Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Commonwealth Needs to Take a Tougher Stance on Human Rights.

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In 2003, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth after an investigative team revealed serious flaws in the general elections of the previous year. This was seen as a progressive move, by a group that had been severely criticized for shelving human rights concerns. Retrogradely , and in a move swirled with a good measure of irony, Rwanda, another state not less authoritarian was admitted in 2009.

An independent organization tasked with evaluating Rwanda's eligibility had concluded that Rwanda had failed to meet the most important criterion particularly that of human rights and democracy.The report was ignored, perhaps because of the close relationship between Kagame and the British government--in particular, her former prime minister, Tony Blair.

Having failed to prevent the regime from joining the Commonwealth, our remaining hope was that the community would help catalyze reforms in Rwanda. We convinced ourselves that Rwanda would be required to conform to the standards of member states--with particular regard for the respect of human rights. This is in fact the rationale that had been used to justify Rwanda's admission. In retrospective, our hope might have been quite exaggerated.

There is one important exception. Last year, A Commonwealth team dispatched to observe the elections, rightly noted the fundamental flaws and critical absence of political freedom. Their conclusion read as follows:
It [Rwanda] needs to address issues of political participation and greater media freedoms so that the key benchmarks for democratic elections, to which Rwanda has committed itself, can be fully met.
Of course, in a functioning world, one would hope that such a recommendation would be followed by some tangible action. This has not been the case. The team left immediately after the elections.

We are back a few steps behind. Two year later, Kagame is attending his second CHOGM Summit. He will deliver elegant speeches, and will be wined and dined. However, the situation back home continues to get out of hand. With every new day, he becomes more ruthless. His personality cult enlarges by the seconds. On its part, the Commonwealth had played mum, choosing to be completely indifferent to the suffering of Rwandans. While many are deeply concerned about Rwanda's future, this does not seem to be the case for the Commonwealth. If human rights is not a priority for the Commonwealth, then, what is the organization about?

 Kagame will not be the only dictator attending CHOGM. Another familiar face, Paul Biya, in power more than half of his life--much longer than Robert Mugabe, will be walking majestically on the red carpets. His wife, a fashion diva, will probably add some style to the occasion. Except his people will not be that pleased. Biya does not tolerate dissidence. Free elections are unheard of in Cameroon. He has what is the most sophisticated rigging apparatus around the continent; always assuring himself more than 90% of the votes. Yet, for all his sins, Biya is a distinguished guest of the Queen--much like the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin of the past.

There are talks that this CHOGM is no ordinary meeting. Analysts are already speculating of reforms and renewed pressure for state democratization. It has been announced that there were plans to add a human rights secretariat. This would have made the Commonwealth more relevant to the common people. However, the dictators were not comfortable with this suggestion. My hope is that the pro-liberalization mood will not fade and that the Commonwealth will begin to speak out against human rights abuses. It is better late than never.

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