Download interview transcripts: Part One (23rd November 2013); Part Two (29th January 2015).
Biography: Ramphal, Sir Shridath Surendranath ‘Sonny’. 1928- . Born in New Amsterdam, British Guiana. Educated at King’s College London and Gray’s Inn, London, 1947-51. Assistant Attorney General of the West Indies Federation, 1958-62. Guggenheim Fellow, Harvard Law School, 1961. Attorney General of British Guiana, 1965-67. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Guyana, 1967-72, and then Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1972-75. Commonwealth Secretary General, 1975-90. Co-Chair, Commission on Global Governance, 1995. Chancellor of the University of Guyana, 1988-92. Chancellor of the University of Warwick, 1989-2001. Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, 1989-2003.
SO: Dr Sue Onslow (Interviewer)
SR: Sir Shridath Ramphal (Respondent)
Transcript Part One:
[Click here to jump to Transcript Part Two]
Location: Athenaeum Club, London
Date: 23rd November 2013
SO: This is Dr Sue Onslow talking to Sir Shridath Ramphal, Secretary General of the Commonwealth between 1975 and 1990. Sir, thank you very much indeed for agreeing to talk to me. I wondered if you could begin, please, by describing how you came to be selected and elected as Secretary General.
SR: It really is a strange story, because I did not come to it through ambition. I had become very active as Foreign Minister of Guyana on the international scene – and, indeed, on the Commonwealth scene – because, in 1971, four years before I became Secretary General, I was involved in the Singapore [Commonwealth Heads of Government] conference. This was a bit of a debacle because of Ted Heath and the Simonstown Agreement and arms sales to South Africa. It was there, of course, [that] we produced the Singapore Declaration, which was the first organic document of the Commonwealth. In Singapore, the people who worked on that document were Mark Chona of Zambia, Ivan Head of Canada and myself. We drafted it and others titivated with it, but it meant that I had a good deal of prominence at the Commonwealth level there. Within a year, I was chairing the meeting of Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers in Guyana. It was quite a sensational meeting because it was the first time the Non-Aligned Movement had met at any political level in the Western hemisphere – outside New York, at the UN – and it was a big coup. It was a difficult time in non-alignment. There were deep problems dividing the movement over Sihanouk and Cambodia, and, as well, over the admission to full membership of the Non-Aligned Movement of the ‘Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam’ – the PRG. As you can imagine, those divisions were along Cold War lines, and the threat was that the movement would break up. So, the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Georgetown became absolutely pivotal. I, in the Chair, had the job of steering it out of these murky waters. Well, what can I tell you? It was a success. The Chair was hailed as having been crucial in this.
SO: How did you manage that?
SR: [Laughter] With a good deal of footwork and the help of a lot of people, and getting the trust of people. I had, for example, to get the trust of the Algerians and of [Abdelaziz] Bouteflika, in particular. Bouteflika is a fighter. So, when I pleaded with him to follow my strategy of not bringing it to the table, he said, “You’re asking me to demobilise? [Laughter] My forces are ready!” And I said, “Yes, I am. You have to trust me.” Eventually we did by getting Prime Minister Burnham to be in touch with the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. This was over an issue of the venue of the next meeting, which Mrs Bandaranaike [of Sri Lanka] wanted as a memorial to her assassinated husband, and which Boumediene [of Algeria] wanted as a monument to his leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. So, we had deep personal problems, but then the movement divided along Cold War alliances.
SO: So, there wasn’t a Commonwealth group within the NAM?
SR: No, there wasn’t. It had nothing to do with the Commonwealth. What it meant in terms of me and the Commonwealth was that two years later, in 1974, when the issue of a successor to the Secretary General of the Commonwealth arose, my name came to the surface almost automatically – because of these antecedent activities.
SO: You’d won your spurs?
