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 18 April 1978.

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on Rhodesia.

The United States Secretary of State and I met the leaders of the Patriotic Front in Dar-es-Salaam on 14th and 15th April. We also met President Nyerere. On 16th April we had talks in Pretoria on Namibia and Rhodesia with the South African Foreign Minister and on 17th April we met the signatories of the Salisbury agreement.

The aim of all these meetings was to prepare the ground for round-table talks to bring about a negotiated ceasefire and an internationally acceptable settlement.

I do not wish to hide from the House that there are still major differences between the parties, both of whom think they are winning. However, there are some signs that we could widen the existing areas of agreement in two important ways, both of them crucial, if we are to establish a neutral Administration for the transitional period, capable of holding fair and free elections.

First, the Patriotic Front is now closer to accepting a role for the United Nations in supervising a previously negotiated ceasefire and in monitoring the activities of the military and police forces. There is more understanding in Salisbury that United Nations involvement gives an assurance that sanctions would be lifted prior to independence.

Secondly, all would probably now agree to a Council with wide executive and legislative powers whose members would hold ministerial portfolios. The Patriotic Front said that, provided its other demands—some of which are unacceptable to us—were met, it could accept a Council presided over by a resident commissioner holding reserve executive powers over defence and law and order.

There was widespread recognition in all of Southern Africa that if we and the United States were to abandon the search for a negotiated settlement based on the principles of the Anglo-United States proposals there would be no alternative to a bitter and bloody conflict, with an uncertain outcome and the grave danger of it becoming internationalised and involving all the countries surrounding Rhodesia. The Patriotic Front accepted our invitation to round-table talks and the signatories of the Salisbury agreement have undertaken to give it serious consideration.

Mr. John Davies

I should like to thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, which he has made so quickly after his return from Africa. I commend him on the efforts that he is clearly making, even though we think that they were belated, to achieve a reconciliation between the divergent viewpoints on Rhodesia. However, does he not think ​ that it is right to build on a firm foundation in seeking to achieve such a reconciliation? Does he not believe that a firmer foundation is to be found in the Salisbury agreement than in the Anglo-American proposals? The truth is that the Salisbury agreement has developed in a quite interesting way, in for instance the granting of amnesty to guerrillas in appropriate cases, the release of detainees, the appointment of both black and white Ministers and the work of the Executive Council.

Is it not perhaps unreasonable to imagine that those who have achieved what, as recently as a year ago, seemed an absolutely unhoped-for understanding between black and white alike should now conceive in any way compromising their agreement in favour of discussions when one of the parties to the discussions was reported yesterday as saying that his sole objective was to achieve a one-party Marxist State in Rhodesia? Does he not think that the only way forward to reconciliation lies in the agreement reached in Salisbury and perhaps in its evolution—but not its evolution in favour of those who still see their one way forward as fighting their way through to domination of that country?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman press upon the Leader of the House the need to hold a debate upon this matter? We have long asked for such a debate. We arranged, on something of an expediency basis, to have one immediately before the Easter Recess, but the time seems appropriate now to hold a proper debate on this matter as it reaches this important stage.

Dr. Owen

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I arrived back only this morning, but I think the House treats this matter with great seriousness—rightly so—and deserves to be kept as fully informed as possible.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about one course being the only way forward, the problem is that both parties to the dispute believe that they have the recipe and the only way forward. Therefore, it is the job of the mediator, of the United States Secretary of State and myself, to try to search for an alternative route which can bring about a major ​ compromise affecting all sides. By trying to stick to principles we are better able to do that.

There has been substantial progress. It was nearly a year ago that I first visited Rhodesia and discussed with Mr. Smith some of the steps which needed to be taken. Looking back now, one sees that there has been tremendous progress. At that time, the principle of one-man, one-vote was rejected. At that time, independence in 1978 was not able to be confirmed. There are now considerable areas of agreement.

Unfortunately, the main area of disagreement is the continued non-inclusion of all the nationalist leaders and the inability to negotiate a ceasefire. It is to the attempt to achieve a ceasefire that we must now bend all our efforts. It may not be possible to do so, but I hope that we shall be able to have a negotiated ceasefire.

