CANADA RESCUED THE COMMONWEALTH — BUT WAS IT WORTH THE TROUBLE?

BLAIR FRASER November 5 1966

CANADA RESCUED THE COMMONWEALTH — BUT WAS IT WORTH THE TROUBLE?

BLAIR FRASER November 5 1966

THE HAWKS lost, but Rhodesia may yet defeat

CANADA RESCUED THE COMMONWEALTH — BUT WAS IT WORTH THE TROUBLE?

BLAIR FRASER

LONDON: THE GUARDIAN in a burst of enthusiasm called it “a near-miracle” achieved by “the personal diplomacy of the Canadian prime minister, Mr. Lester Pearson . . . the lifeline that held the Commonwealth together.” The Times in its quieter language said, “The Canadian prime minister achieved a triumph of drafting,” a sentiment which the influential Financial Times echoed in almost identical words.

The subject of all this adulatory prose was the communiqué with which, against all pessimistic expectation. 22 Commonwealth spokesmen summed up 10 davs of acrimonious altercation in London in September. Until virtually the last hour of the last day it had been deemed impossible that any agreed statement, however weasel-worded, could possibly emerge from this most bitter of all Commonwealth confrontations. The gap was too wide betweeen Africans, Caribbeans. Asians and Mediterraneans on the one hand, and the British, New Zealandefs and Australians on the other. Their widely differing views of how to handle the rebellion in Rhodesia had turned into mutually bitter views of each other, expressed in language that profoundly shocked some of the newcomers to Commonwealth conferences of recent years. But by staying up until nearly two and then rising again at four on the morning of the major confrontation. Canada’s prime minister did manage to produce a draft document that not only served as a basis of discussion for the critical day, hut survived almost word for word in the statement that finally got unanimous acceptance.

By Pearson’s own cheerful admission, there was nothing heroic about the Canadian posture. It was the prime minister himself, not a sneering critic, who first described Canada’s position in the now-famous phrase: “We have nailed our colors firmly to the fence.” It was a characteristically self-deprecating quip which, also characteristically, rather obscured the nature and the magnitude of Canada’s service to the Commonwealth at this critical moment. The point was that somebody had to take the unglamorous position in the middle and try to compose something both sides could accept. Never easy, this task was uniquely difficult in the autumn of 1966 because no event in years has so deeply stirred the emotions and fired the just anger of so many millions of men as the Rhodesian rebellion and the British method of coping with it.

And that is the cold, hard fact behind the big ouestion still left open: what exactly was it that Prime M'nster Pearson saved from extinction in September? Is the

Commonwealth really a living thing any more? What purpose dees it serve if any, and who profits by its continued existence?

The Australians were profanely frank in pointing out to all and sundry that the Commonwealth in its present form is of little use to them — not only useless, either, but an irritating bore. With a part of the world much nearer to them already in flames, with the banking nation that holds Australia’s national accounts in notorious trouble and some danger of bankruptcy, with the Western alliance in jeopardy and the Pacific alliance in demonstrated impotence, 22 Commonwealth nations come together in London at vast expense and spend nine straight days talking about what? A so-called rebellion in which not one drop of blood has been shed, in which law and order has not for one moment been impaired, and which, moreover, takes place in almost the only African country to which either of these statements can be applied in recent years. The Aussies inquire, “What’s all this got to do with us? Why can’t we go on and talk about something important, like the British economy or the war in Vietnam?”

At the other extreme is Zambia, economically the Siamese twin cf Rhodesia, dependent on Rhodesia for mest of the vital supplies that keep her mining industry going and make her one of the few African countries that can fairly call themselves prosperous, still trading with Rhodesia out of mutual economic necessity and indeed, ironically, a major source of foreign exchange for the mildly besieged Rhodesian rebels. Economic sanctions directed against Rhodesia can only succeed if Zambia collaborates, and her collaboration so far has meant that sanctions hit Zambia harder than they do Rhodesia.

Zambia is still a multi-racial state. The African majority is, of course, in charge, under the leadership of the moderate and universally respected President Kenneth Kaunda. but the presence of European advisers is still taken for granted. In the fairly small delegation that Zambia sent to the September conference there were four white men. including one Canadian professor, William Phillips, of the University of Windsor, who is personal economic adviser to President Kaunda. (One morning an Asian delegate came into the Zambian office for a conference, apologized for having stumbled into the wrong place when he f und the four men in the room were all white, then subsided into baffled silence when he was told it wasn’t the ng place after ail.) / continued on page 56

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Zambians — and British — felt betrayed

To loyal Zambians of any color, the very existence of the rebel regime in Rhodesia is an outrage. Rhodesia has not the elaborate system of apartheid that makes South Africa unique, but its franchise rests upon a thinly disguised racial basis and its apportionment of land lacks even the thin disguise — it is frankly and openly racialist. The illegal proclamation of independence a year ago not only made this situation permanent, but allowed something that Britain would not have allowed — periodic amendment of the franchise law to make sure that never in any circumstances would the African majority of the population become a majority of the electorate. The Ian Smith regime has already scrapped one of the supposedly entrenched clauses of the Rhodesian constitution in order to make it easier to imprison people without charge or trial. It’s logical to assume other such changes will be made as required. Thus to accept the status quo in Rhodesia is to accept racialism and repudiate all the principles Kaunda and his friends have been fighting for all their lives.