SR: [Laughter] I’d won them, but without meaning to. The way it all emerged was that we had a High Commissioner in London called Sir John Carter, and he was an urbane, kindly man – my elder. The High Commissioners began talking among themselves – as they kept tending to do – about the succession. Arnold [Smith] hadn’t indicated that he was going for a third term or that he wasn’t. I think he was himself thinking about it. But the High Commissioners began to think about this. What happened next was that I got a telephone call from John Carter – I was in Georgetown – saying, “Look, this is what’s been happening. The High Commissioners have been talking, your name has popped up, and I am at a loss. I don’t know what to say: you’ve never talked to me about this.” He was clearly quite expectant. I was dumbstruck! I said, “Look, I need time; I need to think.” He said, “But I have to do something. They’re pressing me to find out if you would be willing.” And I said, “Well, I can’t tell you that I’m willing, but take the temperature on the basis that I might be, without any commitment that I am.” He called me back in two days – there are some conversations you remember very vividly – [and] he said, “Minister, you asked me to take the temperature. I’ve done so. It’s a forest fire!”
SO: What a wonderful analogy!
SR: [Laughter] And so it just went from that. The next thing was [that] the British Press were saying, “It’s a shoe-in for Sonny Ramphal.” Arnold went and talked in Ottawa and came back – he wasn’t one hundred percent well – and he said, “I’m not standing.”
SO: Do you think the Canadians were somewhat nonplussed that, after all, ‘their’ man was not going to go for that third term?
SR: I don’t think, at that stage, they any longer regarded him as ‘their’ man. Remember I told you about Ivan Head and Singapore? They felt Canada had done ten years. It was time for a developing country, and they knew Sonny Ramphal by then.
SO: What of India’s role? I’m thinking of its leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, and wonder whether this was of critical importance.
SR: It was important to me because, as the biggest country in the Commonwealth…were they going to show an interest? In any case, I was sufficiently close to Indira Gandhi in the Non-Aligned Movement [and so could] not do this without talking to her. I talked to her. She was a little uncertain – not about my credentials but about the loss to Non-Alignment. Her line was, “Look, you’re doing so well for us as Foreign Minister of Guyana on the world stage. Do you think it’s the best thing for you to go [to] this rather old-fashioned institution?”
SO: So, she felt it would be very much a demotion for you – that you would be going to a backwater?
SR: Not so much a demotion for me, but a loss for her – a loss to things that she regarded as more important than the Commonwealth. I said, “Well, you know, I’ve thought about that but the Commonwealth, after all, is now 80% developing countries. It is what Nehru hoped it would be.” I pulled a little at those heart strings [Jawaharlal Nehru was Indira Gandhi’s father]. She thought about it and she said, “You know, you may have a point. But if you go there, you’ve got to shake it up.” And those were words that you don’t forget.
SO: So, where did you have this discussion?
SR: In Georgetown, prior to the Kingston meeting. “You’ve got to shake it up.”
SO: Did you ask for advice from any other key leaders?
SR: Not really. The Guyanese Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, then got behind my candidature, as he had to. I couldn’t go forward without that. He wrote to all the leaders, but his strengths were with the African leaders: he brought them on board. And they knew me, too, from Non-Alignment. So, I didn’t have to do an awful lot of canvassing.
SO: Do you know how the British government felt?
SR: I don’t know. I think – going back to those letters between Harold Wilson and Pierre Trudeau – they felt relaxed. They felt they knew me. They probably didn’t approve of a lot of the Non-Aligned stuff. They were not going to oppose a Third World candidate who, they had begun to recognise, had great support.
SO: Was there anyone else in the running before the Kingston CHOGM?
SR: No, except this little thing on the side about Milton Obote, which I only discovered in the Wilson-Trudeau letters. Idi Amin – who had staged a coup against Obote during the Singapore meeting, in early ‘74 – floated the idea in a letter to Wilson of his nominating Obote to the soon-to-be-vacant position of Secretary General! [Laughter]
SO: What a wonderful way to get rid of a political opponent!
