The Commonwealth Needs a Makeover

By: Rachel Marsden

The Queen's family is a wreck--an outdated, expensive, useless mess. No, I'm not talking about the dysfunctional twits that occupy Buckingham Palace. I'm referring to the Commonwealth--the equally anachronistic group headed up by Queen Liz.

It's election time in Zimbabwe, and President Robert Mugabe has been running around dousing the flames of democracy. He has reduced the number of polling stations in strategic areas to prevent his challenger's supporters from voting. The current presidential election represents the biggest threat to Mugabe's 22 year rule, and he's clearly determined to do whatever it takes to stay in power. While Zimbabwe's poverty level spirals upwards and inflation skyrockets, Mugabe has used violence and intimidation against his own people to maintain his position of power. Canadian Alliance MP Keith Martin recalls meeting with black farm workers who recounted their tales of terror. He explains how Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party hired young thugs to beat them with razor wire, raped their women, and destroyed their crops to drive them off their land. And all this in full view of the police and military. Mugabe has always fought opposition with violence, and regardless of the outcome of this election, it's unlikely that he'll stop doing so.

At a recent meeting of Commonwealth countries, Britain, Australia and New Zealand pressed for other Commonwealth states to adopt some form of sanctions against Mugabe for alleged vote-rigging, intimidation and political suppression. However, they met with immediate resistance from most heads of African Commonwealth countries. These states are jealous guardians of the sovereignty principle, and they simply cannot bring themselves to join forces with the white-dominated colonialist nations to take down a fellow brother that successfully fought off white rule.

So where does that leave Chretien and Canada? Firmly planted on the fence, suggesting that consideration of sanctions against Zimbabwe be postponed until after the Zimbabwe presidential election. It's as if Chretien figures that a man who lives and breathes power and corruption, has flagrantly violated human rights, and has steamrolled over democratic principles as though it was his country's national sport, is going to have a sudden change of heart in the next few days. You'd have a better chance of trying to rehabilitate a crack addict in the same amount of time.

By taking such a gutless, cowardly stance, Chretien and other fence-sitting heads of state have essentially flipped the bird at democracy and undermined the fundamental principles for which the Commonwealth stands--those of democratic governance and human rights observance. Inevitably, the election observers will report that violence and intimidation took place, and then the Commonwealth will be expected to stop dragging its feet and take some kind of action.

The Commonwealth has decided that a group of three leaders--Australian Prime Minister John Howard, South African President Thabo Mbeki, and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo--will jointly decide the course of action to take against Zimbabwe when the observers' report comes in. They will have a wide range of sanctions from which to choose--from collective disapproval to suspension from the organization.

I'm really sure that Mugabe is shaking in his jackboots right now. I doubt that anything is going to prevent this thug from doing whatever it takes to maintain control of his longtime stomping ground--not sanctions, not political defeat, not anything. Mugabe appears to be of the same mentality as another renowned human rights violator--Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Even when Hussein was widely considered beaten and defeated by the USA during the Gulf War, he still viewed himself as victorious. As George H. W. Bush has pointed out, as long as Hussein was still running the country, he figured he had won. And what the civilized world wasn't prepared for was the amount of pain and suffering Hussein would impose on his people in order to maintain control of his crumbling empire and to stay in power. And it was the people of Iraq who ended up paying the price for US sanctions against their country--not Hussein himself. Likewise, if the Commonwealth ultimately decides to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe, Mugabe won't suffer--the people of Zimbabwe will.

Kicking Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth is certainly not the answer. It would be akin to a father booting his unruly teenaged son out of the house, knowing that doing so would mean losing total control and supervision over the kid's activities. God only knows what Mugabe would be capable of doing to his people away from the watchful eye of the Commonwealth. I'd at least want to know what he's up to. Abandoning Zimbabwe means abandoning innocent people. The world turned a blind eye to the Kurds, and to the women of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, only to uncover much later the horrors of having done so. This would be an unacceptable move for an organization founded on the premise of protecting human rights.

Any action the Commonwealth takes against Mugabe risks alienating a large number of its own member countries--namely those that resent white rule. And since it's the member states that direct the Commonwealth, it really cannot be said to have any existence independent of the ability of governments to agree on joint positions. Without cooperation and consensus amongst all members, the organization is a lame duck.

So the Commonwealth is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It can't have dictators hanging around as members of an organization that was founded on human and democratic rights and, on the other hand, it can't just abandon the people of Zimbabwe by drop-kicking Mugabe out of the club either.

The Commonwealth is the wrong organization to be handling the Zimbabwe situation, or any other such matters. It needs to launch this one deep into United Nations territory before it fumbles badly. The Commonwealth has an innate problem of credibility and optics. It is in and of itself a symbol of domination and white supremacy--not cooperation. The United Nations Charter deals with issues involving human rights and democracy, and represents the highest form of international law. The UN is not officially controlled by a colonial power, nor is it an anachronistic symbol of colonial rule. In fact, the UN supports decolonization. Furthermore, its current Chief Administrative Officer, Secretary General Kofi Annan, is a black man--a fact that would likely sit better with Zimbabwe and other African Commonwealth countries than having to answer to an organization represented by the Queen.

The Commonwealth needs a makeover--a new focus outside of the realm of political babysitting. It doesn't seem to be a terribly substantive organization as it stands anyway. Most of the action on global governance takes place elsewhere. Canada and other member countries would be better off channeling the money and energy they devote to Commonwealth meetings into more useful ventures, such as shrinking the burdens on the people of developing member countries like Zimbabwe. The funds could be used to build wells in villages whose inhabitants currently drink polluted or distant water. The money could provide micro-enterprise loans to put poor village people in business. It could be used to fight infectious diseases in developing countries, or to educate children in decent schools where they can get an education, as opposed to an indoctrination. Self-sufficient democracies aren't prone to infiltration by terrorist influences.

The Commonwealth should use the current situation with Zimbabwe to re-examine its role in the post-9/11 world. It needs to leave the political strong-arming to the United Nations and focus instead on building democracies from the ground up. As former US President Bill Clinton pointed out during a speech in Vancouver last November, "Democracies by and large don't go to war with each other, don't sponsor terrorist acts against each other, and are more likely to be reliable partners, protect the environment, and abide by the law. Democracy is a stabilizing force. It provides nonviolent means for resolving disputes." It's time for the Queen's international brood to reinvent itself for the 21st Century and start helping to build democracies from the ground-up, so that the Osama Bin Ladens, Saddam Husseins, and Robert Mugabes of the world don't stand a chance.