They can see no effective way to end the rebellion without using force. “Economic sanctions will never do it so long as South Africa and Portugal help to evade them.” a Zambian delegate said. “So long as supplies leak in from the s^uth and east, trying to tighten sanctions is like trying to pump the air out of a jar that has a hole in

it. You can’t do it no matter how hard you pump.”

So when on the very eve of the Commonwealth conference Prime Minister Wilson told Opposition Leader Edward Heath, who told the press, that he had no intention of using drastic measures in Rhodesia, the Zambians felt a sense of personal betrayal. Kaunda had decided to come to London after all and had called a press conference to announce this decision. After the Wilson-Heath statement, he used the same press conference to announce instead he would not go. Kaunda had regarded Wilson as a friend. He understood the political difficulty preventing drastic action when Wilson had a parliamentary majority of less than half a dozen, but he assumed the Labor Party victory of last spring would change all that and bring action at last. When it didn’t he felt a trusted friend had let him down. But this time, perhaps for the first time, the British too felt a sense of betrayal. They had, after all. imposed economic sanctions at a cost to themselves of at least $300 million. To hear this effort contemptuously dismissed as nothin", as a mere facade and fraud, would have been hard enough to take in any case. It was all the harder when it came fr^m men who themselves had shown little concern for freedom of franchise or even common honesty in their own domestic affairs.

It was an interesting coincidence

THE COMMONWEALTH

continued

(hat the day alter Sir Albert Margai of Sierra Leone made a 2'4-hour speech denouncing Britain right, left and centre, the British parliament’s Public Accounts Committee came out with a scathing report on the administration 11 aid to Africa. Ostensibly, the target of criticism was merely the British Ministry of Overseas Development, which is responsible for the spending el money. Actually, the pillory was occupied by Sierra Leone, where Sir A'bert’s government had failed to accrunt for something like %\Vi million in the live years since the little country became independent. Protests to the Sierra Leone authorities had so far gone unanswered, the report said.

But in the opening phases of Commonwealth debate Prime Minister Wilson kept his temper and his good nature to a decree some observers found remarkable. During his lengthy tirade, S;r A'bert Margai at one point implied tlv t Wilson, as Britain’s prime minister was responsible for giving local self-government to Rhodesia in 1921.

“I was only seven years old at the time.” said Wilson mildly.

Sir Albert, not to be daunted or defected, said, “Then it was your father and your grandfather who were guilty.”

Still mild'y, Wilson said. “They were livin'» in Australia then, not Britain.”

“No doubt that’s where they and v 'li acquired your anti-African ideas,” Sir Albert went on.

Wikson, still smiling, said, “Thanks, Albert. This is the first time I’ve ever heard you admit that I have a father.” This took a lot of the heat out of the whole exchange.

Blood bath ignored

Even at the beginning, though, the British felt more resentment than they revealed. (They gritted their teeth, for example, listening to Senator Wijemanne, the Ceylonese minister of justice, who delivered a long, pompous, self-righteous speech against Britain — apparently thinking nobody would remember how only eight years ago his own country went through a blood bath of rio's on purely racial grounds.) And the British, too, had their own reasons f r feeling let down by their old friend Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

Some months ago they had sent out a junior minister. Judith Hart, with a detailed plan offering seven million pounds’ worth of aid to help Zambia cope with the difficulties of sanctions. She was treated so coolly by the Zambians that it amounted to outright rudeness, but she is such a devoted friend of Africa that this treatment merely prompted her to ask her colleagues for more help. Somewhat reluctantly. since Britain’s own economic position is dire, the cabinet agreed to double the seven million. However, it was made clear to Kaunda, privately but plainly, that Wilson’s ministers would find it politically impossible to defend this offer if Kaunda carried out his threat to leave the Commonwealth. Kaunda understood perfectly, or said he did. It was also understood, or so

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"Racialist" was the charge - and Wilson lost his temper

the British thought, that this interchange was to be strictly private anti confidential.

To the fury and embarrassment of British delegates, Arthur Wina, the Zambian finance minister, made this confidential stipulation a major theme of his opening speech, which was leaked to the press in great detail. This

British offer sounded so much like a threat, he said virtuously, so much like blackmail, that Zambia had immediately desisted from all programs or policies that might lead others to think she was yielding to these sinister pressures. Wina rather noticeably did not say that Zambia wouldn’t accept the 14 million pounds; he merely made it

as difficult as possible for the British to go on offering them.

