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Commonwealth focuses on security needs of tiny member states

The history of mini-states suggests that although small may be beautiful, it is also vulnerable. The British Commonwealth has more than its fair share of countries with populations below 1 million, and its London-based secretariat has decided to spearhead a special study of their problems.

Recent experiences in countries such as the Seychelles and Grenada have pinpointed the security threat, internal and external. But Sir Shridath Ramphal, the Commonwealth secretary-general, says economic insecurity is at least as much a challenge to small states as attempts by radical groups to take them over by force.

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Of the 49 Commonwealth members, 29 have fewer than 1 million citizens. Half of these have populations smaller than 500,000; a quarter, fewer than 200,000.

Announcing the formation of a special Commonwealth study group, Sir Shridath said: ''Events around the world, and perhaps most dramatically in Grenada last year, have forced attention to the security needs of small states. But it has forced attention too to a wider dimension of the problem. It is not only a question of making the world safe for small states, but of making small states safe for the world.''

One concern is the danger that the sovereignty of small states may be abused by more powerful neighbors. The special study has its roots in last year's invasion of Grenada by United States Marines. But there are also strong memories of recent attempts by South African mercenaries to unseat President France Albert Rene's government in the Seychelles.

The Commonwealth must take account of tiny Pacific states like Vanuatu (pop. 112,596) dependent on fishing for a livelihood but in constant danger of seeing fishing stocks exploited by large countries.

The study will consider the formation of regional peace forces in such areas as the Caribbean, with a number of tiny neighbors cooperating to develop mobile ''fire brigades.'' Alternatively, should a country like the Maldives (160,000 people scattered over 2,000 islands) form a security association with a near neighbor - in its case, India which lies to the north?

Heading the special group is Telford Georges, chief justice of the Bahamas. Members include Edgar Mizzi, former attorney general of Malta; Lebang Mpotokwane , secretary to the president of Botswana; and Sir Anthony Parsons, former British ambassador to the UN.

Summing up their task, Ramphal said: ''The truth probably is that the world community has not yet thought its way through the phenomenon of very small states in the world that is emerging in the end years of the 20th century. In many respects small states are so specially disadvantaged that their needs become qualitatively different from those of other developing countries.''

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The study group is to submit its report when Commonwealth heads of government meet in the Bahamas late next year.

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