SR: Indeed! And, you know, by then Amin was beginning to show all the signs of being an ogre, but he had access to the British government. I will never forget [that] the first capital Amin visited after the coup was London [and] the first Prime Minister he saw after the coup was Ted Heath. So, there was an access there. At that stage, it was more important to Britain to get rid of Obote – who was a thorn in their side – than face Amin. But, of course, they never really knew how bad Amin was, really, with the Third World.
SO: Indeed, a choice between two evils rather than the lesser of two evils.
SR: Right. So, that was the only other mention. It got nowhere, and it was dropped. There was never a suggestion of Obote even knowing anything about it. No African leaders came up and said, “Vote for Milton Obote!” So, I was elected unopposed, basically, at Kingston. The Kingston CHOGM was Arnold’s last meeting.
SO: What was the background to that meeting? Obviously there were the formal issues on the agenda, and then there were discussions around the edges.
SR: Well, there was a big economic debate. Arnold had developed a very wise system of organising keynote speakers who would lead off the discussion: it was [about] world economic issues, it was at a time of the New International Economic Order (NIEO), it was big stuff at the UN. He chose Harold Wilson to lead off for the developed countries and Forbes Burnham – my Prime Minister – to lead off for the developing countries. So, the meeting got off to a start, if you like, with these very strongly contending views between Burnham and Wilson. Not acrimonious, but good intellectual stuff. That keynote led to the first of my expert groups, because it decided on an expert group on the New International Economic Order. It was chaired by Sir Alister McIntyre and we never looked back.
SO: Sir, much of the literature on the Commonwealth – and, indeed, the press headlines of the 1970s and, of course, the 1980s – focuses upon Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa. Did the Commonwealth under your Secretary Generalship develop a particular approach to how you managed liberation movements such as the Patriotic Front in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and the ANC in South Africa?
SR: It wasn’t a big choice for me because I came to the job as Foreign Minister of a country that was leading its region in support of these liberation movements: making contributions to the ANC, publically supporting the Patriotic Front in Rhodesia, leading the anti-apartheid effort on isolating South Africa in sport and sanctions, generally. So, that was my background.
SO: Specifically, did the Patriotic Front feature in any way at the Kingston meeting in 1975 or at the subsequent London meeting in 1977? Because, obviously, the 1979 Lusaka meeting was about Rhodesia/Zimbabwe…
SR: [Laughter] It featured at Kingston in an unorthodox way, because Arnold would never have organised – or allowed to be organised – what did, in fact, take place, which was that Michael Manley, who was then striking a very radical pose in Jamaica and in the Third World generally, took it upon himself to invite the ‘liberation’ leaders Joshua Nkomo, Bishop Muzorewa and Chief Sithole of the early African National Front to be his personal guests in Kingston, on the occasion of the CHOGM meeting. What I’m sure he told them was, “You leave it to me. I’m going to find a way for you to talk to the Heads.” Now, this was not on the cards in terms of the agenda, or [for] the Secretariat. But Manley did this. It was a secret – even that they were there was a secret. He told the Heads at an early session that they were there and [that] this would be a great opportunity for the Commonwealth to meet with them quietly – to hear from them. And, of course, it would have been a fantastic opportunity for the ‘liberation’ leaders.
SO: An incomparable opportunity, yes.
SR: [Laughter] They would never even come within touching distance of the non-African membership. Most of the leaders were quite relaxed about that, but Trudeau of Canada was not.
SO: In 1975, Harold Wilson was still Prime Minister of the UK. Was he relaxed about that?
SR: He was quiet, as Britain had been on most of those situations. The whole of the Round Table was quite happy, so he wasn’t going to be the one to make the fuss. He would have joined the fuss. The person who did make the fuss was Pierre Trudeau – who was, in other respects, supportive of the Patriotic Front. However, Trudeau was a man of considerable principle. He took objection to being “hijacked”, as he described it. He didn’t leave the meeting when Michael brought Nkomo and the others in, but he very publicly and deliberately turned his nameplate ‘CANADA’ upside down and reminded Michael that this was not an official part of the Heads of Government meeting. Yet, he stayed.
