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As the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in Abuja Nigeria from the 5th to the 8th of December, many rights related demands will be made on the conference. Considering that 18 of the 54 member countries of the Commonwealth are African a significant percentage of these demands will relate to African countries and Zimbabwe will top the list.

The situation in Zimbabwe is horrific. It is sure to get worse, before it gets better. At present, state sponsored and state endorsed violence is inflicted against anyone and everyone that is opposed to or criticises the policies and actions of the Mugabe led government. This includes the political opposition, civil society organisations and the media. Sadly these are now ‘usual’ characteristics of any country governed by an elite, clique or determined to suppress opposition. The horror assumes even greater proportions with regard to the millions facing starvation and disease especially HIV/AIDS. Many will die slow and painful deaths.

For these reasons, a major demand of campaigners will be that Zimbabwe continues to be suspended from the Commonwealth in addition to a wide range of other suggested actions.

But painful as it is, an important question must be asked. Is the Commonwealth actually capable of promoting human rights in Africa?

It is important to ask this question for two crucial reasons. The first is for rights and pro-democracy campaigners working in Africa to determine if it is a worthwhile strategy to focus their energy and resources on an organisation that in the long run may turn out to be structurally incapable of seriously upholding democracy and human rights in Africa. The second is to determine if the Commonwealth as it presently constituted has exhausted any potential it may have had in the past to be a respected arbiter on issues of democracy and human rights in Africa.

These questions can only be answered by looking at the history, context and evolution of the Commonwealth.

History, context and character of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth first emerged as an intergovernmental organisation of former British colonies. The term ‘commonwealth’ was first used in the 1920’s to describe Britain and its dominions and led to the formation of the Dominions office in 1925.

The 1949 London declaration modified the Commonwealth to permit Republic status [in the case of India] with the British Monarch as the Head of the Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth was also renamed the Commonwealth of Nations to reflect the new realities in India and other emerging independence struggles. Subsequently 1949 has been recognised as the foundation year of the modern Commonwealth.

Following the wave of African majority rule and independence that began with Ghana in 1957, the 1961 Commonwealth Ministers Conference upheld the principle of racial equality and forced Apartheid South Africa to withdraw from the Commonwealth [and rejoin in 1994 following the end of the last Apartheid regime]

Increased activity led to the setting up of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965 and with Secretary General and small number of staff. In 1966 the first Commonwealth Prime Ministers Meeting (CPMM) to take place outside London was held in Lagos, the then capital of Nigeria.

In 1971 the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles set the framework for some agreements on human rights principles and free trade. The CPMM was also renamed Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting or CHOGM as it is known today. The 1971 decoration was further reinforced by the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration, which defined and strengthened the Commonwealths commitment to promoting democracy, good government, human rights, social and economic development.

In the 54th year of the modern Commonwealth, its 54 member countries across all continents together have a population of an estimated 1.7 billion or roughly thirty percent of the world’s population.

Weaknesses and Contradictions

Not withstanding the transformation of the image the Commonwealth i.e. from a tool of Imperial Britain to an organisation of, apparently, equal nations it has always been undermined by weaknesses and contradictions.

One of these key contradictions is the role of the British Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth, and some of the foreign polices of different governments of the United Kingdom in relation to the Commonwealths goals and principles on racial equality, democracy and human rights.

For instance, while the international struggle to end Apartheid was gathering momentum, [including through the efforts of the Commonwealth Eminent Perons Group] former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher not only labelled the ANC a terrorist organisation but gave tacit legitimacy to the Apartheid government through her views on business and other links with it.

At the present time, this contradiction has again emerged with regard to the UK government’s relations with the Musharaff led government in Pakistan and its policies and actions on Zimbabwe.

In 1999 the year in which the Commonwealth met in Durban South Africa, Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth following a military coup and the overthrow of Pakistan’s democratically elected government [led by Mr Nawaz Sharif] by then Army Chief of Staff General Pervez Musharaff.

The Commonwealth decision to suspend Pakistan was based on its 1995 Milbrook Action Programme [for reinforcing the] The 1995 Harare Declaration.

Section B of the Milbrook Programme, “Measures in response to Violations of the Harare Principles” states that:

'Where a member country is perceived to be clearly in violation of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, and particularly in the event of an unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government, appropriate steps should be taken to express the collective concern of Commonwealth countries and to encourage the restoration of democracy within a reasonable time frame. These include:

'i. Immediate public expression by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth’s collective disapproval of any such infringement of the Harare principles;

'vi. Pending restoration of democracy, exclusion of the government concerned from participation at ministerial-level meetings of the Commonwealth, including CHOGMs;

'vii. Suspension of participation at all Commonwealth meetings and of Commonwealth technical assistance if acceptable progress is not recorded by the government concerned after a period of two years;'

[and, importantly]

'viii. Consideration of appropriate further bilateral and multilateral measures by all member states (e.g. limitation of government-to-government contacts; people-to-people measures; trade restrictions; and, in exceptional cases, suspension from the association), to reinforce the need for change in the event that the government concerned chooses to leave the Commonwealth and/or persists in violating the principles of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration even after two years.'

