Skip to main content

The Commonwealth has a proud record of promoting human rights, democracy, good governance and the rule of law. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Abuja, Nigeria next month - which will focus on the theme of Democracy and Development - will, however, present an important test of these commitments. This letter outlines a number of critical areas of concern, including political developments in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Nigeria itself, the question of justice for past abuses in Sierra Leone, and the global problems of small arms and HIV/AIDS.

The continued serious human rights problems in many Commonwealth countries make a mockery of the 1991 Harare Declaration and point to institutional weaknesses in the Commonwealth's capacity to promote and protect human rights. The Commonwealth should address this gap by creating a High Commissioner or Special Representative of the Commonwealth Secretary-General for Human Rights. This high level post could act as a focal point for the Commonwealth's human rights agenda, make country visits and public reports and recommendations to governments and, where necessary, refer country situations for further action by the Commonwealth's political bodies. With appropriate resources and independence, this post would provide a closer institutional link between the Commonwealth and the broader United Nations human rights system.

Furthermore, to deal with the most serious and protracted human rights situations, the Commonwealth should expand the mandate of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to address human rights concerns as well as political and constitutional issues. In situations such as Zimbabwe or Pakistan, CMAG could play a useful role in setting benchmarks for human rights improvements and ensuring human rights concerns are fully integrated into the Commonwealth's political actions.


Much attention will be focused in Abuja on developments in Zimbabwe and Pakistan, both of which remain suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth for their violations of human rights and democratic process. But Commonwealth leaders should also pay close attention to similar problems in the host country Nigeria and use the opportunity presented by the Abuja meeting to press President Obasanjo for meaningful reform.

President Obasanjo has been a leading regional voice on the importance of human rights and good governance, for instance in promoting the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad). But the values that President Obasanjo champions publicly are still beyond the reach of most ordinary Nigerians, and human rights abuses continue to impede any progress towards the establishment of accountable government and the rule of law.

Although there have been improvements in the overall human rights situation in Nigeria since President Obasanjo was elected in 1999, his government has been responsible for serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of hundreds of people by the military in Odi, Bayelsa State, in 1999, and in Benue State, in 2001, for which no one has yet been brought to justice. The portrayal of the "Miss World riots" in Kaduna in July 2002 as religious violence concealed the fact that the Nigerian security forces committed dozens of unlawful killings under cover of these disturbances, as documented in Human Rights Watch's July 2003 report "The Miss World Riots: Continued Impunity for Killing in Kaduna."

The April 2003 elections, which returned President Obansanjo to office for a second term, were marred by violence and intimidation as well as widespread rigging. Scores of people were killed and many more injured, especially in the south and southeast. Much of this violence was carried out by supporters of the ruling party, and few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. In contrast with the public outcry over the elections in Zimbabwe or Pakistan, many Commonwealth countries largely remained silent about Nigeria's electoral violence and fraud.

In a forthcoming report entitled "Nigeria: Crackdown on Freedom of Expression," due for release this December, Human Rights Watch has documented a renewed crackdown on freedom of expression in Nigeria. During 2003, journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members and peaceful demonstrators have faced arrest, detention, ill-treatment and other forms of intimidation simply because they have criticized government policies. For example, several journalists covering massive public protests earlier this year over an increase in the price of fuel were severely beaten by the police. Around thirty protestors who peacefully demonstrated against US President Bush's visit to Nigeria in July were arrested and several of them were tortured on the orders of senior police officials.

The failure of Commonwealth members to speak out on these abuses leaves the organization open to accusations of double-standards and undermines the effectiveness of Commonwealth actions on situations like those in Zimbabwe and Pakistan. The Commonwealth Heads of Government should use its meetings with President Obasanjo to press for an end to impunity and for institutional human rights reforms. We urge you to seek a detailed progress report from President Obasanjo on the investigation and prosecution of the cases mentioned above.

