By Professor Michelo Hansungule
Opposition parties and civil society organizations should be congratulated by all well-meaning people for taking the initiative to approach the Commonwealth and express their grievances over their experiences in trying to consolidate democracy in Zambia. The Commonwealth is one avenue that states including some of the state officials in the current government in Zambia established over the years to empower citizens ventilate their grievances against their own states when times get hard. Though they may have forgotten after bouncing back to power, some of the state officials who are now crying foul over the report of the opposition/civil society to the Commonwealth are the same ones that took part in defining these standards which today they find hard to comply with. No one imposed these standards on the Commonwealth least of all opposition or citizens.
It must be understood that the international community has evolved from the time when it treated human rights as internal issues for the exclusive domain of the respective country or government to deal with. Only last year, the African Union was celebrating the theme ‘shared values’ among which is human rights which it has been constructing over the years to the complicated system in place today which compels states to account for their human wrongs. The same states have constructed effective global regimes on human rights in a bid to stem the tide of human rights wrongs.
The Commonwealth is one of the organizations that for many years could not prove its practical value to its citizens. Rather, most people associated the Commonwealth as a symbolical show of power where the Queen wined and dined with other queens, kings, presidents and prime ministers. Indeed, the Commonwealth meant nothing in the lives of ordinary citizens. Others accused the Commonwealth of being nothing but a perpetuation of the colonial ties by former colonial ruler the United Kingdom. More progressive citizens questioned the relevance of an independent country belonging to the Commonwealth based in the capital city of the former colonial ruler and headed by a Queen of the former colonizer? However, with time, the Commonwealth has successfully been re-inventing itself towards a powerful weapon to fight for democracy, human rights, rule of law, good governance, etc. One of the flagships of the Commonwealth programmes is the Harare Declaration (1991) adopted under the watch of Chief Emeka Anyaoku, then its Secretary General.
Though not a legally binding instrument with fatal legal consequences in the event of failure to observe it, the Harare Declaration is a powerful tool member countries used to communicate to their citizens their collective resolve to abide by carefully selected set of civilized values. Just to quote from one of its stipulations, it declares:
§ we believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives;
Could it be that we cannot aspire to live by these values probably because they are just too high for us? I think not. This is precisely what the Zambian people want and voted for, not its opposite. The Harare Declaration and through it the Commonwealth and, therefore, the international community have agreed to a restricted notion of limited or even no sovereignty when it comes to ensuring observance of democratic values in each other’s countries. Due to the unanimity with which member countries endorsed it, the Declaration stands on stronger moral ground to dictate civilized behavior by state officials in their relations with citizens. Its moral and political value, therefore, is far greater than the legally enforceable tools and instruments.
However, values and rights or freedoms, however, well crafted do not execute themselves. In other words, the Harare Declaration or any other Declaration for that matter cannot translate into tangible benefits for the citizens they are meant for. Either other members of the grouping, organizations or citizens should rather than sit down stand up and boldly raise issues when things go wrong.
Does it really matter where citizens converge to deliver their grievances? I honestly think not. It is common sense that a prisoner is unlikely to complain the beatings to the same prison warder who beats him. In front of the magistrate or Judge, however, the same prisoner feels empowered to convey his true feelings about his mistreatment which is fairly understandable. If people are arrested for being at a market, going to a Chief or convening a peaceful rally, how do they go ahead and convene a press briefing in that same country to announce an international initiative which as we have seen in this case throws authorities to the margins of madness?
Most of these challenges the country is going through have to do with abuse of state apparatus in particular the police. We have read unprecedented statement in some of the publications purporting to have been issued by no other than the highest police command. Unprecedented because security forces and police in particular should be the last in a democracy to say, behave or imply political partisanship. Police are not trained in interpreting statements politicians make during their rallies and cannot pretend to understand subliminal messages underlying those statements. If a meeting is peaceful and it remains peaceful even after certain statements are made by those attending it, how does this bother the police? Does peace bother the police? The Constitution is very clear in that police have a binding duty to protect peaceful rallies and assemblies as dictated to by the bill of rights which is the only authority police must abide by.
In fact, besides appealing to the Commonwealth, citizens should escalate their complaints to various other international forums. Provided they abide by their applicable procedures, it is their birthright to take grievances to whichever forum Zambia and other states have freely and voluntarily acceded to. Anyone who says this is unpatriotic successfully exposes their ignorance of basic international procedures and systems Zambia has long accepted as part and parcel of the civilized international community.
African governments must remember that they do not own citizens’ rights. It is not possible to make another person think through your mind. Individuals being such have individual uniqueness’ and no one can take this from them. While people may not define a right, they know a wrong when it happens or is committed to them. Herein lies their right to complain and even to peacefully take to the streets. It was precisely for this reason that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to try and prevent people from taking to the bush to solve a problem each time they have a grievance. As demonstrated recently in the Arab Spring, peace loving people everywhere have a limit as to how much they can tolerate a bad government. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the citizens’ complaints to the Commonwealth and in fact they must do it again!