Commonwealth leaders pledged to act with "renewed vigour" on the protection and promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights exactly 18 years ago this week.
The Harare Commonwealth Declaration, a landmark accord issued by Heads of Governments at their biennial summit in Zimbabwe on 20 October 1991, set out the top priorities of the then 50-member association.
The declaration of “fundamental political values” encompassed the Commonwealth’s membership criteria, including “democracy, democratic processes and institutions... the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.”
Harare affirmed the Commonwealth’s support for “human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief.” It also restated the Commonwealth’s support for equality for women, universal access to education and environmental protection.
“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,” the leaders proclaimed, echoing principles first outlined by the Commonwealth in Singapore in 1971.
Amid vast changes in the global balance of power as the Soviet Union disintegrated and countries sought to agree a new economic order, Harare helped establish a role for the Commonwealth in a post-Cold War world.
Then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, recalled in his memoirs years later that the Harare Declaration “reinvigorated the association” by mapping out priorities and instilling a new sense of confidence among its members.
“What I had feared could be the marginalisation of the Commonwealth due to changes in the international system was prevented, I believe, by the decisions reached at the Harare summit,” he wrote.
“By clearly identifying the Commonwealth and enabling it to serve as an active agent in tackling one of the key challenges of the post-Cold War era, namely the promotion of democracy, the Harare CHOGM reinforced the place of the Commonwealth among international organisations.”
The Harare Declaration confirmed the Commonwealth’s its commitment to the alleviation of poverty and its aim to combat communicable diseases. It also promised to help small countries to tackle specific economic and security problems.
The text of the four-page document had been hammered out by a 10-member High Level Appraisal Group set up two years previously to look at the future of the association.
Following positive signs that South Africa was distancing itself from racial apartheid, the Heads of Government also agreed in Harare to a phasing out of Commonwealth sanctions against the country. Restrictions on cultural and academic contacts and visas were lifted immediately, while direct air links were also removed.
Meanwhile the Commonwealth Secretariat was strengthened through the establishment of observer groups to monitor elections on the request of member states.
The UK-based Guardian newspaper described the declaration at the time as an “ambitious blueprint for the future”.