Everyone loves a wedding, especially a royal one. The BBC estimate that 2 billion people from across the world will tune in today to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange vows at Westminster Abbey. Yet the guest list for the wedding is causing a controversy. Obama didn’t make the guest list yet every head of state of the Commonwealth’s 54 members received a special invite. Leaders from even tiny islands like St Lucia and Montserrat will wine and dine with the world’s elite. But what really is the point of the Commonwealth beyond adding exotic costumes and colour to the pomp and circumstance?
It’s a question that I frequently asked myself when I decided to uproot from the UK and take up a position with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Accra. In all honesty, I didn’t know a great deal about the association except that it was made up of former members of the British Empire and I also knew that it held an athletics tournament every four years. Now… months later conversations with Ghanaian friends convince me that little is still known about this still functioning international association of 54 countries – 19 of them in Africa. Certainly the nearly 2 billion people of the Commonwealth, the majority of them living on less than $2 a day have no clue about the glamorous wedding or the glittering invitation list.
The Commonwealth was initially created as an attempt to preserve the links between Britain and its former colonies. However once the Commonwealth moved from being a ‘whites only’ club to including members of the ‘new Commonwealth’ like Ghana, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Nigeria it needed to articulate common fundamental principles which in the absence of geographic cohesion like the EU or a common purpose like NATO would allow it to hang together. Repeated solemn declarations reaffirming the centrality of human rights and democracy seemed to place upholding human rights at the pivot around which it would function. Indeed its vociferous lead in fighting apartheid were a unifying mission that provided the Commonwealth its hay day and expulsion of overt military dictatorships like Nigeria, Fiji and Pakistan gave it teeth. Unfortunately today the Commonwealth has stopped playing the role which it carved out for itself. Many of the Commonwealth heads of state who will be attending Friday’s wedding are overseeing regimes with dismal human rights records. For instance King Mswati III of Swaziland, an autocratic king of a country with no political parties, will fly out to the UK from southern Africa having just suppressed one of the country’s largest peaceful pro-democracy marches.
It is true that the Commonwealth has continued to promote democracy in its member states by providing electoral observers and advisors, as it did most recently in Nigeria. It also true that it continues to hold workshops on human rights and the best ways to implement them. Only last week, Mauritius hosted six other African members of the Commonwealth, including Ghana who met to discuss how to implement the recommendations they received from the UN when under periodic review in 2008 and 2009. The real problem is that the Commonwealth seems unwilling and unable to punish wayward members who show blatant disregard for international human rights law. Whilst in the past minority governed South Africa was excluded and Nigeria was suspended in 1995 after the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, today an autocratic regime and police repression in Swaziland goes on without comment.
As happened in North Africa, protests in Swaziland began about rising food prices and falling wages. However, with time attitudes have hardened and calls for political reform have been made. Journalists currently seem to lump protests in repressive countries together. Many who haven’t been to Swaziland, a small mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa on three sides and Mozambique to the east, want to group it with the “Arabian Spring”; a long serving incumbent, repressive police and an impoverished youth. The situation in Swaziland is different. The majority of the protesters are not pushing for an overthrow of the king, rather an end to the 38 years of autocratic rule and a return to constitutional democracy. The Swazi government mandated a ten percent cut in civil service salaries as the King was granted an extra $6 million in his annual allowance, yet King Mswati is still largely popular. Although 70% of the population live on less than 1 dollar a day many Swazis still speak warmly of King Mswati’s stabilising influence and his role in upholding Swazi culture. On my last visit, street traders in Manzini and Mbabane still did a brisk trade in fabric adorned with King Mswati’s face.
On the 18th of April, the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties by King Mswati’s father King Sobuzha II protests took place. Students, trade unionists and members of banned political party’s took to the streets of Manzini to call for the resignation of the current government and a return to party politics. The King responded by declaring the demonstration illegal and ordering the police were to break up the protesters with water cannons and a spate of arbitrary arrests. Civil rights protesters allege that they are coming under increasing pressure from the country’s security apparatus and Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, of the Swaziland Youth Congress said he was held and tortured by police for 24 hours.
Swaziland is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the right to hold opinions without interference the right to freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. It also committed itself to the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration which guaranteed human rights and the right for people to frame the society in which he or she lives. These rights are being systematically denied by Mswati and the Commonwealth has a duty to bring Swaziland back into line.
However instead of condemnation the Commonwealth has at best remained silent, at worst it has been cozying up to King Mswati. Queen Elizabeth II as the formal head of The Commonwealth will welcome King Mswati to the royal wedding, whilst Kamalesh Sharma the current Secretary General has failed to mention the situation in Swaziland, despite last week being less than 100 kilometres away in neighbouring Mozambique. It is perhaps more embarrassing that Sharma’s predecessor, Don McKinnon, accepted an award from King Mswati for his work on the 2005 constitution which still left 1.2 million Swazis with no political parties or genuine democratic choice.
If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant and understood it must begin to practice what it preaches. If it is truly committed to human rights and democracy it must insist on member states like Swaziland acting as if the standards the Commonwealth has given itself really matter. Otherwise it will remain an ghostly remnant of some half forgotten dream of what might have been in people’s minds only coming to prominence at British royal weddings and at the next Commonwealth games.
Henry Wilkinson, Human Rights Advocacy, CHRI Africa Office
Sorry if you have noticed some teething problems with getting the foramt of the post up correctly - blogspot dosn't want to play ball todayReplyDelete
Interesting final point but I think the problem with interventions are numerous. Firstly Great Britain has to be very careful about intervening in ex-colonised countries, the external view could be damning to say the least. What Britain was hoping for with Libya and Egypt was involvement from the Arab League, I think this sums up current policy, Britain cannot lead the way as people may mis-interpret intervention as a route to gain power, it needs local nations to take responsibility. Secondly, in such economic times it is very hard for us to cut economic ties, the cost to trade and also the financial position it could put you in if issues escalate could be perceived negatively by the GB public. I don not necessarily think that but I see the political motivesReplyDelete
David. Thanks for the comment. I can see the issues with foreign interventions.ReplyDelete
However with the Commonwealth, it has long since stopped being the "British" Commonwealth and is now an international organisation in its own right. (It is currently run by Mr Sharma an Indian national). Consequenly intervention need not come through British instigation but through the Commonwealth as a multilateral organisation of independent states.