As for the question of a debate, the Leader of the House is here and will have heard the request. We had a debate a few weeks ago on the right hon. Gentleman’s instigation, but I am always ready to discuss the issues.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us who have met the leaders both of the Patriotic Front and of the Salisbury internal settlement have urged on each in turn the necessity for a genuine attempt to bring both sides together? Is he aware that if he were to give unqualified support, as the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) has suggested, to one side to the exclusion of the other, it would completely defeat any prospect of getting both sides together? [An HON. MEMBER: “IS the right hon. Gentleman on the Marxist side or the other side?”] I am on the side of peace, and we shall get peace only through both sides coming together.

How long does the Foreign Secretary expect it will take before he receives a reply from Salisbury about their readiness or otherwise to attend and how soon does he expect to convene a conference?

Dr. Owen

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s constant efforts to use his influence with leaders of both sides to get them to negotiations. I believe that that is the course favoured by every ​ hon. Member who wants to end this distressing chapter. As for the question of when a meeting could take place, Secretary Vance and I were prepared to go towards the end of April. It is unlikely that we shall get a response in time for that, and I think that we shall have to search for a time some time in May. The problem is to have it as early as possible before we actually have open conflict and the waging of war between the black nationalist leaders but also at a time when people are more ready to compromise than they are currently.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

I thank my right hon. Friend for his untiring efforts to seek a solution to this difficult problem. Was the possibility of participating in free elections under United Nations supervision put to Mr. Nkomo and Mr. Mugabe and the other parties? If so, what was their reaction?

Dr. Owen

All sides have agreed to have fair and free elections. It is a question of trying to get agreement on the administration for the transitional period which each side will think fair to its case. I believe that a United Nations presence is one of the ways of having a neutral Administration. That is closer to acceptance by the Patriotic Front now than it has been before, but I think that some of the hostility to the United Nations, which was understandable at one time, particularly after the refusal to hear Bishop Muzorewa in Salisbury, has lessened as they have realised the need to get international acceptance.

Mr. Maudling

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s great difficulties and the great efforts that he is making to deal with this problem. May I put this one point to him? There has been an internal agreement, which we understand is to be subject to free and fair elections. Should the free and fair elections confirm the agreement will the British Government defend it come hell or high water?

Dr. Owen

The short answer to that question is “Yes”. If there are free and fair elections and this House is satisfied that the fifth principle, being acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole, is met and that there have been a transfer of power, an independence constitution and a new Government, I believe that this House would have to form that difficult judgment and remain true to the six ​ principles which we have held to through thick and thin.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Can my right hon. Friend confirm reports from Rhodesia that the broadcast he did with the Rhodesian Broadcasting Company has been censored? If he can confirm such reports, what conclusions does he draw as to the opinions of Mr. Smith about the viability of the internal settlement?

Dr. Owen

I have seen these reports in the South African newspapers. Secretary of State Vance and I did a television broadcast in the late afternoon in Rhodesia. I was given to understand that it was likely to go out that night. I certainly hope that it does go out. When I last visited Rhodesia in September, I was not allowed to go on Rhodesian television, but I had been allowed to do so in April.

The climate in which one will hold free and fair elections must be one with out any form of censorship whatever. The sooner that is abolished and the sooner the television network is made available to all people in Rhodesia, the better.

Mr. Amery

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has to work closely with his American colleagues, but will he explain to Mr. Vance what Burke said long ago, that nothing is more futile than to be tied to the carcase of a dead policy? Will he recognise that the Anglo-American settlement is not acceptable to the Patriotic Front or to Salisbury? Will he also understand that most of us in the House believe that if he is not prepared to stop trying to undermine the internal settlement, that can only be interpreted as a determination at any price to avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union in defence of democracy and majority rule in Southern Africa?

