HC Deb 25 July 1977 vol 936 cc34-47
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

I will, with permission, make a statement on my talks on Rhodesia with the United States Administration.

As the House knows, I visited Washington over the weekend, primarily to discuss the Anglo-United States peace initiative for achieving a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia. I spent nine hours in discussion with Secretary Vance and one and a half hours with the President.

Mr. Vance and I have agreed to meet again in London around 11th and 12th August. Meanwhile, detailed work will continue with a view to putting forward specific Anglo-United States proposals to all the parties.

We are all agreed that the situation in Rhodesia is potentially so serious that the Anglo-United States initiative, despite all the difficulties, should continue and that we should do all we can to bring about an independent non-racial Zimbabwe after a fair election and on the basis of universal suffrage. In the last analysis, peace can only come from agreement between those people, black and white, who will be living together in an independent Zimbabwe.

Mr. John Davies

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, although we thank him for his statement, it is not sufficient to allay the anxieties of the House before it goes into recess at the end of the week? The right hon. Gentleman has indicated that there will be consultations, which we much welcome, with the United States to reach an agreed position, and no doubt with others, if we are to judge correctly from the Press. But is it not a fact that the House will not have had any opportunity of expressing its views on the proposals which the Foreign Secretary means to put forward? Is not that a very serious situation, given the fact that, as he says, the position in Rhodesia could hardly be more grave?

Secondly, we have gained the impression—again largely from Press reports, but the right hon. Gentleman has confirmed it to a certain degree—that the reception given to the mission organised under Graham and Low has been, on the whole, pretty negative from both sides. May we feel confident that it is on the basis of their work that the alternative proposals will be put forward? Is this the basis upon which we may expect some kind of suggestion? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman clarify how he proposes to handle the all-important question of security during any interim arrangement which may be made?

Finally, over many months the Opposition have, with great forbearance, suggested and suggested and suggested that there was an urgent need for a permanent mission in Salisbury. We have felt throughout that without such a permanent mission it would be literally impossible within a reasonable time for there to take place that which the right hon. Gentleman advocates and which we think is right—a fair election on the basis of universal suffrage. Why will not the right hon. Gentleman organise within a reasonable time such a mission from which alone he can draw the necessary information in a country which has never had a fair election on the basis of universal suffrage?

Dr. Owen

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's first point about the question of consulting the House. I should have wished to be able to bring proposals before the House in time for normal debate. Unfortunately, as he knows, and as I think right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise, I am not in total control of the timetable, and I regret that. It is not simply a question of negotiation with the United States. I should have wished to be able to achieve this earlier.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's support for the concept of fair elections on the basis of universal suffrage. It is very important that we should agree on this basic element. It is one of the central elements in the proposals which have been discussed by the Anglo-United States consultative group and it has been broadly welcomed by all the nationalist leaders and many other leaders in Africa. Where there is apparent disagreement is in what Mr. Smith said in his broadcast to the nation, but if one examines carefully what he said one can see that it is not an absolute rejection of the principle of "one man, one vote", although he has given the impression to the electorate, at least, that he rejects it and wishes to go back to a qualified franchise.

The question of having a permanent mission in Salisbury has been under constant and careful thought. I openly admit that on a number of occasions we have been on the point of doing something and Mr. Smith has responded in a way which gives one cause to doubt his genuine commitment both to the purposes of the Anglo-United States consultation—[HON. MEMBERS: "Give an example."] On one occasion, for instance, he took the decision to have a raid 80 miles into Mozambique. On a further occasion there was a question of putting into detention people who would normally be involved in any process of elections. Now, without consultation with anyone—as he is entitled to do—he has—[Interruption.] We do not recognise his régime. He is de facto—[Interruption.] I was just saying that we do not recognise his régime. But he is entitled, if he wishes to, to call an election. That is a de facto fact of life that I have to live with. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is an illegal Government."] I agree. If hon. Gentlemen had listened, that is what I said. What I am saying is that all the actions which have been undertaken by Mr. Smith since April have given me grounds for pessimism about the extent and the genuineness of his commitment to black majority rule.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we warmly welcome the continuing interest and involvement by the President of the United States in these negotiations? Perhaps, understandably, the statement gives us a modicum of hope with a minimum of information. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the four-point proposal recently put forward by Bishop Muzorewa? Does he feel that there is sufficient agreement on the principle of majority rule to set up a constitutional working party now and should not Mr. Smith be obliged to agree to such a measure? Finally, on interim security, since the Commonwealth appears to be out and the United Nations appears to present real difficulties, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he now has in mind?