Zimbabwe and Pakistan

The human rights situation in Zimbabwe has continued to deteriorate since the Commonwealth's last interventions. High levels of political violence against opposition supporters continue. Rallies by human rights and civil society groups such as the National Constitutional Assembly are routinely disrupted. Peaceful protestors have been detained under both colonial-era and newly created laws restricting freedom of expression, assembly and association. In September, the government closed The Daily News, Zimbabwe's last remaining independent daily newspaper, despite a court order that the paper should be granted an operating license. No independent broadcast media are permitted to operate inside the country. The food situation remains critical, but relief efforts have been undermined by corruption, profiteering and a high degree of politicization by the authorities.

In Pakistan, too, there has been little progress towards greater respect for human rights and the restoration of genuine civilian political authority. In the four years since the coup that brought him to power, President Musharraf has suppressed civil liberties and progressively undermined civilian institutions in the country. Members of the political opposition and former government officials have been harassed, threatened and arbitrarily detained. Independent judges have been removed from the courts. Anti-government public rallies and demonstrations have been banned, rendering political parties all but powerless. Far-reaching amendments to the constitution have dramatically strengthened the power of the presidency, formalized the role of the army in governance, and diminished the authority of elected representatives.

Zimbabwe and Pakistan should remain suspended from the Commonwealth until there are fundamental improvements in the human rights situation. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group should be asked to review the human rights situation in both countries (as well as political and constitutional issues), establish clear benchmarks for improvements, and identify new strategies to promote change. Commonwealth members should also ensure that both countries are not re-elected to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights unless substantial progress is made (Pakistan will need to seek re-election in 2004 and Zimbabwe in 2005).

Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone

Nigeria and its Commonwealth partners have an important responsibility to fight against impunity for those responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The Commonwealth has been strong in its support for the new International Criminal Court. The Commonwealth has also lent support to international efforts to ensure justice for past crimes in Sierra Leone, for instance by nominating judges to serve on the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In his report to your meeting, the Commonwealth Secretary-General stresses the importance of "international efforts to end impunity and to bring to justice those responsible for heinous crimes."

It is unacceptable, therefore, that Nigeria should continue to shield from prosecution Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor who has been charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone with crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law for his role in Sierra Leone's civil war. It is unprecedented that one member of the Commonwealth should host someone indicted for war crimes in another Commonwealth country. Nigeria played a helpful role in support of Liberia's political transition, and arranging Taylor's safe passage from the country was a contribution to that process. But Nigeria now has an obligation to help bring Taylor to justice.

Over the past decade, decisions by the ad hoc criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and statements by United Nations bodies have consolidated the strong trend against impunity for perpetrators of serious international crimes. As a state party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nigeria has undertaken legal obligations to cooperate with efforts to bring those who commit serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law to justice. As a result, Nigeria is well placed to react positively to the UN Security Council request of May 2003 that states cooperate with the Sierra Leone Special Court.

Taylor's presence in Nigeria is an affront to his victims in Sierra Leone and an ongoing source of insecurity in the region. It should also be an embarrassment to Commonwealth leaders gathering in Abuja at this time. We urge your government to press the Nigerian authorities to resolve this issue ahead of the Abuja meeting by transferring Taylor immediately to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Human Rights Watch also wishes to highlight several other issues of critical concern for sustainable development on which the Commonwealth can play an important role.

Small arms

The widespread availability and misuse of small arms gravely undermines key Commonwealth priorities, including human rights, democracy, people-centered development, and conflict prevention and resolution in many Commonwealth countries. At the 1999 CHOGM in Durban, Commonwealth leaders expressed concern about the uncontrolled flows of such weapons, as well as their excessive and destabilizing accumulation. Since then the issue has been taken up at a United Nations conference in 2001 and in a biennial review in 2003. Much focus has been on illicit trafficking in small arms, leaving aside their irresponsible transfer and misuse by governments. It is thus no surprise that to date little real progress has been made to alleviate the human impacts of the scourge of small arms.

Commonwealth countries, given their commitment to promote human rights, are in a position to help focus the debate on what governments can do to halt and prevent the misuse of small arms. In particular, the Abuja meeting offers an opportunity for Commonwealth leaders to promote the principle that no government should misuse small arms nor authorize arms transfers to human rights abusers. They should pledge to fulfill existing government responsibilities to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law, including by ensuring that police and armed forces strictly uphold international standards on the use of force and firearms.