Dr. Owen

The quickest way of achieving the carcass of a dead policy would be for the United States and ourselves to abandon any attempts at a negotiated settlement. There is no one else who proffers the prospect of a negotiated settlement and a ceasefire. There are many people with guns, people who are ready to provide more guns, who would seize the opportunity to have a conflict that could involve many African countries and much loss of life in Africa. So I reject the charge that the American Secretary ​ of State is doing anything other than, as I am, negotiating a peaceful ceasefire, and we shall do so. It is not our job to undermine anything. It is our job to bring people together.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Can there be a peaceful settlement without involving the Patriotic Front in the ultimate agreement? If its views are regarded as unreasonable, has my right hon. Friend seen the very balanced criticism of the internal settlement by the Catholic Institute, which indicates the serious dangers of leaving the Patriotic Front out of the settlement?

Dr. Owen

I think that there is a growing recognition in this country that there are problems with the internal settlement, that it is inadequate in quite a number of respects, and that it is right for us not to have endorsed it. Anyone who watched Panorama last night could see quite clearly that there are many conscientious black people who support what they call their boys and who will continue to support the liberation fighters. What we must try to do is to understand the motivation of the people on both sides who hold different views, and try to bring them together.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Does not the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary think that he may be suffering from a dangerous delusion when he says that there is a danger of this conflict becoming internationalised, in the sense that it already is internationalised, with a massive build-up of Soviet-Cuban troops and with a high-ranking Russian general in charge of the Soviet-Cuban base in Mozambique? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many tanks and MiG aircraft there are now in countries neighbouring Rhodesia, and whether it is true that guerrillas seeking to return peacefully without their arms from Zambia are being arrested and imprisoned to stop them so doing?

Dr. Owen

As the House knows, I have never hidden from the country the fact that there are Cuban involvements in some of the countries around Rhodesia. I made my views about this quite clear in the Mansion House only very recently. But I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that the way to stop that build-up and to prevent what he and others fear is certainly not to abandon the prospect of a negotiated settlement, and certainly ​ not to choose sides and seem arrayed only on one side, for to do so would mean that we should be condemned and criticised not only by people inside Rhodesia and some outside Rhodesia—all Rhodesians—but also by many African countries.

Mr. Faulds

Pursuant to his earlier reply, how will my right hon. Friend be able to defend, or the House accept, the outcome of any elections in Southern Rhodesia in which not all the political parties have been able to campaign or to put up candidates?

Dr. Owen

It will be difficult. That judgment will be extremely difficult to make. But I have always believed that if we give a veto to any side in this difficult and tortuous dispute we shall never bring about peace. We must go on seeking to get a neutral Administration which really can hold fair and free elections without armed conflict continuing.

It is very difficult to have a fair test of opinion on acceptability of a settlement while there is continued armed conflict. But to say that it is impossible ever to hold a fair test of opinion in those conditions would simply be to give a veto to people who wish to continue fighting. I do not believe that most of the people in the Patriotic Front wish such a thing. They want a fair and honourable settlement and they are prepared to fight their views on the elections.

Mr. Carlisle

I fully recognise the desirability of achieving Mr. Nkomo’s involvement in any Rhodesian settlement, if that be at all possible, but does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the talks he has in mind have any chance of success they must be on the basis of building on what has been achieved through the internal settlement rather than going back to the original Anglo-United States proposals?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman now accept, having been there recently, the real need for a senior diplomatic presence in Salisbury so that the Government can be advised on a day-to-day basis on what appears to be a rapidly changing situation?

Dr. Owen

There are many elements common to both sides which one can build on. Many of those elements are ​ incorporated within the internal arrangements, so it is possible to do that without also excluding the other side. I think that that is the important thing to try to do.

As to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s last point, I offered in the context of working towards round-table talks to put in a more senior diplomat, and I believe that they are considering the situation.

Miss Joan Lestor

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if Conservative Members continue to refer to Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo as if they are some sort of lepers because they may or may not be Marxists, those hon. Members will make it absolutely impossible for them to join any negotiating team? Would it not be a good thing to remind Conservative Members that 40 years ago Conservative Members and, indeed, all Members welcomed the intervention and support of the Soviet Union in what they considered to be a fight against Fascism? It seems very odd to some of us that at times they will hold up the very thing that they used to support in order to condemn people who see themselves in precisely the same situation as that in which Britain saw herself from 1939 to 1945.

