Zim and the Commonwealth

As yet another CHOGM looms, it seems appropriate to ask the question in respect of Zimbabwe - “who divorced whom?” This is a fair question, given the standards by which the Commonwealth ought to operate in the aftermath of the Harare Declaration, and its historical basis in South African and Zimbabwean history.

Sir Malcolm Fraser believes that Zimbabwe was both the Commonwealth’s greatest failure and success.
Sir Malcolm Fraser believes that Zimbabwe was both the Commonwealth’s greatest failure and success.

However, Zimbabwe, just like Southern Rhodesia before it, has created major problems for the Commonwealth, but, unlike Southern Rhodesia, the Commonwealth has failed Zimbabwe.

Greatest success

This is even the view of one of those who fought so hard to bring Zimbabwe into existence, Sir Malcolm Fraser. As he put it:

“Zimbabwe is not only one of the greatest successes of the Commonwealth – in terms of what happened in 1979 – but also one if its greatest failures. The Commonwealth could have made it extremely difficult for President Mbeki to stand up and support Mugabe.”

Fraser’s Commonwealth partner on the Southern Rhodesia problem, Kenneth Kaunda, is more upbeat:

“Now the Commonwealth should be trying to engage more proactively with the Government of National Unity. Quite a number of leaders have been involved in Zimbabwe quietly already, and it has had some good results. Why should the case of Zimbabwe be treated so differently to that of Southern Rhodesia?”

Firstly, Zimbabwe is not Southern Rhodesia. There is no treasonous Unilateral Declaration of Independence, no Cold War, and no apartheid. The Commonwealth is not the club that it was in 965, but an organization with standards, principles and mechanisms of enforcement. It now has substantial instruments for dealing with the misdemeanours of its members.

Secondly, it seems evident to all that Zimbabwe’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth was not an expression of the will of the people of Zimbabwe, but a result of Presidential action alone.

The opprobrium of the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe’s subsequent withdrawal from the group should not be treated lightly. This was certainly not the case when South Africa withdrew, or the case when Southern Rhodesia declared an illegitimate independence from Britain. The Commonwealth stood firm in the defence of the ordinary citizens of those countries.

Flawed elections

In Zimbabwe’s case, however, the Commonwealth itself concluded that the elections in 2000 and 2002 were seriously flawed, with the obvious implication that the government subsequently established was illegitimate.

The Commonwealth meekly let Zimbabwe off the hook. This was pointed out in considerable detail by Zimbabweans themselves and the point has been pressed by Zimbabwean civil society.

The 1991 Harare Declaration, was the flagship for the Commonwealth’s new standards, demanding that its members commit themselves to a code of human rights observance and good governance. The Commonwealth then went much further than this: it later provided for enforcement of the standards embodied in the Declaration concluded in Harare. Zimbabwe repeatedly violated these standards. The non-adherence to the Abuja Agreement by Zimbabwe, and the discredited elections of 2000 and 2002, gave the Commonwealth the first test of its commitment to its own standards. It failed miserably. This is not withstanding the commitments made at Millbrook.

So what has the Commonwealth done to fulfil its own standards and this commitment? How has it “reinforced the need for change”? It suspended Zimbabwe, and Mugabe withdrew from the Commonwealth before the issue of renewal of the suspension could be considered. Rather than implementing the provision cited above, the Commonwealth appears to have taken the view that it no longer needed to be seized with the Zimbabwe issue. How many countries limited government-to-government contact? How many countries limited trade restrictions? How many countries introduced bilateral measures against Zimbabwe for violating the Harare Declaration? How many countries got together to introduce multilateral measures against Zimbabwe for violating the Harare Declaration?

A wistful goodbye

It seems to Zimbabweans that the most that the Commonwealth did, as a Commonwealth, was to wistfully wave Zimbabwe goodbye, and then every country worked out, independently, how they would continue to re-engage with Zimbabwe as a non-Commonwealth country.

To be fair, the Commonwealth did not entirely abandon Zimbabwe: it merely passed the buck to the AU. The AU then passed the buck to SADC (of which 10 of the 15 members are Commonwealth countries) and SADC passed the buck to South Africa.

If the Commonwealth is serious about re-engagement, then it needs to re-engage, and the best way to do this is to convene the Eminent Persons Group, send them to Zimbabwe and the SADC region.

This is not the time to discuss re-calibrating elections, but rather to take the temperature of Zimbabwe as a nation (and its wholly sidelined citizenry), and then think about what steps should be taken.

Litmus test

As Afari-Gyan, Jahangir and Sheehy pointed out in Democracy in the Commonwealth:

“Elections are a litmus test of democracy. It is the moment one can see most clearly if people are able to exercise their fundamental human rights. The lack of respect for the basic principles of such a system means that governments often come to power (or remain in power) with at best a tainted legitimacy.”

No better description can be given of the reasons why Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth fell out, and why the Commonwealth needs to ascertain carefully whether the “basic principles” referred to above are in place. – Research and Advocacy Unit

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