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Heads of Government at CHOGM, Harare, Zimbabwe, 19 October 1991

The Harare Declaration: reflections on the landmark accord, 25 years on

20 October 2016

Exactly a quarter of a century ago, on 20 October 1991, Commonwealth heads of government agreed the historic Harare Commonwealth Declaration which defined the association’s fundamental political values.

The landmark accord set out membership criteria including a commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and opposition to racism. It was a precursor to the Commonwealth Charter, which was adopted more than 20 years later in 2012.

Signed two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Harare Declaration was “of its time and for its times”, according to Simon Gimson, political director of the Commonwealth Secretariat. “It was a siren call in 1991 about what the Commonwealth stood for in an uncertain world that was witnessing in that very year the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

“Around the same time that the ink was drying on the Harare Declaration, the Commonwealth was also taking practical steps to back up those words and political ideals, beginning in earnest then to observe elections and to break the monopoly of one-party governments in favour instead of multi-party democracies.”

The declaration, which expanded on the 1971 Singapore Declaration which first set out the association’s core beliefs, marked out the Commonwealth as an organisation committed to human rights, the importance of which “cannot be overstated,” says Karen McKenzie, head of human rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

“In Harare 25 years ago, Commonwealth leaders took an important step in declaring that human rights are more than lofty ideals, more than the mere embodiment of grand intentions. They affirmed that human rights are among the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth,” Ms McKenzie says.

“Human rights bear upon all aspects of our lives. They protect individuals by emphasising freedom from state interference and proscribe certain deleterious behaviours, allowing free participation in civil and political life. Human rights also consist of those fundamental elements of human well-being which concern work, social security, family life, access to housing, food, water, health care, education, and participation in cultural life.

“The Harare Declaration, in essence, recognised that human rights are tangible norms that offer real promise to each and every individual, promise of a more meaningful, dignified, and secure life.”

According to Katalaina Sapolu, director of rule of law at the Commonwealth Secretariat, the declaration was also a milestone in recognising the importance of a commitment to the rule of law and independence of the judiciary to achieving “sound and sustainable development”.

“Twenty-five years later, these issues are more topical than ever, as the international community has formally acknowledged the rule of law as an essential component of sustainable development by the adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda,” she says.

Since the Harare Declaration, the Commonwealth has strengthened its commitment to democracy, with the Commonwealth Charter today providing Commonwealth governments and organisations with a core statement of principles and values.

The Commonwealth Charter expresses the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity. It also acknowledges the role of civil society in supporting the goals and values of the Commonwealth.

Read more about the Harare Commonwealth Declaration