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Victoria Schofield

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In Again Out Again, Pakistan and the Commonwealth

Dawn Friday, June 30, 2000


 In 1947 the Commonwealth, which both Pakistan and India agreed to join as newly independent countries, was still influenced by the principles of the 1926 Balfour declaration, which defined the relations between Britain and the Dominions as ‘autonomous communities’, ‘equal in status’, ‘united by common allegiance to the Crown’. The 1931 Statute of Westminster subsequently recognised the independence of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State (which as Eire left the Commonwealth in 1949) all of which recognised the Queen as Head of State. After India and Pakistan joined the Commonwealth in 1947 neither country wished to retain the old Commonwealth connection of allegiance to the Crown.  India immediately made clear its preference to become a Republic. In 1956 Pakistan announced that it would become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and that of President replaced the office of Governor-General.  Both countries, however, wished to remain members of the Commonwealth in order to benefit from the opportunities of trade and communication offered by an organisation whose membership already spanned five continents and whose peoples all spoke English.

As decolonisation gained momentum throughout the 1960s, the Commonwealth expanded to include over 50 countries, some with their own monarch, others owing allegiance to the Queen, and some republics, with a membership of over a quarter of the world’s population. The expansion of the Commonwealth’s members to include many countries in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific also reinforced its multiracial character. In view of its varied composition, the Commonwealth has always opposed all forms of racial discrimination.

In 1965 co-operation between Commonwealth leaders was given a fresh impetus by the decision to establish the Commonwealth Secretariat, based in London, headed by a Secretary-General, elected by the Heads of Government. Supported by three deputies, the Secretary-General is responsible for organising summits and ministerial meetings. International civil servants from member countries staff the Secretariat. The Commonwealth Foundation was set up in 1966 in order to support non-governmental co-operation between member countries.  The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, founded in 1911, has long been active in facilitating regular consultation between the Parliaments of member countries.

Unlike the United Nations, the Commonwealth does not have a charter, but instead its members voluntarily consult with each other and subscribe to a number of declarations. At the 1971 Heads of Government meeting in Singapore, member countries adopted the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, which expressed their commitment to international peace and order, equal rights for all citizens and the liberty of the individual; their opposition to colonial domination and racial oppression; and their resolve to achieve a fairer global society. 1971 was, however, the last year of Pakistan’s first period of membership of the Commonwealth. Following the decision of Commonwealth members to recognise Bangladesh as an independent country, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto withdrew Pakistan from the Commonwealth in February 1972.

‘The decision leaves the Commonwealth poorer,’ said the then Secretary-General, Arnold Smith, ‘for Pakistan, one of the more advanced of the developing members, has much to offer its associates in the Commonwealth.  I fear the decision will also leave Pakistan poorer.  It will not help Pakistan diplomatically.  Pakistan has many friends in the Commonwealth. It needs friendship now. It has always been my judgment, particularly at times of crisis, that you should keep your lines of communication wide open – with friends and opponents alike.’ But the decision taken by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was final, leaving the Secretary-General to conclude: ‘ I think one should now look to the future. The door remains open.’


Pakistan, however, remained outside the Commonwealth for seventeen years and consequently was unable to participate in any of the Heads of Government meetings, which took place during that time. As the Secretary-General noted: ‘the Commonwealth is a communications net with multiple circuits.’ By no longer being a member of the Commonwealth, Pakistan had pulled ‘all the plugs on the Commonwealth switchboard’. General Mohammed Zia-ul Haq, who overthrew Bhutto in a military coup in 1977, was evidently aware of the lost opportunities and, during his tenure of power; overtures were taken to request Pakistan’s re-entry.  There was not, however, the necessary consensus amongst member countries to enable Pakistan to return.

During the period of Pakistan’s absence, additional declarations strengthened the Commonwealth’s ideals: of these, the most significant were the Gleneagles Agreement against sporting contacts with South Africa (1977), the Lusaka Declaration (1979) on Racism and Racial Prejudice and the Melbourne Declaration (1981) which determined to end global poverty and equality. In 1985 the Commonwealth Accord on southern Africa expressed the determination of its members to work to put an end to South Africa’s racist system of apartheid.  The Nassau Declaration on World Order reaffirmed the commitment of member countries to internationalism and support for the United Nations.


One of the first steps, taken by Benazir Bhutto, elected Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988, following the death of General Zia-ul Haq in a plane crash, was to request re-entry into the Commonwealth. This was accepted and on 15 September 1989 the Secretary-General, Shridath Ramphal, announced that Pakistan would formally rejoin the Commonwealth on 1 October. ‘The Commonwealth has responded with unanimity to the wish of the democratically elected Government of Pakistan to rejoin the Commonwealth. There could hardly be a more auspicious prelude to the Kuala Lumpur Meeting later in October,’ he stated. In her speech at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malaysia, Benazir Bhutto made clear her support for ‘an association of democratic nations in order that those new democracies may receive help and encouragement from those with longstanding experience.’ 

