By Lynda Tilley
Lynda is a humanist based in South Africa. She is a founding member of United African Humanists and a Board Advisor for Humanist Global Charity. In this article she asks why some states, such as Nigeria and Uganda, have not been suspended from membership of the Commonwealth for human rights violations including rigged elections.
It was February 1952, when Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, were on a six-month Commonwealth Tour. Their tour began in Kenya, East Africa and was scheduled to include Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon. Just six days in, however, Elizabeth received the news that her father, King George VI, had passed away in his sleep. The tour was cut short and the couple immediately returned to England.
Arriving in Africa as a princess, just six days earlier, she left Africa as a queen. At just twenty-five years of age, she was now Queen Elizabeth II and head of the Commonwealth. Her reign ended on her death in 2022 at the age of ninety-six and had lasted for just under seventy-one years. This made her not only the longest reigning monarch in British history, but also the longest-serving female head of state in world history.
'The Commonwealth of Nations' (generally referred to as the Commonwealth) was created in 1926 and formalised by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Elizabeth II served as the Head of the Commonwealth throughout her reign and this role has passed to her son, King Charles III. Now seventy-three, he was barely four years old when she became Queen. The successor to the Crown does not automatically become Head of the Commonwealth on the death of the monarch, but Commonwealth leaders decided in 2018 that the then Prince of Wales would succeed his mother in this role after her death.
Membership Requirements of the Commonwealth
At a Commonwealth meeting in Uganda in 2007, Heads of Government agreed on the following core criteria for Membership (abbreviated):
an applicant country should, as a general rule, have had a historic constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member
an applicant country should accept and comply with fundamental values, principles, and priorities as set out in the 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles and other subsequent Declarations
an applicant country must demonstrate commitment to: democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity
an applicant country should accept Commonwealth norms and conventions, such as the use of the English language as the medium of inter-Commonwealth relations, and acknowledge His Majesty King Charles III as the Head of the Commonwealth
new members should be encouraged to join the Commonwealth Foundation, and to promote vigorous civil society and business organisations within their countries, and to foster participatory democracy through regular civil society consultations.
Member states must also agree to adhere to the 'Charter of the Commonwealth', which includes sixteen shared core beliefs, which are: democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, separation of powers, rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health, education, food and shelter, gender equality, the importance of young people in the Commonwealth, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states and the role of civil society. Non-adherence to any of these results in the member state being suspended from the Commonwealth, until such time as they correct their wrong doings. Suspension can include sanctions being imposed on the country and citizens losing out on scholarships, visa-free entry into other Commonwealth countries, trade opportunities and participation in the Commonwealth Games.
The Commonwealth in Africa
Many of us in Africa thought that the Queen's death might signal the end of the Commonwealth. Learning that King Charles III had been chosen five years ago to take over as its head disabused us of that hope. Many here jokingly refer to it as the Colonial Old Boys' Club and the presidents of its member states as 'Ambassadors or Governors, employed by the Queen, to continue running her colonies.'
My country of birth, Zimbabwe, pulled out of the Commonwealth in 2003, after being suspended in 2002 for 'gross human rights violations and collapse of law' along with 'an election process which was not credible'. Years later, our leaders are (rather embarrassingly) begging to be re-admitted.
All well and good, but one wonders why other member states, such as Uganda and Nigeria (just two that I am personally aware of, from the human rights work I do in each), which have clearly been breaking several of the same Commonwealth rules as Zimbabwe, have still not yet been suspended, especially as human rights violations in those countries are not only on the increase, but are getting far worse. Why are they being allowed to get away with breaking the Commonwealth Charter? To mention just one example, both countries are guilty of rigged elections on more than one occasion over the years. This single act violates four of the core beliefs enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter - human rights, democracy, rule of law and good governance.
'With the mandate of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Office of the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights], the Secretariat continues to collaborate with the UNHCHR as well as other UN regional offices on various fronts to promote human rights.' Commonwealth website
Human Rights Watch reports going as far back as the year 2000 have reported election rigging and extreme violence in Uganda during election time. This has been backed up with video evidence and confirmation from international, neutral observers, along with witness statements and physical evidence. Nigeria's recent elections were not only violent, but were unashamedly and openly rigged. Local television and several video recordings, live streams and photographs across social media showed everything unfolding in 'real time'.
And yet, both countries are still Commonwealth members and have not even been given so much as a warning. Zimbabwe was suspended for this very same thing. A clear case of 'double standards'?
Is our rapidly-changing world bringing us closer together?
The world was changed forever by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw us all confined to our homes in 'lockdown' for what seemed like an eternity. Most people have taken a hit financially. Just as we were all getting over that, we witnessed Russia attacking Ukraine, which has also affected us all globally. Nobody knows what the future holds, nothing is certain, but those in positions of power aren't being as negatively affected by all this as ordinary men and women. It is not ordinary people who are about to spend obscene amounts of money 'for the sake of tradition' on a Coronation or anything like it!
Perhaps ALL these global events are why so many of us godless, critically-thinking, humanist-hearted 'everyday men and women' are connecting with each other so much more across the world now. We're appreciating and understanding each other more, after going through the same experiences. Maybe we're beginning to realise that, just as we once collectively decided to turn our backs on a god we were raised to believe would protect and guide us (who never actually showed up), our respective leaders - who we were also raised to believe would protect and guide us - are similarly failing to 'show up'. Human rights violations are increasing worldwide, more people are starving, reversing the previous trend, and we have disease and war on our doorsteps. We, not our leaders, are suffering more.
Everyday people, not global leaders, are helping each other
Perhaps we're realising that our fellow men and women are actually doing more than our leaders for each other and those around them. Too many of our leaders invade other countries, issue orders to kill, decide whether to implement vaccination and lockdown policies, and make decisions that can cause economies to crash. All of which boils down to their insatiable hunger for money, power, and control. They never seem to have enough, they always want more, more, more!
'The Coronation of King Charles III is set to take place in London on May 6th, at an estimated eye-watering cost of around £100 million, with the UK government and taxpayers footing the bill. While the event will be broadcast worldwide, it is taking place in a first-world country where, shockingly, one in five people currently live in poverty and struggle to afford basic necessities like food. I think I'll be giving it a miss, thanks.'
It's us, the everyday people with humanist hearts who aren't driven by power, ego, money or greed who, I believe, will one day change our world – not those who rule over us. WE are the ones, taking food to the hungry, speaking up for their rights, saving or protecting lives, making a difference. We don't blindly follow and obey gods, governments or kings. We follow our own hearts and the hearts of others like us, because we are all the same members of one human family. It's US who will save our world one day, not them. Our world IS the real 'heaven' that exists and it's only US who can create it, together.
Human Rights Watch reports https://www.hrw.org/publications
Commonwealth website https://thecommonwealth.org/
Joining criteria: https://thecommonwealth.org/about/joining
Commonwealth Charter https://commonwealthfoundation.com/