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Visitors must confront abusive host

Published in: The Australian

When John Howard goes to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Abuja today, he will at least be spared having to deal with some of the Commonwealth's more embarrassing relatives.

With Zimbabwe and Pakistan suspended from the Commonwealth's top table for their failure to undertake meaningful political reform, Robert Mugabe and Pervez Musharraf won't be there. But will the Prime Minister and other Commonwealth leaders also get tough with host nation Nigeria for its dismal human rights record?

Of course, the situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated further since Australia led the Commonwealth's last intervention. High levels of political violence against opposition supporters continue. Rallies by human rights and civil society groups are routinely disrupted. And all independent news media has been suppressed.

In Pakistan, too, members of the political opposition and former government officials continue to be harassed, threatened and arbitrarily detained. Furthermore, far-reaching amendments to the constitution have dramatically strengthened the power of the presidency, and they have formalised the role of the army in governance and diminished the authority of elected representatives.

But Commonwealth leaders would do well to pay some attention to similar problems in Nigeria, and use the opportunity presented by the Abuja meeting to press for meaningful reform. Their host, President Olusegun Obasanjo, has championed the human rights cause, but the values that he claims to champion are beyond the reach of most ordinary Nigerians.

Human rights abuses continue to impede Nigeria's democratic transition. Since Obasanjo came to power in 1999, his Government has been responsible for serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of hundreds of people by the military in Odi, in 1999, and in Benue, 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 senseless religious violence concealed the fact that the Nigerian security forces committed dozens of unlawful killings under cover of these disturbances.

And journalists, human rights activists, opposition politicians and peace activists have faced detention, ill-treatment and other forms of intimidation, simply because they have criticised Government policies.

Last April's elections, which returned Obasanjo to power for a second term, were marred by violence and intimidation, as well as widespread rigging. Much of this was carried out by supporters of the ruling party, and few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Unlike the case in Zimbabwe or Pakistan, however, Commonwealth countries warmly welcomed these elections and remained silent about the electoral violence.

As awful as this sounds, remember that Obasanjo has also played host to former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is wanted for war crimes in Sierra Leone. This must be the only case of one Commonwealth country sheltering a war criminal wanted for abuses in another Commonwealth country.

Nigeria has played a very helpful role in support of Liberia's political transition, such as hosting peace talks and arranging for Taylor's safe passage from the country. But this should not extend to shielding Taylor from justice before the Special Court in Sierra Leone. Taylor's presence in Nigeria is an ongoing source of insecurity in the region, an insult to his victims in Liberia and Sierra Leone and an affront to the Commonwealth's values and commitment to international justice.

Howard, Tony Blair and other Commonwealth leaders should speak out on these issues or risk being accused of double standards, which would undermine the effectiveness of their interventions on Zimbabwe and Pakistan, and the Commonwealth's commitment to human rights itself. The message to Obasanjo should be clear: Hand over Taylor, end impunity for human rights abuses and initiate long-lasting political reforms.

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