Understanding the spirit of the times

Richard Bourne

Examining the context in which the Commonwealth leaders drafted the Harare Declaration in 1991, Richard Bourne looks at how its scope, innovation and effectiveness were received at the time – and how this evaluation has evolved in retrospect and provided the foundation for further progress.

It is important to distinguish the Harare Declaration of 1991 with how it is viewed in contemporary history. At the time it was a disappointment to many human rights campaigners, including myself, then di­rector of the non-governmental Common­wealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). In retrospect, it has given the Commonwealth, and member governments, a possibly unde­served status as an international pioneer for democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights. Many, observing the rifts in 2011-2012 over the proposal for a Com­missioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights, would ask how deep such commitments really are.

The context for the Harare Declaration was two-fold: the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the beginning of a negotiated end to apartheid, with the release of Nelson Mandela who came to the Harare summit as a guest. As the declaration stated, “Internationally, the world is no longer locked in the iron grip of the Cold War”. This was a moment of socio-economic as well as political opti­mism. The declaration continued, “In the last twenty years, several Commonwealth countries have made significant progress in economic and social development.”

Around the world there was criticism of one-party and military regimes, of which there had been several in the Common­wealth in the 1970s and 80s. Over the Zim­babwean border, in Zambia, a lively multi-party election campaign was under way as Commonwealth leaders met in Harare. The opposition to Kenneth Kaunda’s UNIP par­ty was built on a coalition of unions, profes­sional bodies and students not dissimilar to the opposition to the military regime in Ni­geria. Kaunda had to leave the Harare con­ference to return to the election, in which his party was defeated – ending the rule of one of the key presidents of the previous 30 years.

The Harare Declaration contained all manner of commitments – from the trans­fer of wealth from developed to developing countries and education for all, to effective population policies and the importance of free trade. But what caught the attention of commentators, and was attacked by  some campaigners, was the commitment to “democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances” as well as to the rule of law and fundamental human rights. In a way, these commitments were not an enormous advance on the Sin­gapore Declaration of 1971. It was the con­text that had changed.

Why were these unexceptional state­ments criticised? There were two main rea­sons. First, interested civil society feared that leaders had no intention of acting on them – that on the flight home they would be quickly forgotten – the frequent fate of international statements. Secondly, there was particular concern that democracy re­flecting national circumstances would give too much wriggle-room to advocates of guided or even one-party democracy.

From the human rights side, an interna­tional group chaired by Flora MacDonald, former Canadian foreign minister, had called for a full-scale Commonwealth Hu­man Rights Declaration, backed up by a Commission of Commonwealth experts that could examine abuses and demand re­dress. The Harare Declaration seemed very thin by comparison.

Furthermore, within Africa, there was a realisation that much more had to be done. Just prior to the summit, there was a three-day conference in Harare on human rights in Commonwealth Africa. It was supported by Zimbabwe’s Legal Resources Centre, the Southern African Development Organi­sations Network, and CHRI. A number of human rights activists attended cloaked in such guises as social welfare personnel, because ‘human rights’ – in countries like Malawi, still ruled by its ‘president for life’, Hastings Banda – remained dirty words.

It is unlikely that, without subsequent events, so much would have been heard of the Harare Declaration. That it came to represent a distinctive thrust for the Com­monwealth in the 1990s was due especially to the cruelty and ham-handedness of the continuing military dictatorship in Niger­ia, which reached a nadir under General Abacha. After Harare, the Commonwealth Secretariat, under Chief Anyaoku, looked at ways of realising the aims of the declara­tion.

In the non-governmental world, the CHRI, despite its disappointments and because of its concern for rights on the ground, decided to consolidate its campaign and moved its head office to New Delhi. It sent a fact-finding mission to Nigeria, led by Flora MacDonald, which published the report ‘Nigeria: Stolen by Generals’. When the Abacha regime, in a deliberate chal­lenge to the Commonwealth, executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni activists in the middle of the 1995 summit, heads established the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). This was a rules committee with the ability to suspend non-compliant governments. While this is not the place to describe what happened there­after, it was a genuinely progressive and pioneering move at that time, designed to give teeth to the Harare Declaration.

About the author:

Richard Bourne is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies


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