Hazards of Harare

By Mayall, James | The World Today, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Hazards of Harare


Mayall, James, The World Today


Commonwealth leaders are once again gathering with one of their number caught in damaging disputes over democracy and the rule of law. In 1995 it was Nigeria in trouble, this year it is Zimbabwe. And it was Nigeria that hosted talks to try to settle the current dispute. The resulting agreement could be a diplomatic triumph for the organisation, or it might turn out to be no more than temporary face-saving. What chance then for an agenda that promises continuity and renewal in an organisation often poorly understood?

BETWEEN HEADS OF GOVERNMENT MEETINGS EVERY TWO YEARS,

the activities of the Commonwealth are rarely reported, and its role in international relations is frequently either ignored or misunderstood. For Commonwealth states, however, membership represents good value for money. Even those that have had their membership suspended - Gambia, Fiji, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone - have rejoined at the first opportunity.

In their joint statement on May 11, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, announced that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) would he organised around the themes of continuity and renewal. This summit, from October 6-9, will be the first of the new century and also the first to be organised by McKinnon, the former New Zealand Foreign Minister, who was elected to succeed Chief Emeka Anayouku of Nigeria in Durban two years ago.

There is indeed a strong case for Commonwealth continuity. In the words of the joint statement, `the Commonwealth has a creditable record in dealing with issues such as racism, conflict resolution, debt relief and sustainable development, and has a particular relevance in the Pacific through its support for the special concerns of small states. The achievements in these areas may be modest but they are real.

DIFFICULT RENEWAL

Renewal is likely to prove more difficult. The omens are, to say the least, mixed. The heart of the matter is the Commonwealth's commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights, the triad of political values enshrined in the 1991 Harare Declaration. At that time, with the Cold War so recently over and the end of apartheid in sight, there was a deliberate attempt to revitalise the Commonwealth as an association of democratic states. This official Commonwealth, with its Secretariat in London, would provide the political roof for the huge array of trans-national Commonwealth non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

It is the unofficial Commonwealth that distinguishes the organisation from others, and lends support to the claim that it constitutes an international civil society. In Brisbane, as in Durban, there will be a parallel meeting of the Commonwealth Youth Forum and a Commonwealth Peoples Centre, while the Commonwealth Business Forum will meet in Melbourne immediately before the summit. Sadly, however, the democratic credentials of the Commonwealth are currently severely strained, not only - but certainly not least - in Zimbabwe, ironically the host country when the Harare Declaration was drawn up.

To ensure its adoption, it was necessary to include in the Declaration a reference to `national circumstances, a formula designed to reassure governments that they would not be subject to undue interference in their domestic affairs. On the other hand, if the new-look Commonwealth was to have credibility, it was impossible to avoid discussing sanctions against governments that blatantly defaulted on their commitments.

The issue came to a head four years later at the Auckland summit, which coincided with the judicial murder of Ken Sara-Wiwa, the Ngoni leader, by the then military Nigerian government. The gathering responded by suspending Nigeria `from the Councils of the Commonwealth; a phrase that avoided outright expulsion. It also created a Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to monitor the situation, advise the Heads on any subsequent action that might be required and if possible to provide assistance for the restoration of democratic rule. …

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