It had a long, difficult birth, and has frequently been disowned by its many parents, but a quarter of a century on, the Harare Commonwealth Declaration has come of age. The Maldives’ recent withdrawal from the Commonwealth to avoid further scrutiny over its poor human rights record and rejection of democratic governance can be seen as the almost inevitable outcome of the agreement thrashed out in the Zimbabwean capital in October 1991.
The midwife who helped deliver the offspring of that summit was Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who like his predecessor as secretary-general, Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, was determined to strengthen democratic institutions in Commonwealth states, building on the Harare document’s precursor, the Singapore Declaration of 1971.
At this time, to the chagrin of those defending the organisation against accusations of impotence and hypocrisy, the Commonwealth was more resolute in its condemnation of apartheid in South Africa than the regimes of some of its own members: four military leaders attended the 1989 Commonwealth heads of government summit in Kuala Lumpur (though one in five Commonwealth members was under either military or one-party rule) and Uganda had remained in the Commonwealth under the murderous dictator Idi Amin. An early move, when Anyaoku was still Ramphal’s deputy, was to establish the Commonwealth’s election observers.
Anyaoku’s push to give new purpose to the Commonwealth’s progressive agenda was complicated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc—the Berlin Wall fell days after he was elected. In this new multipolar world, Anyaoku recalled in his memoirs, ‘What I had feared could be the marginalisation of the Commonwealth due to changes in the international system was prevented, I believe, by the decisions reached at the Harare summit.’
In Sue Onslow’s series of Commonwealth oral histories, Anyaoku drew an important distinction that sums up the significance of the accord: ‘Whereas the Singapore Declaration was a statement of shared beliefs, the Harare Declaration was a statement of a code of conduct. Shared beliefs are there for people to proclaim; a code of conduct is there for people to adhere to.’ Anyaoku gave the example of Kenneth Kaunda being nudged towards bringing multi-party democracy to Zambia.
As Anyaoku told Global Briefing in 2012: ‘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.’
Stuart Mole, who headed the Commonwealth secretary-general’s office, is more balanced in his assessment: ‘By and large, there was appreciable change—in Zambia, in Ghana, in Bangladesh, in Kenya, in Malawi, in the Seychelles—often facilitated by the Commonwealth.’
But he added: ‘The greatest blow to the “Harare principles” became apparent 10 years later. A divided Commonwealth proved to be largely impotent in the face of the democratic and human rights abuses of its erstwhile host: Robert Gabriel Mugabe.’