Commonwealth leaders should also end arms flows to human rights abusers, both internationally and within their own borders. With respect to international transfers, Commonwealth countries should comply fully with the provisions of all applicable instruments defining minimum export criteria, such as the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, as well as the measures of restraint agreed upon in other fora, such as the Economic Community of West African States' moratorium on the import, export, and manufacture of small arms. Commonwealth member governments and the Commonwealth itself should adopt - and make binding - strict arms trade criteria on the observance of human rights and compliance with international humanitarian law. They should also pledge support for a binding international instrument on arms transfers that contains strong human rights and humanitarian criteria, such as the proposed international Arms Trade Treaty. These steps would give further concrete meaning to the 1991 Harare Declaration, in which Commonwealth countries pledged to "support United Nations and other international institutions in the world's search for peace, disarmament and effective arms control."

Gender issues and HIV/AIDS

In keeping with the Commonwealth's strong commitment to women's human rights and women's empowerment within development processes, we urge you to encourage Commonwealth member states to prioritize women's equality within their HIV/AIDS programming.

The deadly link between women's rights abuses and the spread of HIV/AIDS is slowly gaining recognition, but not before millions of women's lives were claimed by the disease. Every day, in every corner of the world, women and girls are beaten in their homes, trafficked into forced prostitution, raped by soldiers and rebels in armed conflicts, sexually abused by their "caretakers," deprived equal rights to property and other economic assets, assaulted for defying gender norms, and often left with no option but to trade sex for survival. Evidence indicates that women especially at risk are those in a heterosexual marriage or long-term union in a society where men commonly engage in sex outside the union and women confront abuse if they demand condom use. Some women are "inherited" by male in-laws when they become widows, often becoming wives in polygamous families. These acts of discrimination and violence are conduits for HIV infection. Relative to the scale and severity of these abuses, laws, policies, and programs to combat HIV/AIDS by protecting women's rights are negligible.

The relationship between abuses of women's rights and their vulnerability to AIDS is acutely clear in Africa, where 58 percent of those infected with HIV are women. Infection rates among adolescent girls and young women in much of Africa are strikingly higher than those of their male counterparts, exposing the disturbing reality that young women face appalling levels of abuse and discrimination.

Human Rights Watch has recently documented a range of women's rights abuses and how they play a role in women's risk of contracting HIV/AIDS in Africa. For example, in Uganda, we documented how domestic violence prevents women from freely accessing HIV/AIDS information, from negotiating condom use, and from resisting unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner, yet the government has failed to take any meaningful steps to prevent and punish such abuse. In Kenya, simply because of their gender, many women AIDS victims sink into poverty and will die even sooner because customs condone evicting women from their homes and taking their property upon their husband's death. In Zambia, orphan girls are often sexually abused at the hands of their guardians, including family members and teachers. In South Africa, the government is lagging in its commitment to provide post-exposure prophylaxis to rape survivors, and girls are deterred from attending school because of high rates of sexual violence and harassment. These issues and more are highlighted in an upcoming Human Rights Watch report entitled "Policy Paralysis: A Call for Action on HIV/AIDS-Related Human Rights Abuses against Women and Girls in Africa," which will be released in December 2003.

We hope you will urge all Commonwealth member states, and particularly those in Africa, to combat the pervasive discrimination and violence against women and girls that exacerbate the threat of HIV/AIDS.

Business and Human Rights

The Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) has been involved in initiatives to improve corporate governance, reduce corruption, and promote responsible foreign direct investment in developing countries. The CBC has supported the British government's Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). Human Rights Watch believes that the Commonwealth, through the CBC and otherwise, should help strengthen the EITI and similar transparency initiatives by 1) supporting the idea of compulsory reporting of their payments to governments by companies working in the extractive sector and by 2) providing technical assistance to both companies and governments on how to ensure that this information is meaningful. A useful precedent has already been set by the Nigerian government when they agreed to publish their revenues and authorize companies to publish payments in November.

Human Rights Watch wishes you a very successful meeting and looks forward to continued dialogue on these important issues.

Yours sincerely,

Rory Mungoven
Global Advocacy Director

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.