The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Bethnal Green and Stepney 4:15 pm, 27th June 1996

My hon. Friend illustrates the minuscule resources that, in recent years at any rate, we have been prepared to deploy.

I have emphasised the Harare declaration and the commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights throughout Commonwealth countries. Last year, at the Heads of Government meeting in Auckland, the Commonwealth took major new steps to promote democracy and human rights, which were extremely significant and which have been quite inadequately reported.

First, the Commonwealth agreed to enhance the capacity of its secretariat to provide member Governments with advice, training and other forms of technical assistance in promoting the Commonwealth's fundamental political values, especially the democratic process and procedure. Such enhancement of the Commonwealth Secretariat implies a certain strengthening, an investment, in the Commonwealth Secretariat here in Marlborough house.

Secondly, and very importantly, where the CHOGM—as it was called in Auckland—perceived that a member country was clearly in violation of the Harare declaration and particularly in the event of an unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected Government", it committed itself to take measures to encourage the restoration of democracy. Those measures range from the public expression of collective disapproval to a number of bilateral and multilateral sanctions by other Commonwealth countries.

Among the measures, of course, is suspension of Commonwealth membership—public denial of the rights of a Commonwealth member that has infringed the Harare declaration to take part in and attend other Commonwealth meetings. If the offending Government persist in violating the principles of the Harare declaration for more than two years, I think that there is the threat of complete expulsion. That measure is important and I shall illustrate it in connection with Nigeria, which is feeling the heat of ostracism by the Commonwealth.

Thirdly, the New Zealand Heads of Government conference agreed to establish the so-called Millbrook Commonwealth action programme, which is a committee consisting of Foreign Ministers from eight Commonwealth countries—I think that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), may be our representative on it—plus the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, to provide an implementing mechanism. So, not content with public meetings and yearly or two-yearly condemnations, an on-going committee of pretty senior members of the Commonwealth was set up to look at the carrying out of any recommendations made by the Heads of Government, continuing the pressure on those who have fallen short of the Commonwealth's standards of democracy and human rights.

Three Commonwealth countries were selected at Auckland for particular attention: Sierra Leone, Gambia and Nigeria, whose military regime was suspended from membership. Considerable pressure has been put on the Nigerian Government since then, but I am sorry that, only two days ago, the threat of immediate Commonwealth sanctions was dropped because of disagreement—I think—among the Millbrook group. I should be grateful to hear more from the Minister of State when he replies to the debate. It was disappointing that immediate action was not taken, because Nigeria's response so far has been inadequate.

The sanction package agreed at Auckland includes a ban on weapon exports to Nigeria, visa restrictions on members of the regime and their families, an end to sporting links and the withdrawal of education facilities. I understand that Britain and other EU countries operate most of those sanctions against Nigeria, but their impact would be greatly reinforced if the Commonwealth as a whole agreed to collective action. Canada will go ahead in any case and impose sanctions, and New Zealand is expected to follow suit. It is good to know—and I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed this—that sanctions will be back on the agenda at the Foreign Ministers' meeting in September. If Nigeria has not made significant improvements in its human rights record and in its progress towards the restoration of democracy, I hope that sanctions will be imposed.

In our report, we urged the Government to take the lead in promoting democracy in the Commonwealth. We said that we would like to see a strengthening of the Harare declaration and, in particular, the specific recognition that real democracy entails the right to organise opposition parties and to remove existing Governments via a free and fair election. It would be helpful to have that on the record. With that in mind, I was disappointed that the Secretary of State's response to the report stated: The Government is not persuaded that an attempt at this stage to amplify the Harare declaration, through incorporating more precise definitions of democracy, would be either acceptable to other Commonwealth governments or achievable. I hope that that is only an interim response.