SO: Did he? So, his demonstration didn’t include walking out?
SR: No, his demonstration was turning his nameplate over. I suspect that he – like everybody else – was keen to see and hear who these guys were.
SO: Who led the discussion thereafter?
SR: Michael invited Bishop Muzorewa to talk, and they talked at a ‘non-session’ of the meeting.
SO: Do you remember if anyone was putting particular questions or pressing a particular line?
SR: No, I can’t really say that I remember the discussion. It was less of a discussion, as I recall it, than a presentation. Of course, there’s no record of the meeting, [Laughter] because it wasn’t an official part [of the CHOGM].
SO: So, what was the feeling after Nkomo and the others had left? Was there a general discussion?
SR: Well, I think it was a favourable discussion, because, bear in mind, most of the people around the table were supporting them. All the Africans, all the Caribbean people, [and] most of the Asians were in their camp. It was people like the Australians, the Canadians, [and] the New Zealanders for whom this was a revelation. The ‘liberation’ leaders weren’t terrorists; they weren’t ogres. They came across very well. That was the real element of my own introduction to the ‘liberation’ leaders. When I actually came to the Commonwealth Secretary Generalship, I therefore had met some of them at Kingston – though not yet Mugabe – and I very quickly made contact with them.
SO: Did you maintain that contact?
SR: I did. Right through, right through.
SO: All the way through from 1975?
SO: So, what of the London meeting in 1977? Was there an element of the Liberation Forces – as they then were – contacting you to present a particular agenda?
SR: Yes, they contacted me to that effect, but it was usually on the basis that the Contact Group of African countries would be presenting and I would be facilitating the presentation. They acted not so much through the Secretary General as through the African Contact Group, which was Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere, essentially. But, with a friendly Secretary General, an environment to the meeting [was created] that was supportive.
SO: In 1976, Henry Kissinger put forward his ‘Africa initiative’, when he and the then British Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland attempted to forcibly encourage Ian Smith to accelerate black majority rule, and there was that ‘squeeze play’ that involved the South Africans. Were you in any way kept informed of this particular angle of diplomacy?
SR: No, no.
SO: So, you weren’t involved in any of the discussions around the need for a development fund?
SR: I knew of it. I was told of it, but I was not invited to play a role in it. Indeed, as I sensed the mood from the Foreign Office, it was, “You don’t…” [Laughter]
SO: Ah. “This is our patch”?
SR: “This is our responsibility”.
SO: Yes. Did you, in any way, have a watching brief with the Geneva discussions [on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, chaired by Ivor Richards] between October 1976 and January 1977?
SR: No, I didn’t. The British were very keen – the Foreign Office, in particular, [and] Peter Carrington in 1979 was representative of that mood – to keep the Secretariat out of it.
SO: Was this also the attitude and behaviour of Anthony Crosland and David Owen during their respective terms as British Foreign Secretary?
SR: Yes, but Crosland and Owen – and Owen in particular – were more friendly about it. He was not hostile to the Secretariat. For example, there were four African delegations at the Geneva discussions. The Secretariat provided technical assistance to each, and my then Assistant Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku was in Geneva throughout.
SO: Were you kept briefed about the Owen-Vance discussions?
SR: Yes, I knew much more about those. In the first place, I had a good personal relationship with both Cyrus Vance and David Owen. They didn’t want me to get in their way, but they weren’t hostile.
SO: Were you in any way aware of David Owen’s attempts at secret diplomacy? His reaching out to expand the Internal Settlement, to include Joshua Nkomo…?
SR: Yes, I was…
SO: In what way?
SR: …and I welcomed it.
SO: Yes. You were aware of it? Or were you in any way involved in…
SR: No, I wasn’t involved with it. They really wanted it to be their own thing.
