David Owen – 1978 Statement on Rhodesia

Below is the text of the statement made by David Owen, the then Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons on 2 August 1978.

I do not think that any of us in this House would wish to go down for the Summer Recess without turning the attention of the whole House to the problem of Southern Africa in general and Rhodesia in particular. Certainly this was the Government’s feeling in providing time for this debate. Few problems which face us at the moment can be potentially more dangerous for British citizens inside that country as well as for the whole of that continent, particularly the southern half of it.

The problem in Southern Africa is extremely complex and has been debated frequently in the House. There is a tendency to think, from the news coming out of Southern Africa, that it is all going wrong, that nothing is going right. I think that that is too defeatist an attitude. This week and over the past few weeks a very important decision was taken in the United Nations and in South Africa in relation to Namibia.

South-West Africa, or Namibia as it is now most commonly called, is a problem which has bedevilled the United Nations for over 30 years. Over the past 18 months there has been an attempt, unparalled in diplomatic history, involving the five Western Security Council Powers, to try to negotiate a settlement which would allow Namibia to become independent peacefully, under the auspices of United Nations resolutions. Those discussions have been extremely difficult. They have had to take place between two major elements which are currently fighting each other—the Government of South Africa, who see themselves as the administering authority for Namibia, and the main liberation movement, SWAPO. Those two bodies hold very different views, and many hours of discussion have taken place between myself, the Foreign Ministers of the United States, France, Germany and Canada and diplomats from all our countries. Extensive consultations have taken place with most of the member ​ States of the United Nations and with the Secretary-General. Perhaps above all there have been consultations between the major African States, particularly between Nigeria and the five front-line Presidents. It says a lot for the willingness of all the differing parties, despite firmly held views, and their willingness to compromise that we are close to success. I do not say that we have finally achieved it.

It is certainly greatly helped by the decision taken on Monday by the South African Cabinet to invite the United Nations Secretary-General to send his representative, Mr. Ahtisaari, to Namibia on 5th August to work with the administrator-general in that territory, Judge Steyn, in trying to produce a plan which, it is hoped, will go back to the Secretary-General at the end of the month and be voted on in the Security Council early in September. That plan will have to be based on the detailed proposals that were put forward by the five Western Powers and endorsed in the Security Council.

There are many problems still to be negotiated. The composition of the United Nations transitional group will need to be negotiated and discussed. This is the responsibility of the Secretary-General. But there is a chance that the United Nations will have a presence on the ground to keep the peace during the transition, to supervise the elections and to ensure that Namibia moves to independence during the next few months. If that were to be done, it would be a formidable achievement.

Many discussions have taken place in the House over the past few months about Zaire, about our feelings of frustration and anxiety over the events in Kolwezi and Shaba province, about the obvious ill feeling that existed between Zaire and Angola and about the general concern which all Members of the House share about the Cuban presence in Angola. It has been easy to despair that an African solution was possible.

Over the months many people—perhaps unwisely—peddled what were superficially attractive solutions of Western intervention, involving NATO involvement and suggestions of pan-African forces. Luckily, wiser counsel prevailed, and it was argued that, patiently and carefully, we could use our influence to help Africa ​ solve that problem. The Belgian and French Governments, helped by the United States Government and by ourselves, launched a humanitarian exercise to try to save life in Kolwezi. There were many suspicions in Africa that that force would stay, that it was intended as an international force and that it would become involved in the dispute between Angola and Zaire. That has not been the case. That force has been withdrawn and replaced with an African force.

It was further felt that Western pressure on Zaire to try to make political and administrative changes might lead to an alienation of the Zairean Government from the West. It says much for the statesmanship of President Mobutu that he has been prepared to listen to considerable criticism. Although these are early days, there are some hopeful signs that the Zairean Government are making some of the administrative and political changes that are necessary to bring stability to that country.

As a result of a series of meetings over the past few days, arranged with the encouragement of the Presidents of Zambia and the Congo, President Mobutu of Zaire and President Neto of Angola have taken significant steps towards reconciliation. Diplomatic relations are to be established between their countries and provision made for the return of refugees whose exile has provided the focus for the dispute in Shaba province. The proposal to open the Benguela railway should greatly help the economic situation in the whole region and will also make a valuable contribution to Zambia’s economic recovery, which is of importance to us all when we consider the problems over Rhodesia.

It is welcome to see both States turning to the Organisation of African Unity to establish a commission of four African States—Sudan, Ruanda, Nigeria and Cameroun—which will oversee the normalisation of relations and the surveillance of the common border. Therefore, in those two areas, both crucially important for the future of Rhodesia, both with a very considerable inter-relationship, there is a sign of very welcome progress.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Has the right hon. Gentleman managed to convince the South African Government that our support for the Walvis ​ Bay resolution was not a betrayal of the undertakings made in April to the South African Government? Does he regard the abandonment of the anti-Soviet liberation movement in Angola as a positive development?

Dr. Owen

I think that the fact that members of the South African Cabinet made their decision in the way they did reflects their belief that the five Western Powers’ explanation of vote in the Security Council, and the discussions that we held with their Foreign Minister, Mr. Botha, had assured them that we did not wish to be coercive in the support for that resolution, and that we were making a distinction between the political arrangements for Namibia following independence and the legal situation.

It says much for the South African Government, of whom I have often been very critical, that they have been prepared to accept—although they do not accept that resolution—that they will enter into negotiations with a Namibian government following independence as a voluntary act on the future of Walvis Bay.