Dr. Owen

I am convinced that all the nationalist leaders are prepared to take their chance on a test in an election. There is no doubt that there are different views and different ideologies as between the differing black nationalist leaders, but one of the essences of democracy is that one is able to put different ideological issues to the people and let them decide.

That is the best way of resolving the ever-present conflict of views between the black nationalist leaders. It is the absence of a united view that has harmed and in my view put back the achievement of an independent Zimbabwe over the years.

Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

In an earlier reply, the Foreign Secretary referred to the fact that the Patriotic Front had been excluded from any elections which were likely to take place in that country. Would he, for the record, care to register that that is not the case, and that the Patriotic Front is excluded from elections, if it is, by its own choice?

Dr. Owen

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman, who has a fair record of ​ looking at these things, would agree with that when he looks at the circumstances. It is true that the Patriotic Front has been given an offer to come in on the terms of the internal agreement. It sees that as exclusion. Perhaps that would be a better way to describe it. I must say that I do not think that it has been given what I described in this House some time ago as an opportunity to come back to the country to fight free and fair elections with honour and dignity. I believe, therefore, that the way to bring back the Patriotic Front is on the basis of a negotiated settlement, with participation in the negotiations.

Mr. Hooley

What is the prospect of getting rid of Smith?

Dr. Owen

At the moment, not very high. I think that he accepts that at the election he obviously will lose power. As to whether he wishes to stand in an election, and have his chance to be elected, if we are true and fair democrats we must accept that that can happen. I have no doubt that if, during the transitional period, he were to cease to be Premier, as he is still called—although he is part of a four-man Council—and to leave public life, it would certainly lessen much of the suspicion and hostility which exists in Africa.

Mr. Emery

Will the Foreign Secretary recall the answer that he gave when he said that the Patriotic Front wanted a full and fair settlement? Does he equate that with the statement from one of the leaders of the Patriotic Front that its objective is the setting up of a one-party Marxist State? Will the Foreign Secretary not realise that that sort of statement is just as damaging as the claim that the only way to obtain a settlement is by Smith going? There must be a proper balance, but from the statements of the Secretary of State it would appear to many people that it is in favour of the Patriotic Front.

Dr. Owen

Mr. Mugabe did not make that statement to me at the conference table. Had he done so, I would have told him my views. He said it outside the conference, and not in my presence. But I think that it is perfectly possible for anyone to fight an election in this country holding the view that there should be a ​ one-party State. If we believe in democracy, we have to be prepared to allow people with different ideologies and different views to fight elections. I make no secret of it. Of course, I do not hold those views myself.

But I do not believe that we should take too much notice of issues of this sort. Mr. Mugabe is a Left-wing Socialist and subscribes to some Marxist views. He has said openly, I believe, that he would prefer a one-party State. But even in that statement he said, I believe, that he would strive to convince others through fair democracy. It is not part of my job to defend Mr. Mugabe, nor do I intend to do it, but I intend to refute a charge that it is not possible to hold fair and free elections with people of different ideologies taking part.

Mr. Crawshaw

Will my right hon. Friend agree that, had the Salisbury agreement occurred about five years ago, it might have had some chance of success, with the prospect of peace in the future? But, however much one wants to solve this problem, is it not closing our eyes to reality to ignore the fact that the Salisbury agreement came about because of the pressure applied by the freedom fighters?

Is it not closing our eyes to reality to think that peace can be brought about on the basis of the Salisbury agreement alone? Is it not absolutely vital to make sure that the freedom fighters at least have a say in the agreement that is brought about? It would be easy to throw the burden over and think that we had solved the issue, but surely the fighting will continue unless the freedom fighters are at least involved in the agreement.