Dr. Owen

We have had extensive consultations with Bishop Muzorewa, all the major nationalist leaders and many of the white Rhodesians inside Rhodesia about a constitution. We are close to being able to produce proposals which, although not consensus, are proposals on which we think it is possible to reach some measure of agreement.

If they were to be broadly acceptable it would be possible to hold a normal constitutional conference. That is an objective which I share. Similarly, Bishop Muzorewa, as have all the other nationalist leaders, has endorsed the concept of "one man, one vote". The difference is not very great and Bishop Muzorewa has said that he wishes the Anglo-United States initiative to be pursued.

The transitional period—this was a point also raised by the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies)—is a very difficult issue. We need to keep an open mind on all the various options. I am not in a position at this moment to tell the House what we intend to do because we genuinely intend to have further consultations to try to ensure that when we do put forward proposals they have as great a degree of agreement as possible. But this is; a central difficulty which we still have to resolve.

Given a firm commitment from the United States and ourselves, and given some measure of unanimity particularly from the Front Line Presidents and possibly South Africa, I think that it may be possible to resolve this problem.

Miss Joan Lestor

Bearing in mind my right hon. Friend's strong moves to try to bring about a settlement in Southern Rhodesia, may I ask him to think again about his use of the word "entitlement" with regard to the calling of a General Election by Mr. Smith? Is my right hon. Friend not aware that that word will cause a great deal of alarm to the nationalist leaders in Southern Rhodesia and that the use of the word "entitlement" with regard to an illegal régime could also bring about the concept that the hangings and the various other acts that have taken place since UDI have "an entitlement" about them which many hon. Members do not accept?

Dr. Owen

I do not claim to have used very good words to describe the situation. I am happy to accept my hon. Friend's minor rebuke and to withdraw the word "entitlement". It is not a legal entitlement. However, one problem is that I have had to deal with Mr. Smith as the de facto controlling power although his is not a legal régime as this House and successive Governments have been prepared to accept, and rightly so. It is very important for those people who are pursuing the objective of an orderly and peaceful transition to majority rule to recognise that we in this House have still a legal responsibility, but similarly we have to recognise that we do not have the power to enforce that legal responsibility.

Mr. Powell

In view of certain reports that have appeared today, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether there would not he a total inconsistency between this country's claim to possess exclusive sovereignty in Rhodesia and the acceptance of a United Nations presence in that country?

Dr. Owen

I do not want to define sovereignty with the right hon. Gentleman. It is an issue on which we have often clashed in the past. I would not claim that we have exclusive sovereignty in the sense of political reality. Although we do have a legal position with regard to the situation in Rhodesia, we do not, as I have openly said, have the power to enforce it.

In my definition of sovereignty, it is not exclusive. I have made it clear all along that I do not believe that Britain alone can bring about a settlement. That is why I have worked on an Anglo-United States initiative. I do not believe that we can exclude a rôle either for the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Organisation of African Unity or any group of nations which is concerned about the situation which currently exists in Rhodesia.

Mr. Hooley

In the course of his conversations with Mr. Vance, did my right hon. Friend discuss the question of the hangings in Rhodesia by the illegal régime? Did he discuss the possibility, which I believe to be essential, of creating some form of international force to carry out the transitional period?

Dr. Owen

We did discuss the transitional period. It is a key element and we went into it in some detail. I had no need to discuss the hangings with Mr. Vance because we have both made our views publicly known about them and we agree.

I told Mr. Smith in April that these hangings were offensive to international public opinion and that if he genuinely wanted to show that he was moving towards majority rule, one of the ways of doing so would be to desist from them. Unfortunately, he has continued with them, and that decision is one of the problems.

Mr. Amery

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that moderate African nationalist leaders, such as Bishop Muzorewa and the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, have come increasingly to the view that they have more to fear from the Patriotic Front than they have from the régime, while the régime on its side has increasingly come to the conclusion that it must do a deal if it is to survive in the long term? Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the scene is set for a possible settlement? Will he be careful that his proposals do nothing to prevent an internal settlement or give any power of veto to the Patriotic Front?

Dr. Owen

I have always made it clear that any proposals which are put forward would be aimed at trying to achieve a settlement. At the outset of the negotiations I could not accept a system where any one group had an ultimate veto. This was one of the difficulties of the Geneva negotiations and the discussions following Geneva.