Underlining the special relationship between members of the Commonwealth, the diplomatic missions of Commonwealth countries in the capitals of other member countries have always been known as high commissions rather than embassies. When Pakistan rejoined the Commonwealth, the then Ambassador, Sir Nicholas Barrington, now High Commissioner, believed that he would have to have a new plaque made for the British residence in Islamabad.  But when he took down the old plaque to replace it, he found that the name ‘British High Commission’ was engraved on the reverse side.  ‘So,’ he says ‘we just turned the plaque round again.’

By rejoining the Commonwealth, Pakistan was once more able to benefit from the links which membership of the Commonwealth offers, affording countries the opportunities for mutual consultation, co-operation in trade, defence, education, law, medicine and other specialised fields. The Commonwealth Secretariat also promotes co-operation in science, law and in food production as well as assisting governments in the fields of women’s and youth affairs. The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, which is part of the Secretariat, assists development by providing experts, financial training and offering a consultancy service in key fields. After Pakistan’s return to the Commonwealth, it benefited especially from contacts with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. ‘They participated regularly in our meetings and sessions,’ says Andrew Donahoe, Secretary-General of the CPA.

One of the problems, however, which Pakistan faced on its return, was that during its 17-year absence, no Pakistanis had held any positions within the organisation. ‘Rather like the way Britain was left behind when it finally joined the EU,’ says Alexandra Jones, a former deputy director of the Commonwealth Foundation, ‘Pakistani nationals could not immediately gain high office.’ Dr Humayun Khan, former Pakistani High Commissioner in Britain, was the first Pakistani to be elected to a senior position – Director of the Commonwealth Foundation - in 1993, four years after Pakistan’s re-entry.

Unfortunately the political tensions, which Pakistan has always had with its neighbour India, have also surfaced within the Commonwealth. Pakistanis were always aware of the preponderant influence, which India had managed to secure within the organisation. ‘Indians have a very significant presence in the Commonwealth,’ says Akbar Ahmed, Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge and currently Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London. ‘They are involved both with the internal workings of the organisation and also with policy.’ Some Pakistanis are also disillusioned with how little has been done within the Commonwealth to promote harmony between Pakistan and India. ‘Pakistan and India seem to be going towards confrontation,’ says Ahmed, ‘they are both nuclear countries; it is a very serious situation and one which the Commonwealth provides the ideal forum to tackle. But we don’t hear alarm bells ringing as loudly as we would like to hear them within the Commonwealth.’

Whereas the older generation of Pakistanis may still be looking to the Commonwealth in terms of what the organisation can do for them, many of the younger generation of Pakistanis are sceptical about the advantages of belonging to an organisation which is a conglomerate of former colonies of the British Empire, with whom Pakistan has little in common other than a shared colonial past.  From the Commonwealth perspective, however, it has also been suggested that, when Pakistan did rejoin, it did not always take full advantage of the opportunities of membership.  ‘Pakistan lost hugely by not being fully “engaged” in terms of sending its nationals and young diplomats to undertake postings in order to gain experience of the workings of an international organisation,’ stated a South Asian analyst in London. ‘Pakistan’s apparent indifference to the Commonwealth may also be related to the fact that its psyche appears to be fixed in a bi-polar world. It has not always understand the importance of regional organisations which co-ordinate with other regional organisations.’

Throughout the 1980s, the members of the Commonwealth were working to strengthen the ‘Commonwealth Principles’ established in Singapore in 1971. Twenty years later, in 1991, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Harare, member countries reaffirmed their confidence in the Commonwealth as a voluntary association of independent sovereign states and they adopted what became known as the Harare Commonwealth Declaration. The objective of this declaration, which was hailed as a ‘landmark’ agreement, was to promote ‘democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law, and sustainable economic and social development.’

At the 1995 Summit in New Zealand, Commonwealth leaders adopted the Millbrook Action Programme on the Harare Declaration, (named after the retreat to which the Heads of Government went during their meeting in Auckland), which outlined various measures to be adopted in response to any violation of the Harare Principles. Clause B, 3. states that: ‘Where a member country is perceived to be clearly in violation of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, and particularly in the event of an unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government, appropriate steps should be taken to express the collective concern of Commonwealth countries.’ In order to provide a mechanism for dealing with ‘the serious and persistent’ violations of the principles outlined in the Harare Declaration, the Millbrook Action Programme set up the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), composed of the foreign ministers of eight member countries, who would retain their positions for a two-year period until the next summit.    At the 1995 summit, in observance of the Harare Principles, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth, following the overthrow of its elected civilian government.   Nigeria further shocked member countries of the Commonwealth, when, during the Auckland meeting, it ordered the execution of several members of the opposition at the same time as member countries were requesting the release of political prisoners.  

