Britain’s assault on the Commonwealth

HILARY MACKENZIE October 26 1987

Britain’s assault on the Commonwealth

HILARY MACKENZIE October 26 1987

Britain’s assault on the Commonwealth


For the Commonwealth leaders, tired after two days of a tense summit in Vancouver last week, it was a rare chance to relax. The evening began with a buffet dinner of salmon, lamb and beef at the isolated Okanagan Lake Resort near Kelowna, B.C., where the leaders had been flown under heavy security for a 24-hour retreat. After dinner, organizers directed the leaders and their spouses to a room decorated with bales of hay, corn stalks and gourds.

A country and western band from Vernon,

B.C., Ted Scott and the Deputies, supplied the entertainment. But an unscheduled performer also made an appearance. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the host of the 27th Commonwealth meeting, stood up to sing a western version of his favorite tune, When Irish Eyes are Smiling. Later,

Mulroney sang The White Cliffs of Dover for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But that is where the cordiality stopped.

The next day, Britain split with the other 48 members of the Commonwealth and refused to join an otherwise united approach toward sanctions against South African apartheid.

For most of the week, in fact, the meeting was dominated by a rancorous debate over the sanctions issue, which is threatening to tear apart the organization. Leading the opposing sides in the debate were Mulroney and Thatcher. The Canadian Prime Minister, a strong critic of apartheid, led a campaign by most member nations to increase pressure on the white-minority government in Pretoria through intensified economic sanctions. But Thatcher refused to alter her long-standing opposition to additional sanctions, claiming that they would hurt black South Africans.

In the end, the other Commonwealth leaders decided to proceed without Thatcher. They called for broader sanctions and agreed to take new steps

to ensure that existing measures are being carried out. The decision on what type of sanctions to apply will be left to individual countries. “With the exception of Britain,” a Commonwealth statement said, “we believe that economic and other sanctions

have had a significant effect on South Africa.” In addition, it recommended increased support for South Africa’s black-ruled neighbors—the so-called frontline states—to help them resist pressure from Pretoria.

For many participants, the outcome had been anticipated. And External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that sanctions could be effective even without British support. Said Clark: “There is more to the Commonwealth than Britain.” For his part, Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Robert Mugabe said that he was disillusioned by Thatcher’s stand, adding: “We feel that the Iron Lady has got it all wrong.” But Thatcher said that she had succeeded in making her point that sanctions were ineffective, and she noted that the Commonwealth leaders had not actually agreed to impose any new sanctions.

Said the British leader: “I think in a way we have won the argument.” Meanwhile, the South African government expressed disdain for the Commonwealth, which it was forced to leave in 1961 when it refused to reform its racial policies. In Durban last week,

President Pieter W. Botha said that the organization should “leave us to solve our own problems.”

The Commonwealth leaders did make progress on other important issues. They released a statement calling for liberalization of the international trading system. And they expressed regret over September’s military coup in Fiji, which had been a Commonwealth member. But the key issue was apartheid—just as it had been at the leaders’ last formal summit in Nassau in 1985 and at a special meeting in London the following year. Britain was isolated at the London meeting because of its opposition to further sanctions, and it was much the same in Vancouver.

From the beginning, Thatcher fiercely opposed additional sanctions. In a private meeting with Mulroney on Monday and again in a speech to all

the Commonwealth leaders, the British leader argued forcefully that sanctions would not bring an end to apartheid. Only with a healthy economy, said Thatcher, would the white minority feel confident enough to give political rights to the black majority. Declared one British official: “Sanctions satisfy an emotional longing, but they don’t solve the problem.”

Faced with another bitter standoff, Mulroney asked foreign ministers from

nine nations —Australia, Britain, Can-

ada, Guyana, India, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—to consider the issue. After two days of meetings, the committee was unable to reach a consensus on further measures. And Britain opposed a Canadian proposal to set up a special Commonwealth group to monitor sanctions against South Africa. In the end, the leaders decided to set up an eight-member group, chaired by Canada’s Clark, to provide “high-level impetus and guidance” on the Commonwealth’s campaign against apartheid.

Agreement was also reached on increased aid for the beleaguered frontline states. The aid effort will focus on transportation and communications projects that would help them lessen their reliance on South Africa. Currently, most goods from the frontline states destined for other countries have to move through the territory of their powerful neighbor. Canada, for

one, pledged $20 million toward rebuilding the Limpopo railway line connecting Zimbabwe to the port of Maputo in Mozambique. Clark said that while Canada was not considering military aid to frontline states, other countries were free to do so.

The foreign ministers also chose to send a strong signal of support to the 25 million blacks in South Africa. They pledged $4.4 million for a number of projects, including legal aid for the

blacks arrested under South Africa’s tough internal security laws, support for the trade union movement and educational scholarships.

But agreement on those issues did not disguise the bitter division between Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth over apartheid. Mulroney, among others, argued that sanctions were working. As evidence, he noted that Canadian sanctions had caused trade between the two countries to fall by nearly 50 per cent in the first six months of 1987. Mulroney also reasserted Canada’s intention to sever all diplomatic and economic relations with South Africa if it did not take action to dismantle apartheid, although he refused to name a deadline for the action.

The British response was pointed. Using the latest International Monetary Fund figures, British officials said that Canadian exports to South Africa had actually increased by 46 per

cent between 1985 and 1986, while twoway trade was up by 23 per cent. The release of the figures visibly angered Mulroney. His officials pointed out that Canada’s trade with South Africa had in fact dropped dramatically since a new set of sanctions was imposed following the 1986 London summit. Said Mulroney: “If you are going to come out with statistics, you had better get them right.”

British officials claimed to be surprised by what one of them described as Mulroney’s “thin-skinned” sensitivity to the charges. Said one: “We fired a blow across their bow and said belt up.” But other Commonwealth leaders said that they were dismayed by Britain’s criticism of Mulroney. Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke declared that the British remarks were “totally unfair to the government and the Prime Minister and the people of Canada.”

Meanwhile, the crisis in Fiji produced a unified response among the Commonwealth leaders. While the issue was not formally on the agenda, several heads of government condemned the coup led by Lt.-Col. Sitiveni Rabuka. The issue gained prominence when Fijian Gov. Gen. Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau submitted his resignation to the Queen last week and the monarch responded with a rare public statement regretting the events in Fiji. That action led to a renewed debate about whether Fiji, which lost its Commonwealth status when Ganilau resigned, would be allowed to reapply for membership. Some leaders, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi among them, said that the country would not be welcome because of Rabuka’s announced intention of drawing up a new constitution that would give political supremacy to native Fijians and keep its large Indian population out of power. But others said that Fiji would be more likely to return to democracy if it remained a Commonwealth member. In the end, the leaders said that they would consider a bid from Fiji for readmission.

Amid the controversy, some of the conference’s less dramatic accomplishments were all but overlooked. The leaders discussed establishing a University of the Commonwealth, which would bring higher education directly to member countries. The Third World debt crisis was also discussed, and Canada announced that it would convert into grants $347 million in outstanding loans to six black African countries. Still, unless future conferences can bridge the gap between Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth over South Africa, that issue will raise a grave threat to the organization’s future.