The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel , Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale 4:47 pm, 27th June 1996

It is a pleasure to follow the chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the hon. Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd). I pay tribute to the work that he and his organisation do, which is of immense value around the world. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) who opened the debate. The debate came on early and I was trapped elsewhere on the premises, so I missed his speech. I congratulate him on the tone and constructive content of the Select Committee report. My party has no member on the Committee and so can claim no part in its authorship, but it is worth while.

I agree that the Commonwealth should not define its role too narrowly. It should be willing to be a little more adventurous in dealing with some of the trouble spots among its members. When Her Majesty the Queen opened the Auckland conference last year, she neatly summed up our feelings when she said that she wanted the Commonwealth to be a significant force for good in a troubled word When we consider some of the problems in the Commonwealth—such as in Kashmir and Sri Lanka and the disputed elections in Zanzibar—we see that there is plenty of scope for that force for good to use its influence.

Like others, I should like to refer to a number of developments in the Commonwealth. I agree with what the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) said about the situation in Nigeria, which has been a difficult test for the Commonwealth. Senior world statesmen like Pierre Trudeau, Malcolm Fraser, Helmut Schmidt and Sir Shridath Ramphal have all been taking a much harder line than the present member Governments of the Commonwealth. My Liberal colleagues in Canada are anxious to introduce a trade embargo now, without waiting for further developments. Those factors remind us that the secretariat is, by definition, limited in its scope. The Commonwealth is not an association of Parliaments or nations; it is an association of Governments—that limits its role and function. We therefore have to be sympathetic to the secretariat all the time as it has to deal with its own members.

I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney and hope that the unit which is monitoring the progress, or lack of it, in Nigeria's return to true democracy, will be fierce in its activities. The trouble with unilateral trade sanctions, as have been taken by my friends in Canada, is that unless collective action is taken, one nation's trade embargo becomes another's business opportunity—that is a sad fact of life. I fear that the Government in Nigeria will simply laugh all the way to the next execution unless the Commonwealth takes concerted action in future to return Nigeria to the straight and narrow.

There are perhaps less obvious derogations from the demands for good governance in recent activities in other countries. In Zambia, the constitution has been amended in an artificial manner to rule out the possibility of ex-President Kenneth Kaunda standing again in the elections. That sort of constitutional manipulation should be condemned by all true believers in the Commonwealth principles. From discussions that I have had with political parties in Ghana, that country appears to be heading to elections conducted by an election commission that is not truly independent of the Government.

I agree with what the chairman of the CPA was saying; I think that our role in promoting democracy, which was highlighted in the report and the Government's reaction to the report, is perhaps the single most relevant issue for us to tackle. The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney was one of the team in Bangladesh during the recent election. He will know that I was there just before the election as part of a team from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance—an excellent new international organisation. I only wish that Her Majesty's Government could find the pennies to join and support it instead of sitting on the sidelines. That team, which was there before the monitors arrived and before the election started, had a crucial role to play in ensuring that on two issues—I will not go into the details here—the election preparations were correct so that the monitors could survey the election process. So often in the past we have sent monitors to observe elections which are flawed before they start. In Bangladesh, that was avoided, partly thanks to the presence of the team from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Although I am glad that Her Majesty is head of the Commonwealth, we in Britain should be careful that we do not say to other potential democracies that the Westminster model is automatically the ideal one—that is not necessarily so. It was interesting to find that in Bangladesh the people have resolved their problems by what I believe to be a unique mechanism. They created an interim Government, during whose office an election was held, presided over by the former Chief Justice. That is not something that one finds in the canons of Westminster or in any other constitution-making processes in the Commonwealth, but it is something that Bangladesh has evolved for itself and that has so far worked—touch wood.

Reference has been made to the disappearance of the Banda regime, with all its human rights atrocities, in Malawi. That was achieved through a procedure that was not particularly approved of, either here or by the Commonwealth. It was achieved through a referendum on whether there should be multi-party democracy. We always believed that it was obvious that there should be, so we saw no reason for a referendum, but it provided the mechanism in the particular circumstances in Malawi; it was successful and got the Government off the hook. People voted in large numbers. It led to an election and to the victory of President Muluzi, whose first action was to shut the appalling prisons in which people such as Orton Chirwa had died— I commend the President for that.

We should not be too high-minded and believe that we in this Chamber have all the solutions that we can export to other countries, which can devise their own solutions to resolve their difficulties. As others have said, the key is that countries should be seen to be moving in the right direction. As today's report shows, Gambia and Sierra Leone are perhaps moving in the right direction and—as the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said—Uganda obviously is, but they have not reached the standards of multi-party democracy that we would wish to see.

