Commonwealth Diplomacy and the End of Apartheid. Anthony Law Commonwealth Lecture by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia and current Chancellor at the Australian National University, delivered the inaugural Anthony Low Commonwealth Lecture, discussing Australia’s role in facilitating the end of apartheid through Commonwealth diplomacy. Further information and to download the podcast, visit the Australian National University website.

You can find out more about the Hon Gareth Evans’ views on the Commonwealth and the role it played by reading Dr Sue Onslow’s interview with him here.

The Maldives Leaves the Commonwealth

Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer

On 13 October 2016 the Maldives became the third country to leave the Commonwealth. The decision came after a number of years defined by a frosty relationship with the Commonwealth, centring on allegations of undemocratic practices, human rights abuses, and more recently corruption on the small island nation. The decision was seen as a preemptive move, as the Maldives was facing calls for suspension by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. An official statement by the government of the Maldives read in part:

‘Since [2012], the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and the Commonwealth Secretariat have treated the Maldives unjustly and unfairly. The Commonwealth has sought to become an active participant in the domestic political discourse in the Maldives, which is contrary to the principles of the Charters of the UN and the Commonwealth.’

A further statement by the Foreign Minister of the Maldives also included direct criticism of the CMAG and Commonwealth. Mohamed Asim, argued that the who had ‘become embedded in the political discourse of smaller member states. This has helped the Commonwealth leverage its way into international diplomacy.’ This is a particularly pointed criticism of a Commonwealth that has struggled to maintain relevance in a crowded international space. Indeed, the Commonwealth had been actively engaged with the Maldives for much of the last decade. A number of individuals interviewed for the Commonwealth Oral History Project, including Matthew Neuhaus, Karen Brewer and former Secretary General Sir Don McKinnon reflected on the political situation.

The Maldives was initially viewed as a success story following the 2008 election of President Mohamed Nasheed. However, the situation was to change in early 2012 with the arrest of the chief justice of the criminal court, himself a member of a judiciary with ties to Nasheed’s predecessor. The 2012 arrest bolstered the opposition in the Maldives and sparked clashes between security forces and the government. As a result, the president was forced to resign and was replaced in delayed 2013 elections by Abdulla Yameen. The period that followed saw deteriorating human rights conditions and the arrest and conviction of Nasheed. Sir Don McKinnon’s April 2014 comments on the ongoing situation were marked by a frustration at the developments, no doubt influenced by the fact Sir Don had personally used his ‘good offices’ in working with the Maldives over a number of years leading to the 2008 elections and that preparing for those elections was one of his last actions in office. For Sir Don, the problem was a lack of follow-through with the Maldives after President Nasheed’s election, particularly by Sir Don’s own successor as Secretary General.

In response to the events in early 2012, Sir Don was invited by the Commonwealth to act as special envoy to the Maldives. Sir Don’s description of the work presented it as very much a continual process, evidenced by the fact he made 10 trips to the Maldives, meeting and working with the Waheed government. Hugh Craft, an Australian diplomat and Director of the International Affairs Division in the 80s was a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group sent to the Maldives for the 2013 elections. Interviewed in March 2014, he too expressed disappointment at the turn of events in the country, adding,

‘With the amount of resources the Commonwealth has put into the Maldives over the years – particularly with Don McKinnon’s exercise – member governments are asking with so little practical outcomes whether it is all worth it. Certainly, my own government is asking that question.’

For the Maldives, it appears that what was once seen as Commonwealth advice and assistance became perceived as Commonwealth posturing and interference. What was once a Commonwealth success story must now be moved to the margins where fellow former Commonwealth nations Zimbabwe and The Gambia stand.

Hon. Julia Gillard speaks on the Future of the Commonwealth

File:Julia Gillard 2010.jpg

Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard at a Q & A Session in Rooty Hill, New South Wales, 10/08/2010 

On 5th October, Hon Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia (2010-2013) spoke at King’s College, London on the future of the Commonwealth. Gillard will be a Visiting Professor in the Policy Institute at King’s College. Read the transcript of her speech here.

Gillard covered topics including migration, her experience growing up in the Commonwealth and as a Commonwealth leader, Brexit, and radicalisation. Gillard also addressed the ongoing question of the succession of the Commonwealth Headship, intimating that the British government and Royal Family is paving the way for Prince Charles.

Gillard concluded her speech with an optimist outlook on the Commonwealth’s role in the future:

‘The Commonwealth can and should play a powerful role on the global stage, and there are a number of states – particularly small states – that will depend on its advocacy.

