On 12 January 2023, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate in grand committee:

Lord Oates (Liberal Democrat) to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to work with other Commonwealth nations to block Zimbabwe’s readmission into the Commonwealth until it is compliant with the principles of the Commonwealth’s 1991 Harare Declaration.

1. Background: The Commonwealth

1.1 An overview

The Commonwealth is a free association of sovereign states made up of the UK and many of its former dependencies. It has no formal constitution or bylaws, and members have no legal or formal obligations to one another. Rather, all members have shared goals which include democracy, development and peace. The Commonwealth aims to support countries in achieving these goals.

Currently, the Commonwealth has 56 members. This includes both advanced economies and developing nations. Overall, it has a combined population of 2.5 billion people, with more than 60 percent of this population aged 29 and under. The combined gross domestic product of Commonwealth countries in 2021 was US$13.1tn and is estimated to reach US$19.5tn in 2027.

King Charles III is the head of the Commonwealth. This role is symbolic and has no fixed term. It is not hereditary but is chosen by Commonwealth leaders. In 2018, it was agreed that King Charles would succeed his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, in the role.

Day to day, the organisation is run by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which supports member countries and coordinates activities. The secretariat is led by the Commonwealth secretary general, a role currently held by Baroness Scotland (Baroness Scotland is currently on a leave of absence from the House of the Lords).

In addition, every two years a Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) is held to discuss the organisation and other issues. The most recent meeting, which was initially delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, took place in Rwanda in June 2022.

1.2 The Commonwealth Charter and 1991 Harare Declaration

Members of the Commonwealth have agreed to shared values and principles. These are expressed in the Commonwealth Charter, which contains a commitment by member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of Commonwealth citizens. The charter also acknowledges the role of civil society in supporting its goals and values.

In addition, the Commonwealth has agreed a number of declarations. For example, the 1991 Harare Declaration contained a commitment from member states to safeguard democracy and human rights. Agreed in Zimbabwe, the declaration set out a 10-point pledge listing areas for priority action. This included a focus on the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth which it set out as:

  • democracy, democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government; and
  • fundamental human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief.

The declaration also restated the Commonwealth’s support for equality of women, universal access to education and environmental protection. In addition, it confirmed the Commonwealth’s commitment to alleviating poverty and its aim to combat communicable diseases, and contained a promise to help small countries tackle specific economic and security problems.

1.3 Criteria for membership

Membership of the Commonwealth is voluntary. As a result, members can withdraw at will. Members can also be suspended or expelled if they fail to meet the expected standards and values of the organisation.

Although the Commonwealth’s roots are linked to the British Empire, today any country can join. For example, the last four countries to join—Rwanda, Mozambique, Gabon and Togo—did not have any historic links to the UK.

However, there are criteria for membership of the Commonwealth. These criteria were agreed in 2007 at a CHOGM in Uganda and followed recommendations made by the Committee on Commonwealth Membership. Applicant countries should:

  • have a historic constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member, save in exceptional circumstances (in these cases, applications should be considered on a case-by-case basis)
  • accept and comply with Commonwealth fundamental values, principles and priorities as set out in the 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles and subsequent declarations
  • demonstrate a commitment to democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity
  • accept Commonwealth norms and conventions, such as the use of the English language as the medium of inter-Commonwealth relations, and acknowledge King Charles III as the head of the Commonwealth

Alongside these criteria, the Commonwealth has set out a four-part process for joining, which is followed once a formal expression of interest to join has been triggered.

Countries looking to rejoin the Commonwealth if they have withdrawn or allowed their membership to lapse need to reapply for membership. Although there are no set criteria for readmission, the Commonwealth has said that it expects the country wishing to rejoin to “demonstrate that it continues to uphold the principles and values of the Commonwealth that it espoused when it first joined”.

2. Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth

2.1 Background and recent developments

Zimbabwe joined the Commonwealth on its independence from Britain in 1980. However, in 2002, the organisation suspended Zimbabwe for a year for breaching its values and principles in relation to a disputed election. In 2003, the Commonwealth decided to extend the suspension indefinitely and Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, withdrew the country from the Commonwealth. In November 2017, Mr Mugabe, who had been president for 37 years, resigned. He was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was a member of the same Zanu-PF political party.