SO: Were you in touch with the Nigerians – as well as the Tanzanians and the Zambians – about this particular aspect?
SR: That’s right.
SO: Ah, so, you were the recipient of a number of different confidences?
SR: Yes. At that stage, it wasn’t hostility to the Secretariat; it was, “We’ll keep you informed,” and that was fine.
SO: Did you express an opinion when President Nyerere effectively put the brakes on General Garba’s attempt to broker the deal with Smith?
SR: I can’t remember whether I expressed an opinion, but I was with Nyerere – I was on Nyerere’s side in doing that.
SO: Do you mind elaborating a little on that?
SR: [Laughter] Well, I think he felt that they were compromising the position too much. We asked David Owen to get some concessions from Smith, but the proposed deal was not going to be freedom; it was not going to be the end of white rule.
SO: So, it was too much of a political compromise?
SR: It was too much of a compromise.
SO: At that point, the Internal Settlement was protecting white minority political rights. White economic rights were not in any way going to be diluted, either, and land wouldn’t have been involved in any way?
SR: No, no.
SO: Ah. And there was also the whole question of the leadership of the security forces…yes.
SR: Absolutely. So, the package as a whole – as Nyerere saw it – was a sell-out.
SO: ‘Sell-out’ is a very powerful phrase in Zimbabwean politics.
SO: Much of the literature about Rhodesia in the 1970s emphasises the role of Zambia. It also emphasises the role of Tanzania. But what of Botswana?
SR: Botswana was coming into its own, but wasn’t there yet. Remember, Botswana really came onto the scene with Seretse Khama, and whilst Seretse was there, he was the confidant of Kaunda, Nyerere and, in the early days, of Obote. Then, Seretse died [on 13 July 1980], and there was a kind of gap before the new leadership in Botswana came into its own. In that transition period, Botswana didn’t play a formidable role, but as the years went by, they came into their own. They were part of the Contact Group and they exercised more and more influence, and, of course, they were doing better economically by then. They could pull their weight more.
SO: After the discovery of diamonds in 1967, yes.
SR: And then, you know, things developed. SADCC was to come.
SO: I’m very struck by the extent to which Botswana is a Front Line State. It was compromised by its geographical position – sandwiched in between Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa – which complicated its diplomacy. There was also the presence of the refugees, [and] the presence of armed fighters within the camps. So, this was a difficult diplomatic position to occupy.
SR: Yes, it made it harder for them to be a Front Line State, if you like, [in the manner of a] Zambia or Tanzania. But there was no question where its loyalties lay.
SO: In the 1970s, were you also in close touch with Mozambique on the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe question?
SR: When I came to the Secretariat in 1975, Arnold had already opened the door to Mozambique via Portugal. He had made contact with Soares and he was making it clear that the Commonwealth was a vehicle that had to be taken into account by the Portuguese – that it was ready to do business on the side of FRELIMO. And then Arnold’s term ended. So, I came at a very propitious moment. The door had been opened and then I, gradually, through the Contact Group, developed relations.
SO: By the time that you were elected Secretary General, General Spinola had granted accelerated independence to each of the Portuguese territories in Africa.
SR: That’s right. Samora Machel was on the scene. This was where my own Non-Aligned contacts helped. And people like Burnham at home helped, because they knew [Machel] and could help me make contacts with them. “Sonny Ramphal? Yes, yes: he’s Forbes’ Foreign Minister.”
SO: That reinforced your credentials?
SR: Absolutely. The whole Guyana connection at that time did.
SO: Did you continue to attend Non-Alignment Movement meetings?
SR: No, no.
SO: I just wondered…The Non-Alignment Movement meeting in Havana in September 1979 was held after the Lusaka CHOGM, and I wondered if you’d gone there.