This was the background of grievance that lay behind Harold Wilson’s burst of pure rage on the last day of the Rhodesia debate. Simon Kapwepwe, the Zambian foreign minister and head of Zambia’s delegation, had just flounced out to go home and

report personally to Kaunda on the unsatisfactory nature of Britain’s proposals, and in departing he had pronounced himself “disgusted” and said Wilson was evidently “becoming a racialist.” At this, Wilson really lost his temper. Glaring around the conference table, he demanded that people who said such things should say them to his face and not behind his back. How many African delegates agreed with Kapwepwe? There was a 10-second pause of embarrassed silence, and thereafter the discussion was both more amicable and more effective. But regardless of the courtesies or discourtesies of debate, there was a high degree of rigidity in the three-cornered deadlock that Lester Pearson was attempting to break.

Africans were almost unanimous, and had almost - unanimous Asian. Caribbean and Mediterranean support, in demanding three things from the conference: first, that the use of force should not be ruled out: second, that failing the use of force, the Unbed Nations should be asked at once to impose mandatory economic sanctions that would be binding on all UN members: third, that Britain declare unequivocally that Rhodesia should never be granted independence before the establishment of African majority rule on the basis of one man, one vote. (Wilson was amused to learn, he told his final press conference, that not all African delegates interpreted this to mean also one woman, one vote.)

The risk: lose a billion

Britain did not want to concede any of these three demands. Force was out of the question, as even the Africans realized from the start. Majority or no majority in parliament, the British people were not prepared to send troops to introduce violence into a situation where no violence yet existed, and overthrow a government that, though illegal, was nevertheless maintaining law and order for all practical purposes.

As for mandatory sanctions, the British were extremely wary. They had little or no hope South Africa would comply with a United Nations order to cease trading with rebel Rhodesia. Therefore, they could see the economic warfare escalating almost immediately into a general boycott of South Africa as well. This, Britain could not afford. Her trade with South Africa runs around a billion dollars a year. To cut off that amount of exports at a time when the British balance of payments was in dire jeopardy anyway would merely be to make devaluation of the pound sterling a certainty instead of a threat.

Finally, the unequivocal pledge of majority rule before Rhodesian independence, which to Africans sounded like the mere minimum required by good faith, contained a danger that was realized more clearly than it was expressed. Sir Humphrey Gibbs, Governor of Rhodesia and sole remaining link of legality between Salisbury and London, is. after all, a Rhodesian, and he would not continue to represent the Queen if he were obliged to accept the notion of instant majority rule. L.ike all white, and even some black, Rhodesians, he is convinced the majority is not yet ready for self-government.

THE COMMONWEALTH continued

Surprised Africans found a breakaway threat didn't work

Indeed, this question of the true wishes of the majority was an unspoken but important factor in the whole dispute. Africans in Rhodesia are better fed, better housed, better clad and better paid than in any black African republic. There is no clear evidence that they want to exchange this material comfort for instant liberation. Even though they outnumber whites 16 to one, there have been no riots, no largescale sabotage, no disturbance of the calm, peaceful surface of daily life in Rhodesia. The British harbor some suspicion that Africans from other countries don't really care whether black Rhodesians want immediate majority rule. It is an intolerable affront to their pride that Africans’ material standards shou'd be highest in the two remaining countries where the white man is still master, and they are determined to end this affront by bringing Rhodesia to the general level of Africa.

Two things made it possible to produce from this welter of discord a unanimous communiqué which, if not quite an expression of unity, was at least far more than an agreement to disagree. One was that Africans realized, some of them for the first time, that their threat to leave the Commonwealth is not an effective bargaining counter. Until now they have assumed Britain would pay almost any price to keep the Commonwealth in being and even to keep every member still within it. It was a shock, but perhaps a salutary one, to learn that this is not so, that a growing number of Britons would say to anyone threatening departure, “If that’s the way you feel, go ahead.”

The other factor keeping the Commonwealth together was Lester Pearson’s skill in personal diplomacy.

The final communiqué which he drafted was a melange of carefully remembered statements made around the table in the course of the long week. It contained commitments which, one suspects, Harold Wilson hadn’t intended to make — notably the clear and early time limit on present measures against Ian Smith, which must succeed by Christmas or be replaced by the reauest for mandatory sanctions. But it also contained commitments by Africans and others which were certainly never planned in advance. Britain is authorized to decide which items to include in the short list of selective sanctions against Rhodesian exports and imports that she will present to the United Nations. Other Commonwealth nations are committed to support that British initiative without trying to extend it, or else Britain is absolved from all promises. All these

things, plus the concept of selective sanctions itself, were extracted from the discussions and put into formal terms by the prime minister of Canada. It is not too much to say that for the time being he saved the Commonwealth from break-up.

But was the result worth the trouble? Does this sadly and bitterly divided

club still mean enough to make it worth keeping alive?

The Commonwealth correspondent of one of the British papers had a persuasive answer to that cynical question. “Just think,” he said, “what the Russians would pay to have such an organization. Twenty-three countries of all colors and sizes, scattered all

over the world, all learning Russian as a matter of course, reading Russian literature as a matter of course, sending their sons to Russian schools and universities as a matter of course, quarreling a lot perhaps, but fundamentally thinking the same way on most of the essential issues of life.

“That’s what we’ve got by an accident of history, this curious piece of furniture left on the beach by a receding tide of empire. We'd be lunatics to throw it away.” ★