In 2018, Zimbabwe began the process of rejoining the Commonwealth. In response to a letter from President Mnangagwa, Secretary General Baroness Scotland said that she looked forward to Zimbabwe’s return “when the conditions are right”. The Commonwealth explained that to rejoin, Zimbabwe would need to show compliance with the fundamental values set out in the Commonwealth Charter, including respect for democracy and the rule of law, as well as protection of human rights. It also said that the membership process required an informal assessment to be undertaken by representatives of the secretary general, followed by consultation with other Commonwealth countries.

In 2021, the Zimbabwean government said that it was in the second stage of a four-part process for rejoining, with the application undergoing consultation among Commonwealth members.

In November 2022, a delegation led by the assistant secretary general, Luis Franceschi, visited Harare, Zimbabwe. The visit was part of the informal process of assessment for Zimbabwe’s readmission into the Commonwealth. Following the mission, Professor Franceschi said that Zimbabwe had made “significant progress in its journey to rejoin the Commonwealth family”. He said that all the stakeholders he had engaged with had been supportive of readmission and that “we will work together towards that shared goal to ensure this process reaches its proper conclusion”.

2.2 UK government’s view

The UK government has said that the decision on whether Zimbabwe rejoins the Commonwealth is a decision for all members. It has said that it would support Zimbabwe’s readmission “only if it met the admission requirements and complied with the values and principles set out in the Commonwealth Charter”. In addition, it has agreed with concerns that the country has not been living up to these standards. This followed reports in 2021 that female activists had been arrested and sexually assaulted while in custody and the introduction of proposed legislation which would criminalise criticism of President Mnangagwa.

More recently, in April 2022, Lord Goldsmith, a minister of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said that “Zimbabwe cannot yet credibly be said to meet the principles set out in the Commonwealth Charter”. The government reaffirmed this stance in response to a written parliamentary question in September 2022.

2.3 Other commentary

Other commentators have also raised questions about Zimbabwe’s current suitability to rejoin the Commonwealth. The director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, Sue Onslow, has said that there had been disagreement amongst Commonwealth members on whether Zimbabwe should be readmitted. She claimed that some governments did not feel that the country had made sufficient progress to meet the Harare principles.

Stephen Chan, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has also argued that Zimbabwe has not made enough progress to be readmitted:

It is in my opinion unlikely that Zimbabwe will be readmitted. It has fulfilled none of the requirements outlined by the report of the Commonwealth Observer Group after the last elections.

As part of its application to rejoin, Zimbabwe invited the Commonwealth to observe its 2018 election. The secretary general agreed to this and said it would form part of her informal assessment. Ghana’s former president, John Dramani Mahama, was deployed to observe the elections along with 23 “eminent persons” and staff from the Commonwealth. In their final report, the observers noted “several positive aspects”, including “a markedly improved pre-election environment”. However, the group expressed concerns about “a number of technical and political shortcomings” which it argued “unlevelled the playing field”. These issues included “acute bias of the state media in favour of the governing party” and persistent allegations of intimidation. The observers also highlighted post-election violence which resulted in fatalities. As a result of these shortcomings, the group concluded that it was unable to endorse all aspects of the election process as credible, inclusive and peaceful.

Daglous Makumbe, a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, has also argued against Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth, saying it would be an “abomination”. He cited Zimbabwe’s poor human rights record, which he said has worsened under President Mnangagwa, and the absence of the rule of law and free, fair and credible elections.

However, Tawanda Zinyama, an academic at the University of Zimbabwe, has argued that the country has worked towards readmittance, but has faced significant challenges which are mostly related to economic distress. He contended that these problems would be best fixed within the Commonwealth rather than by ostracising the Mnangagwa-led government.

3. Human rights in Zimbabwe

Various governments and non-governmental organisations have highlighted concerns about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe in recent years. For example, Zimbabwe is one of the UK government’s 31 human rights priority countries. Setting out the reasons for its inclusion, the UK government highlighted the harassment of opposition and civil society figures as well as journalists. The UK has also imposed sanctions on four security officials who it said “were responsible for some of Zimbabwe’s worst human rights violations”. The US and EU have also placed targeted measures on some individuals and companies in Zimbabwe due to concerns about human rights abuses.

Further information about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe can be found in the following reports:

4. Read more

Cover image by Commonwealth Secretariat on Flickr.