As an ideas exchange and intellectual powerhouse on globalization, governing and democracy strengthening, the Commonwealth can both build on its traditional role as a champion of democratic ideals whilst preserving these values in times of change, fear and division.

As a thought leader on issues of countering violent extremism, the Commonwealth could play an essential role in tackling the dissemination of information and ideologies that challenge our community safety, that create a more instable world and that can take our children from us and radicalize them for the most evil of purposes.’

August 1979 – The Lusaka CHOGM

‘We reject as inhuman and intolerable all policies designed to perpetuate apartheid, racial segregation or other policies based on theories that racial groups are or may be inherently superior or inferior.’

Above is an extract from the Lusaka Declaration of the Commonwealth on Racism and Racial Prejudice, issued on 7th August 1979 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Zambia. The 1979 Declaration was a follow up to the 1971 Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles that had set out the core values of the Commonwealth. Specifically, the Lusaka Declaration was a response to the ongoing civil war between the white minority and black majority in what was then Zimbabwe Rhodesia.

Similarly to the Singapore Declaration, the 1979 Lusaka Declaration was the result of a long period of negotiating and visits to Commonwealth nations by Secretariat staff and Commonwealth leaders. Moses Anafu, Hon. Joe Clark, Sir Sonny Ramphal and Chief Emeka Anayoku are amongst those who discussed the diplomatic campaigns that preceded and followed the Lusaka CHOGM. One particular issue for the 1979 CHOGM was the Commonwealth’s relationship with the newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Chief Emeka Anyaoku, then Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth noted the potential tensions Thatcher could bring to the CHOGM:

‘Well, it was clear to us that if Margaret Thatcher’s government proceeded to recognise Abel Muzorewa who was no more than a stooge of Ian Smith and his cohorts, the Commonwealth would have exploded.  We would have had people walking away saying we will no longer belong to this organisation. And so Sonny Ramphal was working on one hand to try and influence Whitehall to soft pedal on the issue of recognising the Muzorewa government, while at the same time encouraging African heads, and India, and the others, to believe that the situation was going to be manageable and that a middle way would be found to save everybody’s face.’

Farooq Sobhan who was then Director General in the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry attended the 1979 CHOGM and remembers the atmosphere and results of the meeting:

‘The Retreat, where heads mingled without their aides… The whole dynamics of that process was what made the Commonwealth, as an organisation, unique. You now have a Retreat in some of the other regional groups and organizations like SAARC, but I would say this whole idea of the need to see the heads together in an informal setting, where they could talk to each other without aides, came out of the Commonwealth and the CHOGM process. Going back to Lusaka, it was really the Retreat where you saw Malcolm Fraser and a few others prevail on Mrs Thatcher to give ground on the Rhodesia issue, which eventually led to the birth and independence of Zimbabwe.’

President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Mrs Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister of the United Kingdom take steps towards closer Anglo - Zambian relations at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) Lusaka, Zambia, 1979.

President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Mrs Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister of the United Kingdom take steps towards closer Anglo – Zambian relations at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) Lusaka, Zambia, 1979. Commonwealth Secretariat ref. at040

With these quotes in mind, the picture to the left, of a smiling Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and Prime Minister Thatcher dancing at the Lusaka CHOGM paints a simplified picture of the meeting. Beyond the forthright Lusaka Declaration and photographs showing heads of state sharing moments such as this one pictured, the interviewees discussed the many hours of diplomacy that went into ensuring a CHOGM that affected change in Southern Africa. Following the Lusaka Declaration, in December 1979, Prime Minister Bishop Abel Muzorewa, representing the Zimbabwe Rhodesia government, was invited to the UK to discuss independence. The resulting Lancaster House Agreement brought white minority rule to an end, paving the way for modern Zimbabwe. Under the leadership of it’s new Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe joined the Commonwealth in 1980, but left in 2003.

What Brexit means for the Commonwealth

By Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

Facundo Arrizabalga/EPA

By voting to leave the European Union, Britain’s future relationship with its fellow Commonwealth members has assumed both a greater significance and a greater degree of uncertainty.

Before the poll, the uniform message from the other leaders of the 53-member association had been a desire for Britain to remain a member of the EU. To the Commonwealth, Britain was a powerful and privileged member within the EU trading bloc, with considerable opportunities for diplomatic leverage in broader Commonwealth interests.