1999 to date

When General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, assumed power arbitrarily in Pakistan on 12 October 1999, overthrowing the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his action was automatically regarded as a violation of the ‘good governance’ principle established at Harare in 1991; consequently, at a specially convened meeting of CMAG, the eight foreign ministers agreed, as in the case of Nigeria, to suspend Pakistan from the Commonwealth. ‘The Millbrook action plan had set in place the mechanism for monitoring serious violations of human rights,’ says Mischa Mills, Information officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat,  ‘a military coup being one of the most obvious violations. The reason for Pakistan’s suspension is that the current government is not recognised as a democratically elected government.’ 

As Britain’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, stated: ‘there are very firm rules of the Commonwealth, good governance being one of them. Pakistan’s suspension is aimed at restoring democracy.’ At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in South Africa, which took place in November, the member countries reaffirmed CMAG’s condemnation of Pakistan’s military coup. According to the Durban Communiqué issued after the summit, ‘Heads of Government condemned the unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected Government in Pakistan on 12 October 1999. They believed that no legitimacy should be accorded to the military regime and called for the restoration of civilian democratic rule without delay.’ 

For Pakistan, its suspension has meant that it is not entitled to any further technical assistance although projects, which have already been agreed between the Commonwealth and the former government continue. ‘We are still mailing them and in contact with project officers and various ministries,’ says Mills. ‘As soon as a timetable to return Pakistan to elected civilian rule is announced, the start-up process for restoring Pakistan’s status as a full member of the Commonwealth can begin.’  Compared with the coup, which had taken place in Nigeria (welcomed back as a member in 1999,  following the establishment of an elected civilian government), the coup in Pakistan was also seen as  ‘fairly painless’. ‘There was the view that the new leaders were still open to dialogue regarding a return to civilian democratic government.’ When Akbar Ahmed, who became Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Britain after the coup, met the Secretary-General, he was pleased to note that there was ‘a lot of positive feeling for Pakistan to remain as a valued member of the Commonwealth.’

Psychologically, however, Pakistan’s suspension has again created doubt amongst Pakistanis both within Pakistan and abroad, regarding the value of membership.   At the time of Pakistan’s suspension, there was particular annoyance that the Zimbabwean foreign minister was Chairman of CMAG, when Robert Mugabe’s autocratic style of government was being criticised at home and abroad. ‘But,’ explains an official, the Harare declaration is very specific; Millbrook relates to the “unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government”. There is no mechanism for dealing with a Zimbabwean situation. There could be civil war on the streets in protest at Mugabe but, under the terms of the Commonwealth Declarations, this would still not constitute a valid reason for Zimbabwe to be suspended.’

When the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, comprising the newly selected foreign ministers from eight member countries, meets again on 3rd May, Pakistan will be on the agenda and its progress towards reinstituting democracy will be reviewed in conjunction with General Musharraf’s pledge to hold local elections by the end of the year 2000.  The attitude of the Action Group will depend upon whether its members believe that Pakistan has gone far enough in demonstrating its commitment to restore elected civilian rule. Even though Pakistan may be sceptical about the benefits of the organisation, others believe that it is shortsighted for any country to think of the Commonwealth as irrelevant. ‘International organisations work in coordination with other international organisations. At a time when Pakistan needs friends most, if the country remains suspended from Commonwealth or is even kicked out, this is significant because it could have an effect on trade and, for example, its relationship with other organisations like the EU,’ stated the London-based South Asian analyst.

It remains to be seen under what circumstances and when Pakistan’s suspension from the Commonwealth will be lifted.  General Musharraf, who assumed the title of Chief Executive, has made it clear that Pakistan will eventually return to elected civilian rule. At the same time, he has also indicated that he will not be pushed into setting a timetable for holding national elections before an extensive programme of necessary reforms is underway.  The challenge for the Commonwealth is to insist upon the observance of its ‘good governance’ principles, at the same time as being able to understand the reasons for Pakistan’s current predicament.  The challenge for Pakistan is to show its genuine commitment to introducing a democratic system of government with respect for the fundamental rights of citizens and the rule of law. As the Secretary-General, Arnold Smith, said, when Pakistan withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1972, lines of communication should be kept wide open, especially in times of crisis.


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