The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:30 pm, 27th June 1996

My hon. Friend is right. The developments were steady in terms of rhetoric, but almost non-existent in terms of action. Even now, one of the problems that bedevils the Commonwealth is that if we accept that it is necessary to have unanimity of purpose, we will always end up moving at the pace of the slowest. The Commonwealth will therefore not be effective in applying pressure to those who fundamentally breach its levels of democracy and human rights. We must do better, otherwise the Commonwealth will fail to take the opportunities that are presented to it.

The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) referred to the situation in Kenya, a country that is moving towards an election that no one can be confident will be free and fair. One must doubt whether the Select Committee's definition of a free and fair election will be applied—namely giving an opportunity to the Kenyan public to easily get rid of one Government and replace it with another. In those terms, the elections will fail the central test of democratic acceptability. It is not acceptable for the Commonwealth monitoring group to return to Kenya—they went there four years ago—and say that the elections are free and fair. The report suggests that the Commonwealth imprimatur of free and fair elections remains a coveted accolade, and it must remain so, but it will be devalued if we accept as legitimate elections that simply are not.

The role of the Commonwealth in election monitoring is one to which hon. Members have paid tribute, and that role must continue and be intensified. But it can be carried out properly only if we are prepared to say on occasion that we will not simply accept that a particular exercise in pseudo-democracy is up to the standards that we expect.

The biggest failure that we have seen, I am afraid to say, occurred this week, when the Commonwealth ministerial action group met the Nigerian Foreign Minister in London. The record of Nigeria since the military coup in 1993 has been outrageous. It is not a matter of a marginal breach of standards. It is an absolute outrage that we have been prepared to deal with this country in such a kid-gloved manner. The president-elect is serving a life sentence for the crime of claiming to be the legitimately elected president of Nigeria. That is outrageous. Even the person who deposed him from power is now serving a life sentence, which goes to show the even-handedness of that brutal regime. A few weeks ago, the wife of the president-elect was murdered. That is a human outrage, but it is also a political crime of the highest magnitude. There is very little belief in Nigeria that that murder was not committed at the behest of the authorities.

The murder—or so-called judicial execution—of Ken Saro Wiwa and his fellow Ogonis last year prompted the Commonwealth to take action. We ought not to have sat back this week and said, "It doesn't matter" because it does. The Nigerian Government are now insisting that when political parties form—even in a country as big as Nigeria—they must have a membership of 1 million people, and they must pass various regional tests. No political party in Britain proportionately would be able to match that test, and the result would be that we would all have to disinvent ourselves.

We also know that the civil rights of the population of Nigeria are honoured in the breach. The Commonwealth ministerial action group stated that both sides—that is the Nigerian Government and the action group—had constructive dialogue that needed to continue. That says something, or it says nothing. On the one hand, the Canadians went home in disgust and imposed their own sanctions, as they could not accept the conclusions suggested by, I am sorry to say, the British Government among others. Sir Sonny Ramphal, the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, made clear that he was embarrassed by the Commonwealth's inaction on this occasion, and talked about the need for more serious action and to examine oil sanctions against Nigeria— something for which my party has called for some time. We must examine the case for real sanctions against the Nigerian Government.

If the Commonwealth is to become the vision of the new world that we all want—a world where the democracy and human rights standards that we enshrine are practised around the world—it must play its role with a sense of purpose. If we cannot take tough action against Nigeria by introducing economic embargoes or by taking action against the brutal people of the military regime, the Commonwealth will fail the test it sets itself. In doing so, it will fail not people in Britain, but people of good will throughout the world and the victims of brutal regimes that we could affect if we had that sense of purpose.