But unlike their political leaders, Commonwealth citizens in Britain who were entitled to vote in the referendum (the approximate number varied between 890,000 and 960,000) were by no means a monolithic bloc supporting the Remain camp.

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The Commonwealth and Brexit

by Dr Eva Namusoke

Postdoctoral Research Officer, Commonwealth Oral History Project

The campaign ahead of the EU referendum on Thursday 23rd June has been bitterly fought by both the Remain and Leave camps, with rhetoric and statistics bombarded at voters on a daily basis from politicians, business leaders and celebrities. Amidst the ongoing discussion concerning the future of the UK’s place in or outside of the European Union, the role of the Commonwealth, and of eligible Commonwealth voters in the UK has provided an interesting dimension.

Read more at Commonwealth Opinion.

On the 90th Birthday of Queen Elizabeth II

On 21st April, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 90th birthday, ahead of her official birthday on the 11th June. Along with being the longest reigning monarch in British history, Queen Elizabeth is the constitutional monarch of 15 sovereign states that together with 38 other states make up the Commonwealth. The Queen has been Head of the Commonwealth for 64 years, having ascended the throne just three years after the formation of the institution. As a result of her decades in leadership, the Queen was a common subject for informants in the Commonwealth Oral History Project. From the interviews, we read that the Queen loves watching marathons, has a sense of humour, and most importantly, cares deeply about Commonwealth matters. Former Director of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Political Affairs Division, Amitav Banerji summed up the feelings of many of those interviewed:

‘Well, I think the Queen is a remarkable person and, by common agreement across the board, she is part of the glue that keeps the Commonwealth together. She has seen heads of government come and go. She’s been very much the common thread running through and even the most republican of nations do not fail to show her the respect that she commands as Head of the Commonwealth. All the countries that today join the Commonwealth or line up to join the Commonwealth know that they would need to accept her as the Head of the Commonwealth, without surrendering their sovereignty.’

Read more about the Queen’s role as Head of the Commonwealth

Read more about the Queen’s position as constitutional monarch of Australia

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and Commonwealth leaders, taken at the 1960 Commonwealth Conference, Windsor Castle Front row: (left to right) E. J. Cooray, Walter Nash, Jawaharlal Nehru, Elizabeth II, John Diefenbaker, Robert Menzies, Eric Louw Back row: Tunku Abdul Rahman, Roy Welensky, Harold Macmillan, Ayub Khan, Kwame Nkrumah Source: John G. Diefenbaker Centre, Saskatoon, Canada, image number JGD1300

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and Commonwealth leaders, taken at the 1960 Commonwealth Conference, Windsor Castle
Front row: (left to right) E. J. Cooray, Walter Nash, Jawaharlal Nehru, Elizabeth II, John Diefenbaker, Robert Menzies, Eric Louw
Back row: Tunku Abdul Rahman, Roy Welensky, Harold Macmillan, Ayub Khan, Kwame Nkrumah
Source: John G. Diefenbaker Centre, Saskatoon, Canada, image number JGD1300

Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal, receiving the order of Australia from HM Queen Elizabeth II on board the Royal Yacht Brittania, Brisbane, Australia. (Date unknown)  Source: Commonwealth Secretariat

Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal, receiving the order of Australia from HM Queen Elizabeth II on board the Royal Yacht Brittania, Brisbane, Australia. 1982
Source: Commonwealth Secretariat

HM Queen Elizabeth II with Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku, leaving Westminster Abbey, London after the annual Commonwealth Day observance. 1999 Source: Commonwealth Secretariat

HM Queen Elizabeth II with Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku, leaving Westminster Abbey, London after the annual Commonwealth Day observance. 1999
Source: Commonwealth Secretariat

Commonwealth Day 2016

Monday 14th March marks the annual Commonwealth Day celebrations, held at Westminster Abbey and attended by Queen Elizabeth in her role as Head of the Commonwealth. Guests will include senior members of the British royal family, Commonwealth politicians and 1000 school children. In a change from previous years – and perhaps a nod to the increased visibility of the Commonwealth in recent months – this year’s events will be screened live on BBC One. Dr Sue Onslow, Lead Researcher on the Commonwealth Oral History Project will be part of the live BBC One coverage, streaming at www.bbc.co.uk from 14.45 – 16.15hrs GMT, on the radio at BBC World Service and available to watch later at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0745hs1

Stuart Mole, Chair of the Commonwealth Round Table and an informant for the oral history project, wrote about the origins of Commonwealth Day. The transition from Empire Day in 1898 to the modern self-consciously multi-cultural event, this year themed ‘An Inclusive Commonwealth‘, is a reflection of the history of the Commonwealth itself. The keynote address will be delivered by Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General. Speeches will also be made by Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat who is the current Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, and by the outgoing Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma. Music will be performed by British singer Ellie Goulding.

