Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

  1.  The Trustee Committee of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) based in London comprises representatives of the eight Commonwealth non-governmental bodies which support the Initiative, with other experts. The CHRI is recognised as the premier non-governmental organisation concerned to promote human rights in the 54 member states. It has a staff of nearly 30 in three offices—New Delhi (currently the head office), Accra and London. The Trustee Committee, in consultation with the Director of the CHRI, who is Indian, and with the Chair of the International Advisory Commission, who is Australian, has been responsible for making a series of submissions on the Zimbabwe crisis to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and others over the last two years.

  2.  From the middle of 2001 the CHRI advocated the suspension of the Mugabe regime from the Commonwealth unless it returned to the 1991 Harare Principles of just and accountable government, the rule of law and fundamental human rights. Sadly this has yet to happen. The CHRI therefore welcomed the decision of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to adopt Zimbabwe as a case, in December 2001, and the decision in March by the troika of leaders to suspend the regime following the flawed presidential election. The Initiative believes that the Commonwealth achieved an important human rights breakthrough, in recognising that serious abuse by a civilian government could lead to its suspension.

  3.  The Initiative has little to criticise in the policy of the UK government in recent months, which has been working in the Commonwealth, and with European and US partners, to press for honest elections in Zimbabwe and a change of attitude by the Mugabe regime. The UK has little direct influence on events in Zimbabwe, and President Mugabe has skillfully portrayed all his critics as tools of white colonialists. The one area where the UK could have been more effective was in making it clearer that it wished to see equitable land redistribution in Zimbabwe. The Mugabe regime has claimed that the UK reneged on promises made at independence. Although this is not entirely true, the UK could have done more in the 1980s and early 1990s to fund land transfer to black farmers. More recently the CHRI has argued that funds promised by the UK could have been put in an escrow account, to await a satisfactory settlement of a kind the recent UNDP team could have recommended, and which might have been supported by both main parties in Zimbabwe.

  4.  The Initiative is extremely concerned about the current situation in Zimbabwe, with revenge attacks on opponents of Zanu-PF, narrowing space for civil society, widespread hunger, high inflation, and a collapse of the economy and social services. However it considers that the Commonwealth, in all its manifestations, must be the key instrument for resolving the crisis. The Commonwealth was critical to the end of the civil war and the achievement of independence in 1980; the Harare Declaration, 1991, has underpinned all progress in democratisation and human rights through the Commonwealth over the last decade; and suspension of the Mugabe regime from the Commonwealth, in March 2002, was a major step in demonstrating disapproval by peer governments. The Commonwealth, as a voluntary transregional group, where a majority of states are developing, a third are African and all share a colonial history, is much closer and more realistic in its approach to this crisis than any other international body. The fact that national interests diverge, and it was not easy to win agreement to a coherent approach over the last six months, proves the value of the Commonwealth rather than the opposite.

  5.  The Commonwealth is currently supporting the exercise, by Nigerian and South African interlocutors, to bring Zanu-PF and MDC together in the talks at Vumba. In the short term the talks are unlikely to be successful. It is the object of Zanu-PF to get the MDC to accept the result of the recent election. It is the object of the MDC to get new elections on fairer terms at the earliest opportunity. Neither party is much interested in genuine power-sharing. It seems unlikely at present that conditions by March 2003 will allow for the lifting of the suspension of the Zimbabwe government. Nonetheless it is important that Nigeria and South Africa, on behalf of the Commonwealth, should continue facilitating a dialogue for the foreseeable future.

  6.  The CHRI believes that the Commonwealth, which has been too fixated on elections in its democratisation strategy following the Harare Declaration, needs to have a broader and more inclusive approach, and that the UK should discuss this with its partners. The Commonwealth should be thinking in the longer-term, and with due regard to the regional dimension to the Zimbabwe crisis. It should also recognise that any strategy it adopts now will have implications for its approach to Pakistan, and to other states which may be suspended in future.

  7.  Specifically the intergovernmental Commonwealth should:

    —  Encourage bodies such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Commonwealth Journalists Association to interact with Zimbabwean parliamentarians and civil society on a non-partisan basis. The survival of independent institutions of media and civil society inside Zimbabwe is crucial to the country's future.

    —  Require the World Food Programme to make food relief available to Zimbabweans via non-governmental organisations, as well as via local and central government agencies. Reports that food relief is being distributed only to those who produce a Zanu-PF party card is a denial of the right to food, the right to life and basic democratic rights.

    —  Encourage the continued search for a solution of the land ownership crisis, on condition that any formula which the international community can approve must have the support of the MDC, as the alternative government, as well as of the present government.

    —  Charge the Human Rights Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and request the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to collect material from July 2002 onwards (ie after the introduction of the International Criminal Court) which might lead to charges being brought against prominent Zimbabweans, at the ICC, for gross abuse of human rights in future.

    —  Review the sanctions regime introduced by the European Union and the United States against members of the Zimbabwe government and armed forces with a view to assessing its effectiveness, and its relevance to possible Commonwealth action in future, in the context also of past Commonwealth sanctions against apartheid South Africa and the Commonwealth sanctions that were proposed against General Abacha of Nigeria.

    —  Support Commonwealth African leaders in their commitments to good governance and fundamental human rights made in NEPAD, and that Zimbabwe is seen as a test of the new partnership for African development in practice.

  8.  The CHRI appreciates that much effort is needed to establish democratic and human rights standards in central and southern Africa. A number of issues, including monopolisation of power by governments, the partiality of state broadcasters, and the uneven nature of socio-economic development, affect countries other than Zimbabwe. In providing targeted assistance to neighbouring countries, including Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, the Commonwealth will actually be contributing to an awareness that there are positive alternatives to the Zimbabwe crisis.

  9.  A change at the head of Government may not end this crisis. While asserting the centrality of the Commonwealth to the progress of this African sub-region the CHRI would encourage the UK government to use other means at its disposal: through the G8 and NEPAD, through the European Union, and through its partnership with the United States, to achieve a change for the better in the lives of the people of Zimbabwe. At present the UK government, which should welcome Zimbabwe asylum seekers who have suffered persecution from the Mugabe regime, must accept that the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

3 May 2002

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