As we are talking about countries moving in the right direction, I should like to bring to the attention of the House the fact that one of the Commonwealth countries with which we have the closest connections, Kenya, appears to be moving in the wrong direction. I visited Kenya with the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) a few months ago—indeed, I am a regular visitor to the country of my former residence. It is worrying that, after the elections in 1992, instead of progressing towards the development of multi-party democracy, Kenya has regressed.

I agree with those who have said that we should be looking towards a series of standards by which we can judge whether countries are moving forwards or backwards. If we were to do so, there should be five criteria on which to judge whether or not a country is an acceptable democracy.

The first criterion is whether the electoral commission is independent. It is self-evident that if the electoral commission is simply a body appointed by a Government and, as in Kenya, draws up constituencies to suit the convenience of the Government party, the election is flawed before it starts. The second principle involves the freedom of political parties and the rights of assembly. It is intolerable that, in Kenya, even Members of Parliament are required to have a licence before they can hold a public meeting. The third obvious standard for democracy is that the judiciary should be independent, which is not the case in Kenya. If the judiciary can be lent on, or can be appointed or dismissed at the Government's will, the last resort of appeal, which is essential in electoral matters, does not exist.

The fourth, perhaps obvious, principle is the transparency and accountability of Government, without which corruption can thrive and, as in the case of Kenya's most recent election, public funds can be used to help fund the election campaign of the ruling party. Accountability and transparency are essential. The fifth criterion is the freedom of the press and freedom of access, particularly to the broadcasting media.

If we establish criteria along those lines, which are pretty general and unspecific, we can measure whether people score five out of five, one out of five or, as in Kenya's case, nought out of five. What shall we do as the Kenyan elections approach—presumably they will be held next year? Do we say that it has a multi-party system with a series of, admittedly, chaotic and divided opposition parties? Will Kenya go through the process of a multi-party election? Shall we send Commonwealth observers and other observers to an election which I believe is fatally flawed? I hope not: we must dig in our heels and warn well in advance that the country is not moving towards the sort of multi-party democracy that is acceptable by international standards, so it cannot expect a rubber-stamp endorsement or mechanisms to be brought into play to ensure that people are putting the right bits of paper in the right ballot boxes. I feel strongly about that subject, but I am sorry to have taken so much of the House's time on it.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee report rightly refers to the BBC World Service as the spearhead of policy and the Committee found the official approach to the World Service, and the British Council, frankly incredible. Since the report came out, we have heard about the proposed reorganisation of the BBC. I wish to express strong anxieties about the fact that the BBC overseas radio service will come under BBC radio generally, which in turn will come under television generally. The distinctive service from Bush house will simply be enveloped in the great bureaucracy of the BBC. That will be highly dangerous because the role and influence of the World Service will be diminished.

Commonwealth countries account for more than 60 per cent. of the World Service's global audience. That is 89 million listeners. I shall give some examples of the audience size for foreign language broadcasts: for Hindi, the audience size is 20.4 million; for Urdu, 19.8 million; and for Hausa, 12.1 million. By countries, the audience penetration across the language barrier is also high: in Kenya, the audience is 38.3 per cent.; in Nigeria, 37.5 per cent.; and in Pakistan, 21.9 per cent. By any standards, the World Service is a powerful influence for good in the world and it is absurd that we allow new management arrangements in the BBC to threaten its independence and effectiveness. I hope that the Government will have something to say on the matter.

We have not had a debate on Hong Kong for some time and it is a very important Commonwealth country. Hong Kong, as distinct from its larger neighbour, believes in the rule of law, the accountability of Government and the freedom from corruption of officials that so bedevils China. I wish to make a specific criticism of the Government. Earlier this year, the Chinese Government appointed the committee that will oversee the transition. We all knew that the Chinese Government were opposed to the democratic Legislative Council, but they left off that committee any member of the Democratic party, which was clearly the most successful party in the internal Hong Kong elections. Our Foreign Secretary, when asked about that, said that it was "a pity". A pity? It is an outrage that that was allowed to happen.

We will not get anywhere with the mainland Government of China if we take such a weak stance towards them. The Government of China believe that they are being strong by behaving in that way. I take the opposite view because they are a weak Government, as demonstrated by their threats of censorship of the media and their unwillingness to recognise the democratic forces that have existed in the colony. If the Chinese Government really believe in the "one country, two systems" that they have signed up to, they should not be planning—as they are—to subjugate Hong Kong to the standards that exist in mainland China.

The Government should learn the lesson of the situation in Hong Kong. Only last week or the week before, the Chinese Government warned the Americans that if they did not "cool down"—to use the Chinese Government's phrase—on the whole trade and copyright issue, the Chinese might transfer more of their trade to Europe and away from America. That is an example of how we could all be picked off one by one. Whether we are dealing with Nigeria's internal problems or with China and Hong Kong, there is no substitute for a global stance and the Commonwealth has an important part to play in that.