(British) Commonwealth and Pakistan

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Commonwealth of Nations

A revolving-door club

By F.S. Aijazuddin


Pakistan has been readmitted for the third time into the Commonwealth of Nations, in 1971, the Commonwealth adopted the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, a gossamer ‘set of ideals and agreed values’. Following the India-Pakistan war over East Pakistan that year, our Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, resentful at the speed with which India and other countries such as the UK hastened to recognise the new state of Bangladesh, withdrew from the Commonwealth. He felt he had grounds. Member states had violated their own principles, for Article 13 of the Singapore Declaration read unequivocally that: “In rejecting coercion as an instrument of policy, they recognise that the security of each member state from external aggression is a matter of concern to all members.” While all members in the Commonwealth thought themselves to be equal, some were obviously more equal than others.

Pakistan remained outside for 17 years, until 1989 when an election propelled Benazir Bhutto into her first prime ministership and Pakistan became eligible for re-entry. It had been a member for hardly a decade when in 1999, following the ouster of Nawaz Sharif by General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan was again shown the door and suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth.

This state of limbo continued until May 2004, when following the Musharraf-sponsored elections, Pakistan was again readmitted. In November 2007, Pakistan was suspended yet again in the wake of the imposition of emergency by President Musharraf. (Would it be ungracious to cavil that when in 1975 Mrs Indira Gandhi invoked an emergency in India that was to last 19 months, not a tremor was felt in Marlborough House?)

The grounds given for our suspension by the Commonwealth Ministers’ Advisory Group (CMAG) make interesting reading. The CMAG demanded “an immediate repeal of the emergency provisions, restoration of the Constitution, and the independence of the judiciary”. It called upon President Musharraf to stand down as chief of army staff. It demanded an immediate release of political party leaders and activists, removal of curbs on the media, and the speediest creation of conditions for the holding of free and fair elections.

These demands were aimed at President Musharraf. He took appropriate measures and on May 12, 2008, the CMAG met at Marlborough House and decided that as “the Government of Pakistan has taken positive steps to fulfil its obligations in accordance with Commonwealth fundamental values and principles”, Pakistan stood restored to the Councils of the Commonwealth.

Would it be churlish, now that we are back inside Marlborough House, to ask the CMAG how it thought that suspension of a country was justified when each of the violations of its principles was caused by one man, not 160 million of its citizens? Many of them would argue (especially the lawyer community) that in fact they themselves are the victims, not the violators.

How, some would question, does the removal of his uniform by Musharraf per se qualify us as a country to be readmitted to Commonwealth membership? Does the CMAG think a country arrests its own political leaders? Does it apply curbs on its own press? And why should its citizens deny themselves a right the Commonwealth holds so dear — “their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live”. (The text is from Article 6 of the Singapore Declaration, in case the CMAG has forgotten.)

Now that our membership has been restored, should we be in a state of euphoria? Or should we stop for a moment and ask ourselves whether membership of the Commonwealth club is worth these metronomic humiliations?

Perhaps, some mandarins in our Foreign Office will apply their minds to assessing the costs and benefits of such a revolving-door relationship. fsaijazuddin2@gmail.com

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