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on McKinnon is a broad brush-
stroke kind of guy. His second
four-year term as Secretary
General of the Commonwealth
comes to an end in just a week.
He will leave the grand and elaborate
offices at London’s Marlborough House,
the Christopher Wren building that is the
HQ of the Secretariat, and move back to
his native New Zealand. He and his wife
will build a house on the 4ha of land they
bought far enough away from his old par-
liamentary seat not to have to hold Satur-
day morning surgeries, he jokes. He imag-
ines it will be at least six months before he
is bored and looking for his next challenge.
Over the last 18 years he has circum-
navigated the globe twice every month, it’s
now time for a brief respite.
The office of New Zealand’s former
deputy prime minister is almost empty
and the shelves are mostly bare, a few
boxes line the corridor, and the sunny yel-
low wallpaper, chosen by the wife of his
successor, has replaced the dusty blue of
his term. It’s his present to the former
Indian High Commissioner to the UK,
Kamlesh Sharma.
“I thought I would do him a favour
because if he came in and did it people
would say: ‘God, you’re wasting money.’ So
he can just blame me.”
What the British – who fund 30%of the
Secretariat – made of him can only be
imagined, although he and Queen Eliza-
beth walked around a reception the other
night seemingly content. For the outspo-
ken, forthright and needless to say fiercely
clever McKinnon, the years have flown by.
“Remember how they used to drag in
high school when four years was an eter-
nity.” Sometimes now he looks back and
the eight years feel like ten minutes. And
sometimes more like 25 years.
His office overlooks the Mall, the road
that leads to Buckingham Palace where the
Queen, who is head of the Commonwealth,
lives. Born in London to New Zealand par-
ents, he was appointed SecGen at the 1999
Commonwealth Heads of Government
meeting in Durban after a long career in
politics. When I ask the Rt Hon Donald C
McKinnon if people know what the Com-
monwealth Secretariat actually does, he
asks me if I know what Nato does. Touche.
“No. About 5% of people know about
5% of what we do.”
The Commonwealth is a loose associa-
tion of former British colonies (except for
Mozambique) and defined its modern
shape 60 years ago, when there were only
three international organisations. Today
there are more than 100, and because of
that, says McKinnon, it will have to fight to
find its place in the sun.
During his first few weeks in office he
thought he might die in Fiji when he trun-
dled into a camp to visit hostages, includ-
ing Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra
Chaudhry, held captive after the 2000 mil-
itary coup. Another day, another coup.
“All these young kids were waving guns
around and I thought if I’m going to die it’s
going to be here, and not because they are
trying to kill me, but because some god-
damn idiot didn’t realise where the trigger
There are 53 nations in total including
18 African ones, and governance remains
top of the to-do list. McKinnon feels we
had such extraordinarily high expecta-
tions of the newly independent states, but
despite that he has seen progress.
“I think they (the African nations) actu-
ally learned more from their mistakes
than from anything else.”
For progress he cites elections without
bloodshed, an entrenched attitude of the
people to insist on getting what they want,
and consistent economic growth of 5%, 6%
and 7%. By and large he feels they are
doing pretty well.
What he and so many other people did-
n’t see coming was the disaster that befell
Kenya. “Kenya was something that should
not have happened. I was talking to Presi-
dent (Mwai) Kibaki virtually immediately
after the last election.” Something he was
never able to do with President Robert
Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who refused to take
his calls.
“I had a lot of faith in the system and
when I was in Kenya more than a year ago
I made a special plea. I told the president
that his electoral commission was not
going to be seen as an honest broker as it
was too dominated by Kibaki’s party. I told
him he should do something about it before
the election. He said he would, but nothing
was done.” It should not have fallen down
at the commission level, which by now
should be above local criticism.
The same cannot be said of Mugabe.
Zimbabwe was a huge problem and despite
McKinnon’s many attempts, including
teaming up with the United Nations to help
with the land distribution programme, all
that was ultimately achieved was “a big fat
zero”, he says. “The only way Zimbabwe is
going to change is from within.”
He is however, heartened by Simba
Makoni’s candidacy for president. “He
won’t be doing this on his own,” concludes
McKinnon, “and he will clearly have sup-
port for what he is doing.” That’s what he
means by change from within.
Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in
2003, but McKinnon was more hopeful
about Pakistan right up until November 3
when President Pervez Musharraf
declared a state of emergency and was sus-
pended from the Commonwealth two
weeks later.
“I’ve had a lot of discussions with Pres-
ident Musharraf, and he has done quite a
lot of good in Pakistan in terms of devel-
oping a legislature which is very represen-
tative with a high proportion of women
and seats allocated for special interest
Then the judges were fired, an immedi-
ate violation of the Commonwealth princi-
There is still a lot to do but his ability to
have a heart to heart with any Common-
wealth leader has proved in most cases suc-
cessful. “Musharraf can snub his nose at
the Commonwealth and even at the Amer-
ican government but when three or four
major players start saying the same thing
it’s more difficult.”
He talks proudly of a project in Sierra
Leone where he watched former combat-
ants cheerfully making roofing materials,
in some way atoning for their awful human
rights abuses. He talks of the hundreds of
children he met, all of whom had arms or
legs hacked off by those very combatants.
Hope is what makes it worthwhile and
despite having seen it all before, his faith
in humanity hasn’t been completely
shaken. It’s the little kids that get to him.
The two-year old who could be a Nobel
laureate but may not live to five and is
unlikely to even make it to school.
“You have to keep working at it and you
can’t take anything for granted, and you
have to treat all people as equal. What
keeps you going is that you know there is
so much that you are doing that actually
changes people’s lives.”
The Star THURSDAY MARCH 20 2008
Death in Fiji
looked on cards
for McKinnon
The Commonwealth’s retiring secretary general counts many
successes and some total failures, writes Heidi Kingstone
OUTSPOKEN: Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon will be stepping down next week. The former New Zealand
deputy prime minister spent eight years at the helm of the organisation. PICTURE: THEMBA HADEBE / AP
McKinnon (left)
speaks with
President Robert
Mugabe during a
visit to the country
in 2000. The
Secretary General
says improvement
of the situation in
the country will
only come through
change from
Big Brother can
track every click
ost tools – be it a crowbar, a
CCTV camera or a car -–
can be used for good or ill.
The Internet is no exception. It is
disturbing, then, to learn that the
worldwide web, which once promised
a democratisation of the media, offer-
ing many new voices, stories and per-
spectives, has produced the opposite.
An eminent US media studies group
has shown that the news agenda has,
in fact, narrowed. Just two subjects -
the war in Iraq and the 2008 US pres-
idential election campaign – consti-
tuted more than a quarter of the sto-
ries in US newspapers, on television
and online last year, it found. Strip
out Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, and news
from the rest of the
world makes up less
than 6% of the Amer-
ican news. And much
of the news on the
rest of the web is
merely a repackaging
of these sources.
Perhaps, more disturbingly, the
Internet is posing a major new threat
to privacy. In part this is, as the
father of the web, Sir Tim Berners-
Lee, pointed out yesterday, due to our
own carelessness. We should remem-
ber that everything we upload
through social networking sites will
remain there indefinitely to be read
by potential employers and by our
But he raised a more worrying
spectre. The technology now exists
which would enable an insurance
company to increase the premiums of
someone who had used the web to
look up a lot of information about
cancer. This is not a distant prospect.
Behavioural advertising, as it is
known, is what was behind the Bea-
con system recently introduced by
Facebook. It sends ads to users after
tracking their web-surfing trail. The
company was forced to change the
way Beacon operates after an uproar
from customers.
Britain’s three biggest internet
service providers – BT, Virgin Media
and TalkTalk, who have more than
10-million customers – have recently
signed agreements with a company
called Phorm which supplies a simi-
lar system to provide “personalised
advertisements”. Firms which use
this, which include the Guardian
newspaper and the social networking
site MySpace, get a
better per-click pay-
ment than with other
services. There is a
lot of money to be
made here. It is esti-
mated that BT alone
could make $167-million (R1,3-billion)
a year from the new system.
In the wrong hands, this kind of
technology could pose serious risks
to individuals’ privacy. The Home
Office has drawn up guidance sug-
gesting that web-tracking should be
legal as long as customers have given
their consent.
This is not good enough, since
providers can sneak this approval
into the small print of their terms of
service updates. It is vital that con-
sumers’ right to privacy is protected.
Service deals should be transparent.
Users should not be forced constantly
to consider the secondary implica-
tions of going to any given website. –
The Independent
New technology
poses severe
security risks