PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- An approaching global climate summit has raised the temperature at a typically low-key meeting of leaders from Britain's former colonial empire.
The Commonwealth heads of government, meeting in the Caribbean this week, are discussing climate change just before a major summit on the issue in Copenhagen. Leaders of the 53-nation group, whose profile has waned in recent years, say they now have a chance to influence the global debate.
"What we can do is to raise our voices politically," said Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago, which is hosting the biennial meeting. "We feel can have some effect in influencing the discussions in Denmark."
Others apparently agree. This year's meeting is drawing leaders from outside the Commonwealth such as Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and, most unusually, French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Manning stressed to journalists Thursday that the leaders would not be negotiating the details of a climate treaty in their private meetings. Rather, they would be working out a statement that reflects a huge segment of world opinion, a quarter of the world's countries.
"A statement from countries as diverse as those that you find in the Commonwealth is a statement that would be much more reflective of world than would otherwise be the case," he said.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, also attending the meeting, has called for a strong statement warning of the economic and environmental dangers of letting climate change go unchecked.
"A strong message from the Commonwealth on the dangers of climate change can create the momentum needed for a global response at Copenhagen next month," Brown told Trinidad's Express newspaper.
Sarkozy is a surprising participant at the English-speaking meeting, but the French leader has been a vocal advocate for setting ambitious goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the Dec. 9 summit in Copenhagen. He is expected to hold separate private meetings Friday with Brown and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Commonwealth, established in 1949 and made up almost entirely of former British colonies, promotes democracy, good government and education.
But the mission seems to be fading: A new report by the Royal Commonwealth Society, a non-governmental organization, said its polling found "members of the public are largely unaware of what the Commonwealth is or does" and called for a more aggressive role in international affairs.
Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the director of the society, said he was pleased to see the heads of government focusing on climate change at such a key moment but fears the organization hasn't really changed _ it's only tackling a relevant issue by coincidence.
The leaders who are coming to Trinidad, he said, are here this week because it's the largest gathering of leaders before Copenhagen.
"We deserve better than that," he said. "We aspire to be better than that as the Commonwealth family."
Those hoping for strong words on at least one human rights issue have already been disappointed.
Both Manning and Kamalesh Sharma, the secretary general of the Commonwealth, declined to condemn a proposed law in Uganda that imposes life imprisonment for homosexual acts and the death penalty for having homosexual sex while HIV positive. The law also sets prison terms for people who do not report known acts of homosexuality.
Manning declined comment, saying it was an internal matter, while Sharma said he hoped the bill would be changed before the Ugandan parliament takes a final vote on it.
"We must show our faith that this is a process which is going to deliver in the end the appropriate result," he said.
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