VANCOUVER, Canada — The Commonwealth heads of government open their biennial conference today with the overwhelming majority of members already at odds with Britain over how best to confront South Africa over its policy of apartheid.
A leader of Canada's Sikh community raised the apartheid issue Monday during a demonstration by an estimated 3,000 Sikhs against the presence of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
"If apartheid is on the agenda, so should human rights be," declared Gurcharan Singh, of the Federation fo Sikh Societies in Canada.
The protesters denounced Gandhi as an "Indian Hitler" for India's crackdown on Sikh separatists seeking establishment of a Sikh homeland in the Indian state of Punjab. The protest was held about half a mile from the conference site.
Nearly all 49 member states are expected to repeat demands that South Africa be punished by increased economic sanctions for continuing a system that gives 5 million whites control over the political and economic lives of 25 million blacks.
But British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose opposition to economic sanctions has forced the Commonwealth to accept watered-down measures in the past, has given notice that she will be even tougher on the issue at this meeting.
"We have no intention of accepting calls for more sanctions," a British official said Monday. "Sanctions don't work, and it is fantasy to think they do."
Britain's opposition to sanctions is based on more than pragmatism. Britain is a major trading partner of South Africa, and British exports are expected to reach $2 billion this year, an increase of 11% over the 1986 level.
At the last Commonwealth meeting, in the Bahamas, the group approved a weak system of partial sanctions under pressure from Thatcher and sent a committee to South Africa to explore ways to bring other pressure on the government to end apartheid.
The committee--"the Eminent Persons Group"--was coldly received and achieved nothing. Nor, by most accounts, did the call for sanctions. In the end, Britain even declined to carry out all of the limited sanctions.
However, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the host of this year's meeting and a leader in callng for action against South Africa, says the fight for increased sanctions will go on during the weeklong meeting.
In the past, Britain has been able to take advantage of an unwritten practice that the Commonwealth, which is made up of Britain and its former colonies, would only take positions agreed to by all members. But Mulroney told interviewers on the eve of the opening session that this approach is no longer valid.
"Unanimity is a splendid commodity," he told the Toronto Globe and Mail, "but one can survive without it." And in what could be a significant departure from past practice, the Commonwealth secretary general, Shridath S. Ramphal, of Guyana, said that since there is no hope that Thatcher will agree to augmented sanctions this time, the concept of consensus may not apply.
"One nation shouldn't thwart" the will of an overwhelming majority, he said, indicating that the group may give up the consensus approach.
Britain, trying to take advantage of a feeling by some Commonwealth members that concern over South Africa should not exclude such other issues as increased economic aid to underdeveloped nations, has proposed shifting the focus from sanctions to greater assistance to the black African nations that are almost totally dependent economically on South Africa.