With regard to an interim settlement, one of the grave dangers in talk about an internal settlement is that it does not recognise the cardinal principle of universal suffrage. As often espoused, it does not satisfy the prime commitment which everyone in this House wishes to see to fair elections, and it would allow a continuation of the armed struggle, in which case it would be difficult to hold elections in the present climate.

But, in order to survive, any Government in Zimbabwe, either black or white, needs to have recognition by the international community. To exclude any nationalist leaders from a fair electoral process would be a recipe for continued strife. It is a cardinal principle of the Anglo-United States initiative that we do not intend to choose the leadership of a future Zimbabwe. That is for the people of Zimbabwe.

That is why, despite many claims to the contrary, I have refused to accept that we should talk only to the Patriotic Front. We have talked to the Patriotic Front, to Bishop Muzorewa, to Mr. Sithole and to many other different groupings.

Mr. Arthur Bottomley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although we wish him well, some of us have doubts about the policy being pursued? As this may be the last occasion before the House rises to express a personal opinion, may I plead with my right hon. Friend not to take a decision to place British troops in Rhodesia?

Dr. Owen

I know that my right hon. Friend follows this subject very carefully, and I respect his views. There are many people who have been advising me against becoming involved in this problem. As Foreign Secretary, I do not believe that I have any alternative but to continue to try to achieve a peaceful settlement. As for British troops, that is a threshold across which successive Governments since 1965 have not been prepared to go. It is quite understandable why. There would be severe problems involved. I wish to produce proposals which will give a lasting peace to the area. I do not know whether it can be achieved. But I shall take into account all the feelings expressed to me.

Mr. Evelyn King

If, ultimately, there is to be an election in Rhodesia based upon national suffrage, is it not of the first importance in the meantime that the British Government should show no partiality as between one nationalist group and another, and is it not a fact that, in the opinion of many people, the Foreign Secretary has already shown towards the Patriotic Front a favouritism which he should not have shown?

Dr. Owen

If that is the hon. Gentleman's view, I regret it. I have attempted at all times to uphold the position. The House should remember how at one time it was said that the Anglo-United States consultative group would never get off the ground because of my insistence that it should speak to all nationalist leaders. If hon. Members were to look in my diary, they would see that my door had been open to all groups, and I have expressed this view clearly. However, I have to take account of certain realities. When it comes to the transitional period and to attempting to end the armed struggle, I am bound to have to focus my attention on those who are taking part in the armed struggle. That is a realitiy of power of which I have to take account.

Mr. Faulds

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that one of the essential requirements for a peaceful and responsible transfer of power during the transitional period is the enforced retirement of the white officers of the regime and their replacement by Commonwealth officers to help the integration of the black forces of the regime with the guerrilla forces in order to prevent murderous and bloody recriminations?

Dr. Owen

This is one of the difficult questions under discussion. I do not want to comment too much on it. In our consultations, there has always been a recognition by all sides that this transitional period would require some people who had become very exposed to personal and political criticism to make way for others. That is one of the issues at which we shall have to look. There is an acceptance that this is a legitimate problem, and there is some understanding of it amongst Cute Rhodesians

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

In talking to the Americans internationally about this very grave difficulty, will the Foreign Secretary make it plain that the United Kingdom has an interest which is slightly different from that of other countries in that we are more dependent on a peaceful transition and secure access to the raw materials in Southern Rhodesia and on the prevention of the domination of the sea routes by other countries, including the Soviet Union?

Dr. Owen

Yes, but I think that it is in the interests of all the Western democracies that there is a stable peace in the whole area of Southern Africa. When we look at Rhodesia—concentrating though we in this House are bound to be on it—we cannot exclude considerations about Namibia and South Africa itself. It has always been my belief that it is in the interests of South Africa that there should be a transition to majority rule after democratic elections in Namibia and Rhodesia. There is some recognition inside South Africa that this is the case. We shall continue, however, to make clear to the South Africans our abhorrence of the policy of apartheid.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Am I right in thinking that the call of the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) for fair elections in Zimbabwe on the basis of universal adult suffrage represents a conversion to majority rule? Notwithstanding the very strange change of heart of the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery)—that Mr. Sithole is a moderate—for all things are possible, does my right hon. Friend remember that, before Geneva and before his own initiative in April, he was warned time and time again that Mr. Smith had no intention of having any peaceful transition to majority rule? How long will my right hon. Friend allow him to continue to desecrate the borders around Zimbabwe, and how long will he allow this illegal regime to continue?