Following CHOGM 1997 in Edinburgh, these principles were translated into action against the General Abacha led regime in Nigeria resulted in the CHOGM empowering the Commonwealth ministerial Action Group CMAG to take actions including:

'* visa restrictions on members of the Nigerian regime and their families;
* the withdrawal of military attachés;
* the cessation of military training;
* an embargo on the export of arms;
* the denial of educational facilities to members of the Nigerian regime and their families;
* a visa-based ban on all sporting contacts;
* a downgrading of cultural links; and
* the downgrading of diplomatic missions.'

To quote the Edinburgh CHOGM Communiqué, the Heads of Government further 'agreed that, following 1 October 1998, CMAG should assess whether Nigeria had satisfactorily completed a credible programme for the restoration of democracy and civilian government. They further agreed that if, in that assessment, Nigeria had completed a credible transition to democratic government and to observance of the Harare principles, then the suspension will be lifted; and if not and it remained in serious violation of the Harare principles, Heads of Government would consider Nigeria's expulsion from the association and the introduction of further measures in consultation with other members of the international community as recommended by CMAG. Such measures would include a mandatory oil embargo, a ban on air-links with Nigeria and the freezing of the financial assets and bank accounts in foreign countries of members of the regime and their families.'

Rights and pro-democracy campaigners throughout the Commonwealth would therefore have expected that the same measures would be applied in the case of Pakistan.

However following the terrorist atrocities of September 11, The Musharff regime has positioned itself as a key ally of Britain and the United States. As a result, the Commonwealths suspension of Pakistan exists only in name. Consequently there have been several high level visits between Pakistan and the United Kingdom including visits by Musharaff to the UK in November 2001 and by Prime Minister Blair to Pakistan in January 2002.

It does not take a genius to work out that thus will seriously undermine the Commonwealth especially in relation the role of Britain in the Commonwealth, and sanctions by the Commonwealth against undemocratic governments and for human rights violations.

Since Robert Mugabe was the host Head of State when the Harare Declaration was adopted in 1991, he would not only have worked this out, he has also used this as a weapon in his armoury to reinforce the will of die hard party members by saying to them something along the lines of 'see democracy or lack of it does not matter if you are considered to be an ally of the UK government.'

As the redistribution of land is a main sticking point in Zimbabwe and is very much tied to race and the legacy of colonialism in Africa, Mugabes behind the scenes argument to leaders of African and possibly Caribbean and Asian ex colonies will undoubtedly have played on a shared colonial past to secure empathy. This is regardless of the fact that many leaders of Commonwealth countries will have clearly realised that the Mugabe government is playing on a genuine land grievance in order to divide and rule the country.

Although the British government is aware of this contradiction and has been pushing the Musharaff regime for some progress of democratic reform, the Pakistani dictator has so far fallen far short on what a British Foreign Office Minister described in August 2001 as 'a clear timetable for the transition to democracy in Pakistan by October 2002.'

Can the Commonwealth Resolve the Contradictions?

As the Queen and Prime Minister Blair arrive in Abuja for CHOGM 2003, they should be able to see as clearly as most informed observers that what appears to be a racial and North South divide is emerging in the Commonwealth on the question of Zimbabwe. Already leaders of several African and some Asian countries have indicated that they are unhappy with the continued suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. Some have even specifically pointed out that the Committee of three composed of the Heads of States of Australia, Nigeria and South Africa did not unanimously agree to extend the one-year [March 2002 – March 2003] suspension of Zimbabwe [the leaders of Nigeria and South Africa disagreed with Australia’s Prime Minister] and as far as they are concerned the suspension has lapsed.

If this nascent racial and North-South divide hardens, surely the capacity of Britain to play a leadership within the Commonwealth will not only be questioned, the Singapore and Harare Declarations on which the Commonwealth bases its legitimacy to intervene to promote democracy and human rights will also be seriously undermined. Consequently, the capacity of the Commonwealth to promote human rights and democracy in Africa could be virtually non-existent within a very short period of time.

Will the leadership of the Commonwealth be capable of taking the necessary steps to avoid this? And if not will pro-democracy and human rights campaigners working in Africa still consider it worthwhile to focus their energy and resources on the Commonwealth? Only events in Abuja and over subsequent months can answer this question.

*Sankore is a member of the Pambazuka Editorial Board and is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights, which works on rights issues in Africa. CREDO can be contacted via Pambazuka or via [email][email protected]