Dr. Owen

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should attempt to do everything we can to involve the freedom fighters. If we look at the history of this country over many years in facing difficulties of this sort, usually we find that we did not take sufficient account of the aspirations of freedom fighters. It was not that we leaned over backwards to meet the freedom fighters. Some of the allegations which have been made in the present context have been made against successive Foreign Secretaries in the past. It is the task of Foreign Secretaries to ​ seek peace and to talk to everyone but also to uphold principles. I shall uphold the six principles in this House and the principles underlying the Anglo-American proposals.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before we get to the Wales Bill, which is governed by a timetable motion, we have a Ten-Minute Bill. I shall therefore take questions on the Rhodesia statement for another five minutes until 4.10 p.m.

Mr. Rhodes James

Will the Foreign Secretary say a little more about the discussions concerning the future role of the United Nations? Is he aware that some of us are very doubtful about the capability of the United Nations to undertake yet another peace-keeping operation in the present circumstances?

Dr. Owen

I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. One would be unrealistic to think that the United Nations’ facilities would not be very considerably stretched, with a new demand in the Lebanon, a possible demand in Namibia, and a possible demand in Rhodesia. The one hopeful sign is that major countries are now showing a greater readiness to play a part in United Nations peace-keeping operations. France has contributed forces in the Lebanon. Countries such as Iran are contributing in the Lebanon. I think that there is greater hope that some of the bigger nations which have previously not participated in United Nations peacekeeping will do so, but the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that these demands will present a great challenge to the United Nations.

Mr. Newens

Will my right hon. Friend not agree that statements made in this House by Opposition Members—particularly bearing in mind that some of them previously expressed sympathy with the illegal Smith regime—can only make a peaceful agreement far more difficult? Will he, therefore, expressly state—especially in view of his reply to the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling)—that in no circumstances will the Government be prepared to come to terms with the so-called internal settlement and approve it, whether or not there is some form of election introduced to give it sanctity, or anything of that sort? Will my right hon. Friend state that he ​ will stand absolutely firm on the position which he has expressed here in the past?

Dr. Owen

I will stand firm on the principle of fair and free elections. The test that I would put would be one that I hope this House would put—that it must be acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole. I think that my hon. Friend’s anxieties about the manner in which that question might be put are shared by everybody in the House, but I think that we would deal with this as we have dealt with it before. There were many people in Africa who thought that this House would not accept the recommendation of the Pearce Commission if it was against the views of the then British Government. The then Government, to give them full credit, honoured their obligations to the six principles, and I will do no less.

Mr. Biffen

Since the Foreign Secretary’s negotiating role must turn on the assessment, at least in part, that he has made of Mr. Mugabe, will he tell the House whether he thinks that Mr. Mugabe is irrevocably committed to the concept of a one-party Marxist State and its attainment by means of an armed struggle, or does he think that Mr. Mugabe’s statements on these points are merely related to a negotiating position?

Dr. Owen

These are things for Mr. Mugabe himself to say. But if the hon. Gentleman will look at the statement, as I have done, he will see that it can be read as being within democratic politics—in other words, that this is Mr. Mugabe’s view which he would put to the people, and that if he did not reach agreement, he would continue to search for it. Many people who have expressed both Marxist views and support for one-party States have operated within a democratic ​ framework. I think that we should not necessarily condemn Mr. Mugabe merely because of one, in my view, extremely ill-advised remark.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

It is not the first time that Mr. Mugabe has said it.

Mr. Urwin

Why do you not shut up?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Theoretically, a remark such as that is addressed to me, and no one could have been quieter.

Mr. Dunlop

Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the visit not so long ago of Mr. Mugabe to the cities of Dublin and Belfast, where he met leaders of the Provisional IRA? Is the Foreign Secretary also aware that there was a reciprocal visit from the IRA to meet Mr. Mugabe and his companions in Mozambique? Could it be that the purpose of their meeting was to perfect the techniques of murder and destruction which these arch-terrorists have perpetrated in Southern Africa and Northern Ireland? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that these are suitable people to bring about a democratic solution in Rhodesia?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman knows that I deplore violence wherever it is. He knows perfectly well that each and every one must form his views in a democratic election about the candidates. It is the electorate who will decide this. I have little doubt that anyone who fights an election in Rhodesia will have little support for a claim for a one-party State, either from black or white Rhodesians.