Dr. Owen

If it had been in my power, I would have removed Mr. Smith the day that I took office. I make no secret of that. I do not believe that he has a contribution to make to black majority rule and peace in the country. But he is de facto the person with whom I have to deal and negotiate. Therefore, I have been prepared to meet him and to discuss these matters with him. I have not the power to make that change. I have only the power to use influence and to try to achieve a settlement and the removal of Mr. Smith from his office by negotiation. That is one of our main purposes.

The right hon. Member for Knutsford must speak for himself. But, on the basis of my understanding of his remarks, my hon. Friend's interpretation is correct. They are important. It is true that the nationalist leaders are moving around their alliances and their positions. It was only about a year ago that Mr. Nkomo and Mr. Smith negotiated on the basis that Mr. Smith thought Mr. Nkomo was the person who could lead Rhodesia peacefully. In the last few months, there have been the most stringent criticisms of Mr. Sithole. It is comforting now that he can go back into Rhodesia and be regarded by the right hon. Member for Knutsford as a moderate leader of nationalist opinion.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is an im-important statement to follow. I shall take three more questions from each side of the House and, of course, the Opposition Front Bench afterwards.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

In view of the regrettable but quite inescapable evidence, first, that the introduction of universal suffrage in some 20 States north of the Zambesi has led to the introduction of either ethnic or party dictatorships and, secondly, that the introduction of universal suffrage will cotinue to be resolutely and absolutely opposed by the 4 million Europeans living south of the Zambesi, what hard evidence can the right hon. Gentleman give this House or anyone in Rhodesia that the introduction of universal suffrage in Rhodesia will not lead to exactly the same consequence?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) does not live in the world in Africa as it now is. There are many white people living in Africa who accept universal suffrage. In Zambia, a few months ago, a white person won an election in the Copper Belt totally dominated by black voters. That is not unusual. It has happened in other countries. We must look to what has happened in Botswana, we must take hope from what has happened in Kenya, and we must pursue the possibility that we can achieve a non-racial Zimbabwe I believe that we can.

Mr. Ioan Evans

In my right hon. Friend's discussions with President Carter and Mr. Vance, was there on the agenda our attitude to South Africa? Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, until we get South Africa to agree not to trade and work with Rhodesia, the illegal regime will continue, and that that is the key to the issue?

Dr. Owen

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend's analysis. It is the support which Rhodesia has had from South Africa—obviously in terms of key elements such as oil, but also in terms of armaments and many other ways— which has sustained it. Were that support not to have occurred, in direct contravention of the mandatory sanctions applied through the United Nations, it would have been a very different saga over the past 11 years. Then the violence now threatening to engulf everyone in Rhodesia, black and white, could never have taken place. The key to it all still lies in the South Africans recognising that a settlement in Rhodesia is in their interests and in the interests of the white Rhodesians.

Mr. Gow

Although I agree with the Foreign Secretary that Mr. Smith's Government is de jure an illegal one, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has given the impression in recent months that the Patriotic Front has a de jure status? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman return again to the matter raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies)? Will he consider the possibility as a matter of urgency of reopening a permanent British mission in Salisbury to which all people of whatever opinion have the right of access?

Dr. Owen

The Patriotic Front is not de jure. I must make it clear that it is a de facto-like fact of life of which I have to take account.

As for this proposed mission, I have expressed to the House a readiness to look at it. At the right moment, I believe that it would be helpful. If we were able, for instance, to present proposals for the consideration of the Rhodesian people, I believe that at that moment it would be very helpful to have a mission there. That is what happened during the Pearce Commission and the consultation.

When we were coming close to presenting proposals, Mr. Smith suddenly called an election. I am not sure that it would be the most appropriate time to introduce such proposals in an election period. I shall keep an open mind.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his efforts towards a peaceful and democratic solution are much appreciated, but is he aware that many of us differ over what he is doing? Does he realise that his efforts to bring in the United States, after the terrible results of intervention by America in Vietnam, are open to a different viewpoint—particularly that which is widely held by the black nationalist leaders, who have repeatedly made it clear that they do not wish to see America involved in Southern Africa? Will the Foreign Secretary take an initiative in terms of Southern Africa which does not demand that America should be involved? Does he not agree that only by taking such a course will he prevent the delaying tactics in which Mr. Smith is engaging by wishing to discuss these matters with America?