I therefore believe that, whilst there are no winners, as it were, the issue of Walvis Bay has been resolved in a way that is reasonably satisfactory to all parties. I do not believe that it will run away. I believe that it is impossible to see the long-term future of Namibia with Walvis Bay outside it. But it has always been the belief of the Five that one could not involve that in the complicated transitional period. That is why we left it outside. As I explained to the South Africans, the choice before us was whether to have a resolution which we should have to veto, which would have completely ended the whole initiative—a resolution on which we should have abstained and would therefore have had no control over the content—or a resolution which we negotiated, where we would have some influence on the content, provided that we were prepared to support it. I believe that the choice we made was the right one.

It is up to South Africa as to how it sees the stability of Angola, but I believe that it also sees signs, as I see signs, of a change inside Angola, of an emerging African nationalism. I believe that it is not unrealistic to envisage the day, as has already happened in the Horn of ​ Africa, when there will be a reduction in Cuban forces in Angola and when eventually all Cuban forces will return to Cuba. There has been some reduction and some of those forces have gone back to Cuba—though nowhere near enough.

This all raises a fundamental question which has been under dispute in this House for over a year and a half, certainly as long as I have been Foreign Secretary, but going back a great deal longer than that—that is, how British influence should be exercised in Africa. It is a very complex question. It is easy to look back to days when British influence was not just influence but power. While we held colonies, we were able to decide the future of African countries. It is easy to look back even with nostalgia to those days. I do not have nostalgia for those days.

I believe that the record of decolonisation of successive British Governments since the war has broadly been a proud one in which we can hold our head up high. But we have to face the fact that one of the greatest problems facing us, and the one that has always threatened certainly to damage, and some would say at times to destroy, our record for de-colonisation has been the issue of Rhodesia. It has baffled successive Governments and successive Foreign Secretaries. Anyone who believes that there are easy, simple solutions to this problem is extremely foolish.

When I first took over this office, I was attacked for saying that I believed that I had to involve myself as extensively as I did in Rhodesia. People took the view at that time that we had no influence on these matters and that this was not an issue in which we had any form of influence or control. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said this, but others did, too. I always believed that the potential dangers of the situation in Rhodesia were so grave that it had to be a major responsibility of any British Foreign Secretary.

The question then arose as to how we were to exercise that influence. Hereby hangs the difference. I do not believe that it is a difference between the two Front Benches—I certainly hope not—but certainly there is a difference between some Members of the House as to whether or not one should exercise that ​ influence working with the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity and one’s main Western friends and allies. I do not believe that there is another choice for any British Foreign Secretary than to use all those three areas of influence. By turning aside from that, the House would be making an extremely grave decision.

I put that to the Opposition for consideration in deciding whether they wish to make this a party political issue. I have endlessly striven to avoid that. I do not believe that it is in any of our interests, and it is certainly not in the interests of bringing about a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia.

Let there be no illusions. If we lifted sanctions we should immediately put ourselves into a major confrontation with the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Organisation of African Unity and, perhaps most important of all, our closest Western friends and allies.

There have been changes in foreign policy towards Africa by all the major Western Governments. For a short time after the war, many people thought that in Africa we had made a historic decision. I pay tribute to the memory of Iain Macleod, who, as Colonial Secretary, undoubtedly made that shift and that change of emphasis in British policy. Since then many people have wondered at times whether we have shown quite the same determination and resolution about the settlement of African problems.

During that time, when successive British Governments have tried to live up to their responsibilities in Rhodesia, they have not always had the strongest support from their Western friends and allies. The imposition of sanctions has not been fairly and reasonably applied by all our Western friends and allies. There was the notable example of the decision of the United States Congress on chrome. Many other decisions have made it difficult for successive Governments to live up to the full implications of sanctions.

I believe that that has been a great tragedy for the United Nations as a whole. I still believe that, rather than fighting and loss of life, there is still a place for the peaceful means of persuasion, one of which is sanctions. The ​ fact that sanctions have been able to be flouted during a long period has undermined many people’s belief that such action can ever again be used effectively to introduce peaceful change. I believe that, if sanctions had been fully, firmly and fairly applied, we should not now be debating the grave situation that we face in Rhodesia.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for being a little surprised that he should say that the purpose of sanctions was to introduce change. Surely he and the House are aware that the purpose of sanctions is defined by and restricted to the provisions of article 39 of the United Nations Charter—a threat to peace. From whence does the threat now come?

Dr. Owen

It is right that it is a threat to peace. It may have escaped the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s attention that there is a war going on in Rhodesia. Since 1972 there has been the loss of 7,000 lives. If sanctions had been applied more firmly and fairly beforehand, I do not believe that that would have occurred. There has been the loss of more than 1,000 lives over the past four months since the internal agreement was reached and signed in Salisbury.

The fact that there is a threat to peace cannot be in dispute. The question is, how do we resolve the dispute and work towards a peaceful negotiated settlement? It is my strong contention that if we abandoned sanctions at this stage we would place ourselves in the position of losing completely and absolutely all forms of influence over Rhodesia. When hon. Gentlemen decide how to vote tonight, let it be clear that there is a danger that their vote will be misconstrued, although there does not appear to be any difference between the two Front Benches on the issue of sanctions. I recognise that the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) has his problems, and I do not want to make them any harder for him. However, I believe that his vote tonight will be misconstrued by those who wish to do that—and there are quite a number—as indicating a major shift in the Opposition’s policy towards Rhodesia. I hope that that is not their intention.