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Commonwealth has appalling human rights record

04 Feb 2023 at 20:07hrs | Views
This written article by Professor Jonathan Moyo, then an academic at the University of Zimbabwe, was published by the Financial Gazette on 10 October 1991, a few days ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - presided over by the late Queen Elizabeth II and the late former president Robert Mugabe - in Harare. The summit, held between 16 October 1991 and 21 October 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, spawned the Harare Declaration, a landmark accord which issued safeguards on human rights and democracy.

The Heads of Government reaffirmed their confidence in the Commonwealth and its core principles and values, expanding on the Singapore Declaration of 1971.

However, after the turn of the millennium Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002 for breaching the Harare Declaration. In 2003, when the Commonwealth refused to lift the suspension, Harare withdrew in fury.

Since then, the Commonwealth has played a major role in trying to end the political impasse in Zimbabwe and allow Harare back to the fold. But during the last summit in Kigali, Rwanda in June 2022, Zimbabwe failed to meet the conditions for its return. So it is still pushing for readmission. However, in a withering criticism of the grouping of mostly former British colonies, Moyo argued that for all its lofty ideals and declarations, the Commonwealth actually has an appalling human rights record and legacy.

WHEN the 1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is called to order next Wednesday, the group's habitual pretence to serious business amid political pomp will not be enough to camouflage its dismal silence on human rights abuses by an overwhelming majority within its ranks.

At the last meeting two years ago in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, apartheid in South Africa was typically used as a scapegoat to dodge, ignore and, even incredibly, to defend some despots in the Commonwealth club who have become dangerously accustomed to pointing fingers at Pretoria, while conveniently disregarding similar or worse human rights abuses in their own backyard.

Nothing could be worse for the Common-coloured peoples of India, Pakistan and wealth's resident dictators than the timing of the Harare summit coming, as it does, on the heels of an emerging international political order which eschews geopolitical prejudices of the past. Days of hypocrisy have vanished with the lost decades of the cold war. Phoney ideological outbursts in the name of the oppressed in South Africa will neither impress nor fool anyone.

The traditionally pugnacious issue of apartheid is no longer in good currency. Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk are talking serious business about the process of democratic transition in South Africa and their voices and visions demand serious attention from outsiders who wish to assist in the process.

Against this background, heads of government and their delegations attending the Harare summit will have a historical choice to make about human rights and democracy in their ranks. To put up or shut up. This will be necessary because the Commonwealth has, over the years since its formation, evolved into an assortment of dictators some, if not many, of whom have revelled in brooking no political opposition.

This must change sooner rather than later, and there is no better opportunity than the Harare meeting. Otherwise, the clock of relevance in global affairs is steadily ticking towards obscurity for the Commonwealth.

The club faces the risk of being blown away. by the winds of change in the wake of growing grassroots demands for justice, pluralism and the rule of law throughout the globe.

To be sure, the Commonwealth is entitled to claim having done some good for its member states in the various areas of multilateral co-operation such as trade, investment, population migrations, sports, educational, professional and judicial spheres. Without discounting some marginal achievements in these areas, the fact remains, however, that multilateral co-operation has not led to a commonwealth.

Rather, the common bond has largely been based on political sentiment. For example, when the club was called the British Commonwealth of Nations between 1931 and 1946 it was sentiment which, under the Statute of Westminster, gave independence to European populations in the old dominions; especially Australia, Canada and New Zealand, while giving them special status in the folly then called the British Empire.

Again, it was sentiment which, following the granting of independence to India by Britain in 1947, led to a change of name from the 'British Commonwealth of Nations' to 'The Commonwealth of Nations' as the coloured peoples of India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) joined a previously all European club.

Between the 1950s and '90s, the political sentiment to gain approval from, and to identify with, the former colonial master trapped the new African states into joining the club one after another, beginning with Ghana which got its independence in 1957, ending with Namibia in 1990.

Political sentimentality is so high in the Commonwealth that 17 of its members outside Britain acknowledge the British monarch as symbolic head of state in these days when relevant symbolism is of the uttermost importance. For all practical purposes, Britain dominates the culture of officialdom in the majority of member states.

Over time and given Britain's nostalgic desire to keep the memories of its fallen empire alive, the sentimental origins of the Commonwealth have become an institutionalized stumbling block to honest and open discussion of internal political problems experienced by member states, especially in the area of human rights and democracy.

