`They tried diplomacy. It failed - my father and the others are now dead'

Commonwealth to enforce rights code
Click to follow


The Commonwealth yesterday agreed to measures which create a framework for the expulsion of member states and for economic sanctions if they fail to meet basic democratic norms. Agreement of some kind of human rights package was on the summit agenda even before the execution of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Friday. But officials admitted that his death had "galvanised" leaders, as a deadly reminder of the need to act.

The programme agreed at the resort of Millbrook is intended to give teeth to the Harare declaration of 1991, which emphasised the importance of human rights and democracy. The programme seeks to provide an early- warning system for political emergencies. A series of responses range from the gentle rap over the knuckles ("collective disapproval" and "bilateral demarches by member countries''), through exclusion from high-level Commonwealth meetings, to suspension, sanctions and expulsion. Eight foreign ministers will head a special group to assess infringements and recommend what action to take.

On Saturday, Commonwealth leaders responded to the hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight others by suspending Nigeria's membership. It is still unclear whether this will make Nigeria more malleable, or whether it will simply decide to walk out of the Commonwealth entirely. Nigeria has traditionally been one of the most important members of the organisation; the secretary- general, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, is a former Nigerian foreign minister.

Nigeria can be expelled in due course if more than 40 prisoners - including the apparent winner of the 1993 elections, Chief Moshood Abiola - are not released from jail.

Chief Anyaoku yesterday welcomed the actions taken by the Commonwealth against his country. "What happened this weekend was bound to happen,'' he said, ``because the credibility of the Commonwealth was put in question. The heads of government could not but do what they have done."

Jim Bolger, who as New Zealand prime minister is the host and chairman of the Commonwealth summit, said yesterday's agreement contained "far- reaching decisions" and "takes the Commonwealth into a new era".

The Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme defines the responses when a country is "clearly in violation" of the Harare declaration, and "particularly in the event of an unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government". The listed responses are intended to "encourage the restoration of democracy within a reasonable time frame".

The measures combine softly-softly measures with the threatened big stick of expulsion, sanctions or visa bans. Thus, "appropriate technical assistance" can be offered, "to facilitate an early restoration of democracy". There is the possibility, too, of creating an Eminent Persons' Group - such as was sent to South Africa in the last years of apartheid - where "such a mission would be beneficial in reinforcing the Commonwealth's good offices role".

The retreat was restricted to Commonwealth leaders and one close adviser in order to emphasise the intimacy of the event. Participants said yesterday there had been surprisingly little disagreement on the main points - not least, perhaps, because there was so little time for the agreement to be rushed through. Officials had been working on a version of the programme for some time. But the Saro-Wiwa execution gave added urgency, and meant that much was changed.

The question of sanctions was, in Mr Bolger's words, "not seriously debated" at the retreat. According to one participant, this was because the potential importance of sanctions was "taken for granted - you have to understand, we had very little time". Sceptics argued that Commonwealth leaders had shied away from discussing the details of a measure that would inevitably prove painful and controversial.

Critics suggested that the Commonwealth leaders had taken fright at the prospect of introducing sanctions, even after Nigeria's deadly show of defiance. But defenders of the Millbrook agreement emphasised the difficulties of achieving a consensus on such matters, and argued that it was remarkable that the result was as strong as it was. "You've got to take 52 countries along with you. To get this far is extraordinary,'' said one.

There was dispute, too, over whether Nigeria would feel dismayed by its suspension, or whether it would simply walk out of the Commonwealth. Officials acknowledged that it was a "strong possibility" that Nigeria might now leave. None the less, it was argued: "It does matter quite a lot to them. This has removed Nigeria completely as a force of influence."

Ken Wiwa, son of Saro-Wiwa, was bitter about the perceived failure of the Commonwealth to put pressure on the Nigerian regime. "They decided in their wisdom to use the quiet diplomacy route. That's what they decided. It didn't work. My father and others are now dead. It is a shame, and we must learn lessons from that."

Even John Major seemed to admit that the softly-softly approach had been misguided: "We tried quiet diplomacy for some time with the Nigerians, and clearly it hasn't proved sufficient.''

The Millbrook programme contained not just the package of measures connected with democracy and human rights, but also measures for promoting sustainable development.