries refused to accept 78 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers intercepted on the high seas. It was the fifth boat of refugees to be stopped recently. After immigration policy became a hot issue in Australia, the government of Kevin Rudd agreed with Indonesia that refugees would be held in Indonesia and processed by UN authorities there.

As Australia retaliated to Fiji's expulsion of its diplomats by expelling the Pacific nation's envoys in November, the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, told public broadcaster ABC: "The Fijian regime ... has violated the constitution, ... has refused to hold elections, and ... suspended the judiciary. We have taken a deliberately hardline approach to this regime because we do not want this coup culture to spread elsewhere in the Pacific."

New Zealand
The aid charity ActionAid ranked New Zealand bottom overall among developed countries for its efforts to alleviate hunger. Its report, released to mark UN World Food Day, said New Zealand was one of the worst offenders for tackling climate change and providing agricultural aid and social security.

Fiji's top envoys were ordered to leave a day after the country expelled New Zealand diplomats, alleging interference in Fiji's judiciary. It is the third time New Zealand envoys to Fiji have been expelled since the 2006 coup.

Papua New Guinea
A lost world populated by fanged frogs, giant stick insects and butterflies, tree kangaroos and a tentacled fish was discovered by scientists at Mount Bosavi. More than 40 unknown species were found in the 1,000-metre-high crater, where species had evolved in isolation since the volcano last erupted 200,000 years ago.

At least nine people were reported dead and many more injured after the tsunami from the Samoan earthquake hit Tonga.

A tsunami warning was issued for 11 countries and territories, including the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati, in October after three powerful earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.1-7.8 struck. However, Vanuatu escaped with no major injuries or damage.

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The prime minister, Dean Barrow, accused Michael Ashcroft, the billionaire deputy chairman of the British Conservative Party, of operating a monopoly in Belize and of hiding financial interests worth the country's entire GDP. Barrow, who won a landslide victory last year to become Belize's first black premier, said: "There will be no more suffering of this one man's campaign to subjugate an entire nation to his will." Ashcroft rejected the claims as politically motivated. In August, the government nationalised Belize's dominant telecoms company Telemedia, which it says Ashcroft controls through a byzantine web of subsidiaries and trusts, and tried to set aside a 2005 agreement guaranteeing the firm a 15% return on capital (or tax could be clawed back), plus protection from competition and regulation. Arbitration in London ruled that Belize must pay compensation of $300m-about three-quarters of the government's total annual revenue. Barrow refused to pay and said: "This sense ... that national governments must simply allow him to have his way, that's colonialism." As well as Belize Bank, the country's largest, and Telemedia, Ashcroft has owned the shipping registry, the offshore business registry and a TV company. Belize Bank's dominant position in the economy allows it to charge high interest rates, critics allege. Ashcroft also helped draw up legislation establishing the country as a tax haven.

Provincial governments and aboriginal leaders are to ban logging, mining and oil production in an area twice the size of California to create a "carbon vault". The 525m hectares of boreal forest are believed to contain 22% of all stored carbon. Thanks to Alberta's oil-rich tar sands, Canada is one of the worst per capita polluters in the world. The WWF ranked Canada last among G8 nations for its efforts against climate change. Meanwhile, conservationists called for bear hunting to be suspended after a huge drop in numbers of spawning salmon lead to fears that grizzly bears are starving to death.

A row erupted with the South African government after Ottawa's immigration board granted Brandon Huntley refugee status because it found "clear and convincing proof" that he had been persecuted for being white. Huntley said he feared returning to South Africa after being attacked seven times by black South Africans. South Africa accused Canada of racism. Another human foot in a running shoe was found washed up on the Pacific coast-the eighth in 26 months.

Seven men were freed after 23 years in prison for ordering the army to execute the prime minister Maurice Bishop in 1983. The men, including Bishop's deputy Bernard Coard, considered Bishop's socialism too moderate. Four other ministers were also killed in the coup, which was crushed when US forces invaded. The men were sentenced to death in 1986 but the Privy Council in London repealed the death sentence in 2007.

A retrial was ordered of a former Bahamian senator and a paramedic accused of blackmailing the Hollywood actor John Travolta. Pleasant Bridgewater and Tarino Lightbourne are accused of trying to extort $25m from the star over his son's death in the Bahamas in January following a seizure. The mistrial was declared after an MP said Bridgewater had been cleared while the jury was still deliberating.

Trinidad and Tobago
A shutdown at the world's sole manufacturer of angostura bitters has led to an acute shortage of the classic cocktail ingredient. Trinidad's House of Angostura blamed a lack of supplies and financial restructuring. The firm is owned by CL Financial, a Caribbean conglomerate bailed out this year by the Trinidad and Tobago government after CL's acquisitions left it with a TT$600m ($96m) hole in its balance sheet.

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Commonwealth Secretariat
The secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, announced on 1 September that Fiji was fully suspended from the Commonwealth. Fiji, which has twice faced sanctions after previous coups, is now barred from all Commonwealth meetings, the 2010 Games, training schemes and other technical aid. "It is a step the Commonwealth is now obliged to take, and one that it takes in sorrow," he said, adding: "Sustained efforts have been made by the Commonwealth to engage [Fiji's] interim government, so as to promote a return to constitutional democracy, and to encourage a national dialogue aimed at tackling the underlying issues that led to this and past coups."

A Commonwealth envoy, the former New Zealand governor-general Paul Reeves, visited Fiji to discuss a return to democracy but agreed to the regime's request not to meet opposition leaders. He said: "The Commonwealth stands ready to support an inclusive and time-bound national political dialogue, to facilitate the return of constitutional democracy."

Sharma debated the priorities and relevance of the Commonwealth in a live webcast in November. He said: "What we now want to do in the field of the environment is increase the capacity to negotiate in Copenhagen [climate change summit]. The second is to create practical templates of assistance-we are a visionary organisation with tool kits in our hands." The secretary-general said much of the Commonwealth's work was "below the radar screen. That's why we have built up so much trust."

The Commonwealth Observer mission to Mozambique said the elections "were conducted in a largely peaceful atmosphere" and had "met a number of key democratic benchmarks", with good media coverage and well-run voting.

Commonwealth Publications -

  • Mark Collins and Richard Bourne, From Hook to Plate: The State of Marine Fisheries-A Commonwealth Perspective, ISBN 978-0-903850-37-7
  • Commonwealth Finance Ministers Reference Report 2009, ISBN 125-565-555-98

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