The Commonwealth is surrounded by an underlying but unspoken understanding among member states not to point accusing fingers at each other's human rights abuses, certainly not in public. The fear is that public feuds might lead to the disintegration of the Commonwealth, an event which would be a great loss to British influence. Thus, members are encouraged to use appropriate diplomatic channels, a euphemism for shutting up.

But human rights and democracy are not private matters. They are essentially public concerns which require commensurate transparency and accountability. This is precisely the point which Britain has been making in its new foreign policy which ties development assistance with political conditionalities ostensibly in support of human rights and democracy in developing nations which make up the majority in the Commonwealth.

If Britain is serious about this policy, then there is no better opportunity for delivering that message loudly and clearly than during next week's Commonwealth meeting.

It does not make sense for Britain to run with the message to the European Economic Community (EEC) and other international fora outside the Commonwealth unless there is a conspiracy between Western industrialised nations against the Third World in the guise of human rights and democracy.

In any case, the false impression that problems of human rights and democracy only bedevil the Third World and former Eastern bloc countries should be dispelled with the contempt it deserves. The fact of the matter is that human rights and democracy are of concern everywhere.

For example, within the Commonwealth there is no single country which can claim to have a clean conscience on the score of human rights and broadbased democracy.

In Britain, not only is the conflict in Northern Ireland fraught with human rights abuses, but racism against black and Asian immigrants has reached alarming proportions in the British Isles.

Australian and Canadian claims to independence and civilisation become rather absurd when viewed against the impoverished state of aboriginal communities in the two countries. The same goes for New Zealand which has persistently denied the indigenous Maoris their birth rights.

The problems of broad-based democracy and human rights in Australia, Canada and New Zealand were caused by the British who gave European populations independence at the expense of the indigenous communities who were then seen as natives hardly capable of civilisation.

The British attempted to apply the same racist formula across Zimbabwe's backyard when they gave independence to European populations in South Africa in 1910 under arrangements similar to the Australian constitution of 1900. It is indeed a historical repudiation of the British scheme of permanently oppressing native populations that South Africa is now on the verge of majority rule.

Given these real issues about British complicity in the underdevelopment of native rights in the former colonies which now make up the heart but not the mind of the Commonwealth, it is very disappointing that ruling elites in those former colonies which won independence in the name of the natives now stand accused, if not guilty, of human rights abuses which sometimes make crude British racism and colonialism pale into insignificance.

This is particularly true of African states in the Commonwealth. Last week Africa Watch accused the military rulers in Nigeria of violating basic human rights under cover of the restoration of civilian rule. Nigerians are currently going through the absurdity of an alleged democratic transition towards a two-party system made in the barracks. There is no doubt that, once in place, the contrived two-party system will last only as long as the pleasure of Nigeria's men in uniform and at great cost to human rights and democracy.

Other African countries which have sought to play a prominent role in the Commonwealth are no better than Nigeria. Consider the mixed record of the host country of CHOGM 1991.

Zimbabwe is a multi-party state, but only on paper. Ruling politicians in this country acknowledge multipartyism, but only when they are addressing the powers that be abroad and never when they are talking to local audiences where they do everything to give the impression that Zimbabwe is constitutionally a one-party state with the now deafening claim that Zanu (PF) will rule forever.

The common decency of the poor, many of whom were trapped into a vicious poverty cycle by British colonialism and Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), is not protected in Zimbabwe.

To make room for Commonwealth heads of government who apparently cannot stomach what is otherwise a daily sight of squalor in Harare, squatters around the capital city which will welcome dignitaries with fanfare were evicted and dumped at some dilapidated place far away from the city and their workplaces without sufficient notice.

This is not all. Zimbabwe, whose political leadership has been very vocal against apartheid South Africa, still has to come to grips with its as yet untold human rights abuses in Matabeleland perpetrated by the government's North Koreantrained Fifth Brigade of the national army between 1982 and 1987. Some 6 000 people lost their lives mostly under government hands, while some still remain missing to the grief of their families who continue to call for nothing less than justice.

Zimbabwe's rather poor post-independence record on human rights is not unique in Africa nor in the region. Zambia, which has come full circle back to multipartyism after some 17 years of one-party dictatorship, is scheduled to have multiparty elections on October 31.

