Thursday, 24 January 2013

Jumping on the bandwagon

Following the announcement of Princess Catherine's pregnancy in early December, Kate mania is sweeping the nation once again. You can't avoid stories about her, her baby and her dodgy portrait. Whilst it is true to say that she never really left the limelight (she has a virtual monopoly on The Daily Telegraph front page from what I can tell), the last time she had quite so much coverage was in 2011 in the lead up to royal wedding. Back then I was in a sweltering Ghanaian office typing away on my laptop listening to all the updates on the BBC World service.

In a blatant attempt to jump on the bandwagon, I think the announcement of a new royal is a reasonable hook to republish my article that appeared in Ghana's Daily Chronicle on the day of the wedding. Much like this post, it uses one event as a pretext to talk about another, in this case to talk about the human rights record of The Commonwealth. The article considers which heads of state would be attending the wedding ceremony and their suspect human rights records. I picked out King Mswati of Swaziland, partly because he is Africa's last absolute monarch, but also because he rules a country that I  know a bit about having worked there for a short period. 

It is strange to think how much things have changed for some since the 2011. I am writing this post from underneath duvet in a cold Brixton house whilst the nation waits for a new heir to the throne. However, rather depressingly, human rights and the relevance of the Commonwealth are arguably worse than they were when I wrote the article 18 months ago. Swaziland still does not elect its leaders, Uganda persecutes its homosexuals and Nigeria, like Mali to its north, is rocked by terrorism and counter terrorism. Is anyone more optimistic than I am?

Royal Wedding List
Everyone loves a wedding, especially a royal one. The BBC estimate that 2 billion people from across the world will tune in today to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange vows at Westminster Abbey. Yet the guest list for the wedding is causing a controversy. Obama didn’t make the guest list yet every head of state of the Commonwealth’s 54 members received a special invite. Leaders from even tiny islands like St Lucia and Montserrat will wine and dine with the world’s elite. But what really is the point of the Commonwealth beyond adding exotic costumes and colour to the pomp and circumstance? 

It’s a question that I frequently asked myself when I decided to uproot from the UK and take up a position with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Accra. In all honesty, I didn’t know a great deal about the association except that it was made up of former members of the British Empire and I also knew that it held an athletics tournament every four years. Now… months later conversations with Ghanaian friends convince me that little is still known about this still functioning international association of 54 countries – 19 of them in Africa. Certainly the nearly 2 billion people of the Commonwealth, the majority of them living on less than $2 a day have no clue about the glamorous wedding or the glittering invitation list.

The Commonwealth was initially created as an attempt to preserve the links between Britain and its former colonies. However once the Commonwealth moved from being a ‘whites only’ club to including members of the ‘new Commonwealth’ like Ghana, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Nigeria it needed to articulate common fundamental principles which in the absence of geographic cohesion like the EU or a common purpose like NATO would allow it to hang together. Repeated solemn declarations reaffirming the centrality of human rights and democracy seemed to place upholding human rights at the pivot around which it would function. Indeed its vociferous lead in fighting apartheid were a unifying mission that provided the Commonwealth its hay day and expulsion of overt military dictatorships like Nigeria, Fiji and Pakistan gave it teeth. Unfortunately today the Commonwealth has stopped playing the role which it carved out for itself. Many of the Commonwealth heads of state who will be attending Friday’s wedding are overseeing regimes with dismal human rights records. For instance King Mswati III of Swaziland, an autocratic king of a country with no political parties, will fly out to the UK from southern Africa having just suppressed one of the country’s largest peaceful pro-democracy marches.

It is true that the Commonwealth has continued to promote democracy in its member states by providing electoral observers and advisors, as it did most recently in Nigeria. It also true that it continues to hold workshops on human rights and the best ways to implement them. Only last week, Mauritius hosted six other African members of the Commonwealth, including Ghana who met to discuss how to implement the recommendations they received from the UN when under periodic review in 2008 and 2009. The real problem is that the Commonwealth seems unwilling and unable to punish wayward members who show blatant disregard for international human rights law. Whilst in the past minority governed South Africa was excluded and Nigeria was suspended in 1995 after the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, today an autocratic regime and police repression in Swaziland goes on without comment.

As happened in North Africa, protests in Swaziland began about rising food prices and falling wages. However, with time attitudes have hardened and calls for political reform have been made. Journalists currently seem to lump protests in repressive countries together. Many who haven’t been to Swaziland, a small mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa on three sides and Mozambique to the east, want to group it with the “Arabian Spring”; a long serving incumbent, repressive police and an impoverished youth. The situation in Swaziland is different. The majority of the protesters are not pushing for an overthrow of the king, rather an end to the 38 years of autocratic rule and a return to constitutional democracy. The Swazi government mandated a ten percent cut in civil service salaries as the King was granted an extra $6 million in his annual allowance, yet King Mswati is still largely popular. Although 70% of the population live on less than 1 dollar a day many Swazis still speak warmly of King Mswati’s stabilising influence and his role in upholding Swazi culture. On my last visit, street traders in Manzini and Mbabane still did a brisk trade in fabric adorned with King Mswati’s face. 

On the 18th of April, the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties by King Mswati’s father King Sobuzha II protests took place. Students, trade unionists and members of banned political parties took to the streets of Manzini to call for the resignation of the current government and a return to party politics. The King responded by declaring the demonstration illegal and ordering the police were to break up the protesters with water cannons and a spate of arbitrary arrests. Civil rights protesters allege that they are coming under increasing pressure from the country’s security apparatus and Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, of the Swaziland Youth Congress said he was held and tortured by police for 24 hours.

Swaziland is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the right to hold opinions without interference the right to freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. It also committed itself to the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration which guaranteed human rights and the right for people to frame the society in which he or she lives. These rights are being systematically denied by Mswati and the Commonwealth has a duty to bring Swaziland back into line. 

King Mswati
However instead of condemnation the Commonwealth has at best remained silent, at worst it has been cozying up to King Mswati. Queen Elizabeth II as the formal head of The Commonwealth will welcome King Mswati to the royal wedding, whilst Kamalesh Sharma the current Secretary General has failed to mention the situation in Swaziland, despite last week being less than 100 kilometres away in neighbouring Mozambique. It is perhaps more embarrassing that Sharma’s predecessor, Don McKinnon, accepted an award from King Mswati for his work on the 2005 constitution which still left 1.2 million Swazis with no political parties or genuine democratic choice. 

If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant and understood it must begin to practice what it preaches. If it is truly committed to human rights and democracy it must insist on member states like Swaziland acting as if the standards the Commonwealth has given itself really matter. Otherwise it will remain an ghostly remnant of some half forgotten dream of what might have been in people’s minds only coming to prominence at British royal weddings and at the next Commonwealth games.


  1. Ali Picton
    Brilliant as always, and such great memories x

    1. A few (now corrected) typos though! -too many late nights

  2. Hi Henry, we met at the Wanderlust seminar last weekend.

    Thanks for commenting on my blog at www.elsewhereunderwritten.wordpress.com (the obligatory plug) - kind words. I enjoyed reading both this blog and your dizzy times blog. The writing is sharp and true (the latter surely being the hallmark of all good writing?). I think that you should continue writing about your experiences with your condition on dizzytimes, despite your friends and family not asking you about it. Others will want to know, and it strikes me as being both a rich source for anecdotes and fairly unique (as a blog topic). Are there other bloggers writing about the same thing?