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend must accept that the United States Administration has made clear that it has no intention of putting troops into Rhodesia or in any other place in Africa. There is no question of combatant troops being employed. In so far as the United States Administration is involved in Southern Africa at the moment, that is widely welcomed by the Africans. I know of no major African nationalist leader who does not welcome the responsible attitude and tough stance taken by the present United States Administration on the subject of apartheid, black majority rights and the need for a wider franchise and discussion.

I believe, however, that my hon. Friend is living in the past in talking of United States involvement in Vietnam. Many of those who support the present United States Administration were themselves critical of aspects of the position adopted by the previous United States Government on the subject of Vietnam. Any new Administration must not be allowed to be bedevilled by the sins, omissions or advantages of past Administrations. It must be judged on its merits.

Mr. Hastings

Will the Foreign Secretary accept that the key to success is the preservation of the integrity of the Rhodesian security forces under their present commanders as a strictly neutral force, and that the failure to recognise this could lead to a rapid evaporation of confidence among the European population and, almost inevitably, to bloody tribal war? Will he recognise that there is no other possible body that is capable of maintaining law and order either during transition or after majority rule?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman has put a problem that is at the core of the difficulties over the transitional period. General Hickman has made it clear that he sees the Rhodesian defence force as not being a political army but as owing allegiance to any legitimate Government and as a force that would serve any new elected black majority Government. The trouble is that it is not seen as a neutral force. The history of the past 11 years makes it questionable that it is seen as a neutral force. I cannot endorse all the hon. Gentleman said, particularly about the fact that there should not be some change of officers. That inevitably is a fact of life. One should take account of the anxieties of the black nationalists at the continued presence of such a force. This is one of the major problems.

I recognise what the hon. Gentleman said about keeping the confidence of the white Rhodesians during the difficult transitional period, especially if there is to be an election. We are examining this issue closely. I wish that there were easy answers, but we must recognise that these matters lie at the core of the problem.

Mr. Newens

In view of the reply given to the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), will my right hon. Friend make it clear that there is no question whatever of accepting the proposals of Bishop Muzorewa on the basis of the exclusion of the Patriotic Front? Will my right hon. Friend go further and emphasise to the Opposition that the non-acceptance of the Patriotic Front would inevitably lead to further bloodshed and further war in Rhodesia?

Dr. Owen

Just as I have not been prepared to exclude from my consultations Bishop Muzorewa and other nationalist leaders. I hope that nobody will adopt a stance of seeking to exclude the Patriotic Front. I have already made it clear that this issue, which goes to the heart of the differences between the nationalist leaders, can be resolved only by an election in which all of them can go to the people in a future Zimbabwe and ask for their decision. It is easy to set this forth as a principle, but it is a great deal harder, I fear, to achieve it.

Mr John Davies

May I ask the right hon. Gentlemen to clarify one matter which has not been made clear in questions and answers so far in this discussion? Does he make a clear differentiation between any involvement by Britain in military or other terms in seeking to impose a settlement beyond that whish seems more realistic at the moment and aiding the security situation in any interim situation? It is important that he should make that clear

Secondly, will the Foreign Secretary go on to say that there will be no rejection of that aspect in any British involvement, perhaps as part of an international force in ensuring that in the interim period the situation may be safeguarded, and that British participation will play a part, since without such participation any British action is itself suspect?

Dr. Owen

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments, particularly for his mention of an international effort. It is an open secret that consideration has been given to ways in which to bring about stability in this period. In regard to British involvement, let me make it clear that we put forward proposals in January that we would be prepared to see a British interim commission in some circumstances. We have always accepted that it might be helpful to put in some administration as an over-structure which would be more acceptable.

The subject of peacekeeping has yet to be decided and no definite decisions have been taken, but one has to take note of the fact that successive Governments have been unprepared to put in troops on the ground. My hon. Friend makes a distinction between putting in troops on the ground to impose a settlement, which is completely out of the question, and putting in troops on the ground in a peacekeeping rôle. This matter would have to be considered on its merits. The United States has ruled out this option. It might be better for the major Powers to stay out of any question of a peacekeeping role. Such peacekeeping operations in the past have been conducted by countries with a clear record of neutrality between the differing parties. These are issues that may need to be considered with great care.