Given his sometimes emotional claims to fairness and democracy, it is incredible that President Kenneth Kaunda has allowed the forthcoming elections to take place under a nationwide state of emergency which has been in force for the past 28 years. Kaunda's charade that free and fair elections can take place under a state of emergency speaks for itself about the state of human rights and democracy in Zambia.

But, for the sake of perspective, Zambia's situation is better than what is going on in Tanzania where the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party has arrogantly set up a commission to ask Tanzanians if they want the freedom to choose political parties.

There is no greater humiliation than to be asked about one's need for political freedom. As if to add insult to the injury of its citizens, the Tanzanian government is on record for vociferously calling for full democracy in South Africa.

The Tanzanian commission of enquiry into the desirability of one or multi-partyism has its equivalence in Uganda where President Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) is going through the nonsense of asking Ugandans whether they want a no-party, a one-party or a multi-party state in their troubled land.

The Tanzanian and Ugandan experiments with democratic transition risk every possibility of violating human rights because they are based on the notion that the people in power can spearhead democracy. This is sheer folly because it is not possible for the power elites to champion democracy against their entrenched interests. Everywhere, democracy has been threatened by those in power, many of whom have been corrupted by power absolutely. It is for this reason that democratic gains throughout the world have come from street politics and not from the corridors of power.

To be sure, what Tanzania and Uganda are doing in asking their citizens to opt for or against political freedom is not nearly as bad as the political opprobrium in Kenya.

The situation in that country has deteriorated to a point where Kenya's business has become everyone's business, especially the Commonwealth.

When President Daniel Arap Moi comes to Harare next week, he needs to be publicly told in no uncertain terms that there must be an immediate stop to the brutality and savagery which his ruling Kenya African National Union (Kanu) party is perpetrating against Kenyans. If nothing is done about the Kenyan situation at the Harare summit, then nothing should be said about South Africa for the sake of keeping moral indignation against the Commonwealth somewhat low.

The only consolation for President Moi, whose days are clearly numbered by any reasonable measure, is that this past weekend he had the wisdom to publicly reject misguided calls by opportunistic and dangerous elements in his party for him to be made a life president.

The beleaguered Kenyan president should be encouraged, obliged, if need be, to expand his wisdom into rejecting the legislative monopoly of Kanu for the same reason(s) he rejected being made a life president.

But there is a historical context to the rise of African dictators in the Commonwealth. They all inherited, retained and further perfected instruments of oppression left behind by British colonialists who were the first to implant institutions and legal systems which degraded the African personality.

When the British realised that the new African leaders did not have fundamental opposition to the institutions and laws of colonialism, they were only too happy and eager to triumphantly return as advisers in military, police, prison and media affairs, to cite but a few examples. The advice was given, as it still is, in the guise of technical co-operation which was conveniently seen as non-political.

In a rather worrying way, the Commonwealth of Nations has served to perpetuate and conceal British collusion in the abuses of human rights by former colonies. There are two reasons which support this conclusion.

First, it is a matter of empirical assertion that the gamut of Commonwealth countries, certainly in Africa, have kept oppressive instruments of law-and-order dating back to British colonialism under the false pretence that the instruments are neutral civil service tools usable by any administration, colonial or otherwise.

Second, careful examination of every case in which the British negotiated for the end of their colonial rule reveals an almost paranoid concern for minority rights at the expense of the majority. There is no single case in which the British sought entrenched rights for the majority, or even for the individual defined as a human being at large.

Rather, the British sought the entrenched protection of European settlers only. This approach led to the unfortunate definition of minority in the former colonies as a white person and it was only the wellbeing of the white person which preoccupied the British mind in the transition between colonialism and independence. In the British scheme of things, a black person could not be considered a minority since all blacks were, as natives, considered to be alike.

This narrow-minded, and indeed racist, definition of the minority encouraged power hungry black nationalists who were victorious at independence to make fantastic claims about their representative capacity in the black community to the detriment of human rights. The nationalists claimed to represent every black person, willy-nilly.

Black dissenters were branded as traitors.

What happened afterwards is a long and bitter story of human rights abuses which is better told by re-examining the past, present and future of the Commonwealth.

If those industrialized countries in the Commonwealth which are calling for human rights and democracy as a condition for developmental assistance are serious about their foreign policy posturing, then the re-examination should publicly begin with the Harare summit. The alternative is a bleak future for the Commonwealth in which grassroots attitudes towards the colonial club will be, to say the least, most unkind.

*About the Writer: Dr Jonathan Moyo is a lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Zimbabwe.

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