Setting an agenda for the future

Stuart Mole

In 1991, amid the turbulent events that marked the last decade of the 20th century, Commonwealth heads of government convened in Zimbabwe for their biennial summit. The resultant Harare Declaration was to set the Commonwealth on a new course, writes Stuart Mole, one that would place greater emphasis on the association’s fundamental principles of democracy and human rights.

The bomb exploded in the early hours of 20 July, slightly injuring three people and causing extensive damage to three floors of the Harare Sheraton Hotel.

With the 12th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) due to take place in the adjacent International Con­ference Centre in three months time, many were alarmed. In the UK, John Major, the new prime minister, feared for the Queen’s safety. She was due to visit Zimbabwe short­ly before the summit. However, she firmly resisted any suggestion that her state visit might be cancelled – as head of the Com­monwealth, she felt her duty was clear.

While the CIA suspected Iraq, Zimba­bwean officials saw the hand of South Af­rica in the bombing. The regime had struck Harare many times in recent years. Apart­heid would again be high on the summit’s agenda, a debate that would be dramatised by the presence in Harare of Nelson Man­dela. Since his release from prison, he had assumed the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC). Possessing im­mense personal authority, he would hold a key position in the forthcoming negotia­tions for a post-apartheid South Africa.

Despite the ever-present shadow of terror­ism, it was clear that Commonwealth leaders were now facing a very different world from that of two years before. Shortly after the 1989 Kuala Lumpur CHOGM, the Berlin Wall crumbled, bringing with it the whole gigantic edifice of Cold War conflict and rivalry.

In any case, the meeting marked the clos­ing stages of Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ram­phal’s final term as Secretary-General. His spirited leadership, over 15 years, had seen major campaigns that had lifted the profile of the Commonwealth. These included the suc­cessful negotiations leading to the birth of an independent Zimbabwe – and the continuing fight against apartheid in South Africa.

His successor, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, joined the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1966, a year after its creation. Apart from a brief spell as Foreign Minister of a demo­cratic Nigeria (before being ousted by a military coup), he served continuously in the Secretariat, rising to be Sonny Ram­phal’s deputy. He had become increas­ingly sensitive to those who charged the Commonwealth with double standards. “Of proclaiming the democratic ideal and campaigning for human rights in Southern Africa while at the same time turning a blind eye to failings and abuses in our own ranks,” as he put it. It was something he re­solved to tackle.

Anyaoku was helped in this task by the decision of Commonwealth leaders, at the 1989 Malaysian summit, to embark on a major review of the modern Com­monwealth. This ten-strong High Level Appraisal Group (HLAG), chaired by the host of the Kuala Lumpur meeting, the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in the end only met once – on the eve of the Harare CHOGM. But the groundwork for the review was undertaken by a group of senior Commonwealth officials.

Encouraged by Ramphal, Anyaoku joined these discussions from the outset, despite the fact that his term as Secretary-General was not due to start until July 1990. The officials’ re­port and the discussion by heads in the HLAG, particularly on guidelines for election observer missions and on membership, were taken forward to the heads of government retreat at Elephant Hills, near Victoria Falls. From those efforts emerged the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, which summarised the associa­tion’s core values and placed particular empha­sis on democracy and human rights. Common­wealth journalist Derek Ingram observed that the declaration also, just as importantly, “set a new agenda for the future”.

Critics pointed to the Declaration’s “un­even quality” and its “polysyllabic sole­cisms”, preferring some of the drafting of the Singapore Declaration 20 years before. Omissions (such as a specific reference to media freedom) were identified, and some saw the Declaration’s reference to support for democracy “according to local circum­stances” as weasel words, a cop-out clause for those with little real commitment to democracy. Given that the main proponent of the wording was India’s Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, this accusation was im­plausible. But it did reflect the view, forci­bly expressed by Mahathir that the days of exporting Westminster-style democracy to the developing Commonwealth were over. For his part, Anyaoku provided his own clarification. All were agreed on the essen­tial ingredients of democracy, he argued. But democracy, he added, must “respect the cul­tural milieu in which it is to be practised”.

There were some positive signs that the Commonwealth meant business. First, in association with the Declaration, heads of government approved and issued guide­lines for the deployment of election observ­er missions to help entrench democratic practice. Between 1990 and 2000, 29 such missions would be sent to a wide range of member countries, often accompanied by technical assistance and the mediation of the Secretary-General in cases of political difficulty. Second, the adoption of the Dec­laration was preceded by an electrifying two-hour debate on democracy and human rights in one of CHOGM’s Executive Ses­sions. Of the Commonwealth’s 50 members at that time, no less than ten were military or one-party states, 20 percent of the total. As a result of the debate, Kenya, the Sey­chelles and Malawi agreed to open the door to multi-party democracy. Zambia, encour­aged by Anyaoku, had already done so prior to CHOGM. Indeed, Kenneth Kaunda left the summit early to resume campaigning in Zambia’s first-ever multi-party election.

Of course, Harare covered other issues. It was a well-attended and good tempered meeting, and a mood of optimism prevailed. Of the 48 countries eligible to be present, 43 were represented by their head of govern­ment. Sam Nujoma, the president of a newly independent Namibia, attended for the first time, though Cameroon’s application re­mained in limbo. Heads agreed that adher­ence to Harare principles would in future be a key test for would-be members.

John Major’s soothing affability was a welcome change from Mrs Thatcher’s di­dactic dogmatism. He announced that the UK was unilaterally rescheduling debts un­der the Trinidad Terms (which he had pro­moted while Chancellor of the Exchequer); and he inspired a Commonwealth cricket match at the Harare Sports Club.

With Mandela on hand, heads agreed to a phasing-out of sanctions in South Africa, as milestones were reached in the transi­tion process. They looked to assist South Africa’s post-apartheid reconstruction, and Secretary-General Anyaoku was asked to travel immediately to Pretoria to open ne­gotiations with the regime on a Common­wealth role in the process of change.

What was the lasting legacy of Harare? For many, the big question was whether the reforms promised in the Declaration would be implemented. “Would change follow”, queried Derek Ingram, “Or were the leaders just going home to continue as before?” By and large, there was appreciable change – in Zambia, in Ghana, in Bangladesh, in Kenya, in Malawi, in the Seychelles – often facili­tated by the Commonwealth. But military regimes in Nigeria and (after the 1994 coup) in The Gambia were unmoved. By 1993, Anyaoku looked forward to the day when military rule and unconstitutional change no longer blighted the association. Accord­ingly, preparations were made for proposing a mechanism that could deal with recalci­trant members and uphold Commonwealth values. The execution of the Nigerian activ­ist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the ethnic Ogoni people during the 1995 CHOGM gave great impetus to the birth of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), but its origins were earlier.

Ironically, the greatest blow to the ‘Harare principles’ became apparent ten years later. A divided Commonwealth proved to be largely impotent in the face of the democratic and human rights abuses of its erstwhile host – Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

About the author:

Stuart Mole is Honorary Fellow in Politics at Exeter University and the former Director of the Commonwealth Secretary-General's Office


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