“It was important to chart a new course for the Commonwealth”

Chief Emeka Anyaoku

Recalling his first major summit as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku tells Global about the opportunities and challenges facing the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Harare, his determination to give the association a new purpose and confidence and the impact of this groundbreaking declaration.

Global: The Harare Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 1991 was your first as Commonwealth Secretary-General. What were your hopes and expectations of the summit?

Chief Emeka Anyaoku: I shut myself off for six months after my election as Secre­tary-General at Kuala Lumpur in 1989, to think through my goals and what I wanted to achieve. With the end of the Cold War, there were great opportunities and chal­lenges. And there was criticism of the Commonwealth in sections of the media that while it championed democracy and majority rule in southern Africa, it tolerated military dictatorships and one-party states within its membership. I therefore wanted leaders in Harare to respond to these chang­es, reassess the Commonwealth’s priorities and set the tone for the whole decade – and beyond.

How central to what became known as the Harare Declaration was the high-level review which you inherited in the build-up to CHOGM?

I had encouraged the decision to launch the review and worked closely with sen­ior officials preparing for Harare. It was important to chart a new course for the Commonwealth, especially in emphasis­ing democracy and human rights. But every summit has a unique chemistry, and it was the retreat discussion at Victoria Falls – with just heads [of government] and I present – which, after the final negotiations, gave birth to the Harare Declaration.

One of the outcomes of Harare was to establish Commonwealth Election Observer missions as a regular part of Commonwealth programmes for strengthening democracy. Ironically, the chair of the review, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister, had been unhappy with aspects of the Commonwealth’s monitoring of the 1990 Malaysian elections. How was that resolved?

It was precisely because he and I had had to talk through a number of issues to do with the Observer team, as the elections progressed, that I felt it necessary to have clear, agreed guidelines for deploying Ob­server missions. For example, the Com­monwealth could only observe elections at the invitation of member governments and with the full support of opposition parties. It was also important to demonstrate the complete independence of observers by enabling them to see whoever they wished to see. I couldn’t change their reports as Secretary-General – nor could govern­ments. Harare made these ground rules transparent and Dr Mahathir was fully supportive in this process.

There were also momentous events afoot in South Africa. The release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 had signalled the beginning of the end for apartheid. Where did the Commonwealth fit in?

The Commonwealth had played a major role in the campaign against apartheid and we had even met Mandela in jail in 1986. His long-awaited freedom was a vital step in South Africa’s liberation. I was in close touch thereafter – meeting him in Africa and Europe – and was determined that he should come to CHOGM to talk to Com­monwealth leaders about how the Com­monwealth could best assist the process of change in South Africa.

At the end of the meeting, you immediately left Harare to travel to South Africa, to open a dialogue with State President De Klerk and Pik Botha, the foreign minister. How difficult was it to find a way of working with the defenders of apartheid?

It was clear that if the Commonwealth was to help end apartheid, we now had to do our utmost to assist the delicate process of negotiation and transition. That meant working with those like De Klerk and Botha who now insisted that they too were committed to dismantling apartheid. I per­suaded them that the Commonwealth’s di­versity could help in building confidence among their diverse populations. I also sent distinguished observers to the open­ing of negotiations and Commonwealth teams to help dowse the violence that threatened the transition process. Com­monwealth policing experts helped the conversion of the South African police to peacetime community policing. Mandela has since told me that the Commonwealth made a hugely important contribution to the process of change.

What was the lasting significance of the 1991 Commonwealth Harare Declaration?

The Harare Declaration, in building on the Singapore Declaration 20 years before, clearly marked the Commonwealth out as a values-based organisation, with democ­racy, human rights and development at its core. The decisions of Harare reinvigorated the association and gave it new purpose and confidence. The practical programmes of democratic development we instituted helped make military and one-party states in the Commonwealth a thing of the past. The establishment of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) four years later, in Auckland, New Zealand, as a mechanism for sustaining the Common­wealth’s values and dealing with violations, was a groundbreaking step. It was a logical extension of what we did in Harare.

Interview by Stuart Mole

About the author:

Chief Emeka Anyaoku was Secretary-General of the Commonwealth between 1990-2000


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International