For an extensive reading list concerning the Commonwealth and its member states, see the Bibliography included on this website. 

For resources targeted at young people, see http://thecommonwealth.org/inclusivecommonwealth

The 1986 Commonwealth Games

On the 19th February, The National Archives released files from the Prime Minister’s Office, covering the years 1986-88. Included in this collection were files relating to the July 1986 Commonwealth Games, held in Edinburgh. The files, totalling over 200 pages are available to download free online, a tiny fraction of the over 80 million documents digitised and published online by The National Archives.

The 1986 games occurred amidst ongoing international condemnation of South Africa’s system of apartheid. The 1977 Gleneagles Agreement signed by Commonwealth heads of government had called on the member states to cease sporting contact with South Africa. In a further bid to force the end of the racist system, in 1985 the Commonwealth imposed economic sanctions on South Africa. Crucially, while the wider Commonwealth championed sanctions, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remained opposed to imposing economic sanctions on South Africa – a decision that increasingly put her at odds with other Commonwealth leaders, particularly the African bloc. It was in this tense atmosphere that the 1986 Games occurred. In the weeks before the games, it appeared the England team would include South African born competitors, the final slight following Thatcher’s less than warm reception of the Commonwealth Eminent Person’s Group’s strong criticism of South Africa. Two weeks before the games began, 32 of the 59 eligible states boycotted the 1986 Commonwealth Games.

Robert Maxwell, the last-minute investor in the 1986 Commonwealth Games.

Robert Maxwell, the last-minute investor in the 1986 Commonwealth Games. Source: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 934-4359

The newly released National Archives files contain a number of interesting documents, including discussion concerning the debt (over £10 million in today’s currency) incurred by the blighted games and the Thatcher government’s refusal to make up the deficit; the fall from favour of the games’ flamboyant ‘saviour’ Robert Maxwell; official government responses to boycotting countries; and notes to and from the Commonwealth Secretariat.

A number of individuals who appear in the files were also interviewed for the Commonwealth Oral History Project. These include Sir Malcolm Rifkind, then Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir Shridath Ramphall, then Commonwealth Secretary General, Sir Peter Marshall, then Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General and Stuart Mole, then Special Assistant to the Secretary-General. Others involved in this period were also interviewed, including Bob Hawke, then Australian Prime Minister, and RF ‘Pik’ Botha, then South African Minister of Foreign Affairs. All these individuals discussed the tension and behind-the-scenes clashes that marked UK and Commonwealth approaches to South Africa. Sir Peter and Stuart Mole both also discussed the 1986 games at length, including the at times conflicting Commonwealth, UK government and Thatcher motivations, and their impressions of Robert Maxwell who makes up much of the correspondence in the files. The words of those interviewed, like the archival documents, give a sense of the competing interests and the complicated negotiations that took place. Mole remembers the 1986 games as a crucial moment:

‘So, the ’86 Games ended up being a big wakeup call for all sorts of reasons and the very survival of the Commonwealth Games in the future hung in the balance.’

While the newly released files add another dimension to our understanding of this particular period in history, they are no doubt just one part of a larger narrative. It is interesting to note, for example, that the well-publicised events surrounding Michael Shea, then press secretary to the Queen, and the 20th July 1986 Sunday Times article that sent shockwaves across the UK are not mentioned in the files. This omission is notable because interviewees who reflected on the months around the 1986 games invariably mentioned the effect the scandalous article – of which Shea was allegedly the source – had on increasing tension between Thatcher and the Commonwealth. With the effects of the Sunday Times article not discussed in these newly released papers, it appears there is yet more to the story and some material – as always – remains classified. In this case, the oral histories allow us to place the written material within a wider historical context.

Observing Uganda’s 2016 Presidential Election

By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

A reflection on the 18th February election in Uganda and the history of the Commonwealth Observer Group.

Read more on the Commonwealth Opinion blog

Olusegun Obasanjo, Chair, leads members of the Commonwealth Observer Group Commonwealth Observer Group – 2016 Uganda Elections

Olusegun Obasanjo, Chair, leads members of the Commonwealth Observer Group
Commonwealth Observer Group – 2016 Uganda Elections