Standing up to Pakistan’s military strongman Pervez Musharraf, Foreign Minister Michael Frendo is scoring points ahead of next Wednesday’s election for the post of Commonwealth secretary general.
Frendo’s high-profile and sensitive role as Chairman of Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is clearly standing him in good stead with the voluntary association of 53 sovereign nations; as is the fact that his chief competitor for the post of secretary general happens to be India’s Kamalesh Sharma: which assumes a certain importance in the context of the ongoing political crisis in Pakistan.
Despite a thawing in relationship in the past few years, the two nuclear-armed powers are nonetheless divided by a history of war and bloodshed. Electing an Indian while censoring Pakistan is considered risky for an organisation which prides itself on fair play.
Michael Frendo is also basking in publicity for his role as the Commonwealth’s front line diplomat. The Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group is composed of nine foreign ministers who decide on how to deal with Commonwealth countries that persistently violate principles of democracy and human rights.
Frendo proved his mettle chairing the CMAG meeting in London last Monday, which decided to suspend Pakistan unless it met the requirements which return that country to democracy.
Hours before the meeting, Pakistan’s foreign minister Khursheed Kasuri phoned Frendo in a last-minute bid to stave off the country’s suspension from the 53-member association.
“I received a call from the Pakistani foreign minister to explain the context in which the action was taken,” Frendo afterwards confirmed.
Although the Commonwealth of Nations has little in the way of international executive powers, the very threat of suspension from this club is considered a valuable tool in reining in pariah regimes.
Frendo had already distinguished himself by formulating a tough but calibrated response to the Fijian problem last year, by leading CMAG to suspend Fiji after the military coup.
“General Musharraf would be wrong to ignore what the Commonwealth is saying,” Frendo said. “This is the last chance for Pakistan to adhere to the principles of the Commonwealth. Otherwise it will be suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth on November 22.”
CMAG is calling on Musharraf to immediately repeal emergency rule, restore the independence of the judiciary, and remove all curbs on the media.
It is also asking President Musharraf to step down as Chief of Army Staff and for the immediate release of political party leaders and activists, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.
Frendo has shown a remarkable blend of soft and hard diplomacy in trying to entice Pakistan back to the fold of democratic decency. He stressed “We are engaged with Pakistan and we want Pakistan to remain within the Commonwealth family.”
In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he also noted that “it’s very important that Pakistan, which was moving very much in the right direction, actually resumes the direction which President Musharraf himself had been facing.”
But at the same time Frendo would not expect any compromise from the conditions laid by the CMAG.
“The conditions which need to be implemented are laid out in the document without an ‘or’ in between,” Frendo told ABC.
But he is also wary of saying anything which could alienate the Pakistani strongman. Asked whether General Musharraf is still going to be the President of Pakistan in a few months’ time, an astute Frendo cut the interviewer short, saying “I’m not in the betting business.”
Meanwhile, Frendo’s name has reached the shores of Antigua and Barbados, countries which Frendo himself visited in September.
Writing to the editor of Caribbean Net news, a certain M. Simmonds praised Frendo for his leadership role in dealing with Fiji and Pakistan, and asked: “How would the Commonwealth deal with a border dispute between India and Pakistan or some dangerous further militarisation build-up with nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, or mediate in Pakistan if the secretary general was a citizen of India?”