One after another, the Commonwealth leaders rose to plod through prepared texts on the world economic scene. Canada’s Pierre Trudeau was growing impatient. As the floor went to the ninth speaker of the morning, Trinidad and Tobago, he interjected: “A lot of this has been very interesting but I could have read the speeches back home.” So, with 10 minutes left in the morning session, Trudeau excused himself for lunch in his suite at the Savoy.
Trudeau’s petulance that morning during the week-long Commonwealth conference in London reflected his belief that the organization works best when its leaders talk informally—and secretly. In fact, real progress came when the most contentious issues—Uganda and the Commonwealth Games—were dealt with, not during the formal conference sessions in the Music Room of Lancaster House but during a soggy weekend in Scotland and at a restricted meeting in London; both times the politicians’ advisers were excluded.
The fact that there was relatively little bombastic strife at the June conference and, indeed, substantial consensus, was particularly gratifying to Trudeau, whose coming-of-age as a statesman has been strikingly evident within the Commonwealth forum. After a rocky start at his first meeting in London in 1969—scene of his famous bannister slides and less-than-cordial relations with an inquisitive press— Trudeau has gone on to make important contributions. At Singapore in 1971, he negotiated a compromise over the explosive issue of British arms sales to South Africa, which threatened to break up the meeting. But perhaps the most important Trudeau touch was introduced in Ottawa in 1973: the informal weekend became part of the agenda—and the closed meetings without advisers became part of a new, looser and more productive Commonwealth conference method.
For Trudeau, the London summit was a substantial success on three major fronts:
• He had insisted that Idi Amin’s ruthless and bloody dictatorship in Uganda be condemned and it was.
• Hopes were raised substantially that the Commonwealth Games will take place in Edmonton next summer, though the African nations who have threatened a boycott will have the last word.
• And Trudeau received, in private talks, a personal assurance from India’s new Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, that he is committed to peaceful development of nuclear technology and that India does not plan further test explosions.
Trudeau did not dominate the conference, attended by 33 countries representing a quarter of the earth’s people. On such issues as Uganda and southern Africa, says one Canadian official, “we wanted to avoid the impression of the white man pointing the finger from outside.” For instance, while some Africans were arguing that Amin should not be criticized in absentia (Nigeria) and that censure might provoke him to further atrocities ( Kenya), it was the persistence of leading Third World figures Michael Manley of Jamaica and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia that carried the debate. Without naming Amin, the conference communiqué issued June 15 denounced the “sustained disregard for the sanctity of life” and the “massive violation of basic human rights in Uganda.”
Trudeau did lead off the debates on the world economy and on human rights and he was particularly pleased that the attack on Amin lent credence to the parallel push for human rights in white-dominated Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. However, some saw traces of a double standard at a subsequent press conference when Trudeau was asked about an appeal by Kaunda to end “exploitation and plunder of Namibian wealth.” Queried specifically about Falconbridge Nickel’s operations in Namibia, he said his government had withdrawn Crown corporations from South Africa but “as far as the private sector is concerned, we are not interfer-
ing in any existing trade investment.”
A revealing peek at the mysterious workings of the Commonwealth was provided during the negotiations over the Edmonton Games. For domestic consumption, particularly in Western Canada, Trudeau desperately needed a solution to the black Africans’ boycott threat which is based on New Zealand’s continuing sporting ties with racist South Africa. But, New Zealand’s flinty Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, who came to power largely on pledges not to interfere with independent sports associations, was making his first Commonwealth appearance. Muldoon initially remarked that Trudeau should spend “less time with his African friends” and recognize that New Zealand’s sports policy was not much different from Canada’s—that is, federal funding is refused to teams that play against South Africans and Rhodesians.
But the night before the leaders flew off to Scotland, Trudeau turned up at a lively party hosted by the New Zealanders. In seclusion at the fabulous Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland—where the entire 700-acre estate was reserved exclusively for the Commonwealth party—the Canadian and New Zealand prime ministers found themselves working together on an informal committee headed by the charismatic Michael Manley. And by the end of a six-hour train ride back to London, the heads of government had initiated an accord drafted by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Guyana’s Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal. They agreed to take “every practical step” to discourage competitions with racist regimes—a phrase sufficiently vague to allow Muldoon to save face.
The spirit of Gleneagles, one of easy informality, also infused the 90-minute talk that Trudeau held with Desai, the remarkable 81 -year-old ascetic who now rules the world’s largest democracy. There was a substantive divergence in their approaches to global resources, with Trudeau submitting that industrialized nations can better share their riches when the economy is growing, Desai arguing that the pursuit of happiness through industrialization has become “a continuous, almost intolerable burden” on the world.
That exchange reflected the profound split between the haves and the have-nots. In 18 countries with more than 800 million people, average annual incomes are less than $500. Canada, in vivid contrast, is the wealthiest Commonwealth member, with a per capita income above $6,000. But Trudeau’s enlightened message in London that Canadians are living beyond their means in a world of shortages has been greeted largely with indifference at home, where the debate over Quebec and the price of coffee are of greater concern. That indifference is intolerable in the poor countries where, as Desai put it, “it is not only a question of recovery, it is a question of survival.”
There was similar intensity of feeling,
again not reflected in Canada, on the key subject of black majority rule in southern Africa. Zambia’s Kaunda cut to the heart of it all when he warned that unless there is a prompt transfer of power in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and Namibia, there will be an “explosion” that will make the “French Revolution look like a picnic.”
The conference, as a result, recognized the inevitability of escalation in the arms struggle by liberation groups in southern Africa. But the consensus favored a negotiated settlement to remove the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia, at the same time incorporating the radical phrases of the frontline black African states condemning South Africa for its aid to Smith.
For the conference host, Prime Minister James Callaghan, the relative harmony at Lancaster House was a sweet respite from domestic crises, including the prospect of a fall election. At the wrap-up press conference, Callaghan could have been speaking for Trudeau and other Commonwealth leaders when he remarked: “If all my problems were solved as successfully, I’d be a very happy man.”
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