SR: I didn’t go there, but I’ll give you a funny little anecdote. Michael Manley was at the height of his radicalism. They had the Havana meeting and he tore up his prepared speech and made a hell-raising speech in support of Fidel Castro, who was adopting the rather absurd position that Cuba was [both] non-aligned and in favour of the East [Laughter] – that kind of oxymoron! Michael got caught in this and I got a call at the Secretariat from the airport [in London]. It was Julius Nyerere, going back home from Cuba, and he asked me to come and see him at the airport. He was changing planes, so I went up and he used me as a kind of battering ram to vent his anger about Michael…Because Julius saw that the future of non-alignment lay in non-alignment!
SO: And that meant ‘equidistance’, not leaning to one side.
SR: That’s right. “Sonny, why did Michael do this?” [Laughter] – as if I was responsible for Michael! “This was terrible.” He ranted and raved and so on – “You must bring him back into line!” [Laughter] I calmed him down and said, “Of course, I agree with you.” I did make my own representation to Michael. I said, “Look, you’re losing your friends, you know. I don’t know how much Julius told you, but this is what he told me…And he’s got a point.” [Laughter]
SO: And how did that go down?
SR: Oh, it went down well with Michael, because we were very good friends.
SO: What you’re talking about here is the extraordinary role of personal networks…
SO: …and personalities.
SR: Absolutely. By then, Michael had developed a personal rapport with Malcolm Fraser. He had Malcolm Fraser in Jamaica, so things were happening in the Commonwealth at the one-to-one level – some of which I didn’t even know about or knew about afterwards; some of which I was involved in. But that personal relationship was vital, and Michael Manley was very important. Malcolm Fraser was very important. Mulroney was important.
SO: Do you think cricket helped at all in that?
SR: Yes, it did. It was the Commonwealth’s game and the Caribbean made some of the biggest sacrifices for it because – again, led by Guyana – the Caribbean was totally behind the isolation of South Africa and punished its own cricketers for breaking ranks. I remember Kallicharran in Guyana was banned [Laughter] because he went to South Africa.
SO: I was thinking, also, more in the way of how a love of cricket provided a bond between leaders.
SR: I suppose. Behind that is the love of cricket, but cricket was a vehicle through which they could exercise sanctions and they thought – and I agreed – that the sporting boycott was very significant, very important to South Africa. It was a tool that – in the very special circumstances of South Africa – hurt.
SO: Yes. As South Africa was a ‘sports mad’ nation, sports sanctions really would touch their national pride. In the 1970s, there were, of course, other important issues which were building up steam, one of which was the role of the ANC within South African politics. The ANC was not yet the designated voice of the South African people. I’m just wondering…What was the particular relationship, the diplomacy, between the ANC and the Secretary General in the 1970s?
SR: It was always as close as we could make it. That was facilitated by the fact that Zambia – particularly Zambia – provided the access to the ANC. My first meeting with Oliver Tambo was in Lusaka, where, after all, he was a guest. I always had a slight worry which I didn’t articulate publicly: how would the ANC feel about the Commonwealth and Commonwealth membership, when we ‘won’ [Laughter], colloquially? When we got to the stage where apartheid was over [and] the ANC was in power, how would they feel about Commonwealth membership? Would they, as it were, vent their anger on Britain with an old-fashioned notion that the Commonwealth was British – which it was when they went into exile? Eventually, I broached the question with Oliver in Lusaka. We were then close enough to be ‘Oliver’ and ‘Sonny’. I said to him in a reflective mood, “Oliver, how are you going to feel about Commonwealth membership? Will you be ready to come back?” In that wonderful yet piercing way he had of looking at you, he said, “Sonny, black South Africa never left the Commonwealth.” Well, I was so delighted but I was flabbergasted. It was so profound. Why didn’t I think of that myself? [Laughter] Here was the leader of the ANC saying, “It’s not a question. It’s not an issue. We never left.”
SO: Your soul must have expanded at that point.
SR: [Laughter] It did, it did. It meant so much more in terms of the struggle.
SO: Yes, it would have done: hugely important, going forward. And what of other people in the 1970s, such as Abdul Minty, the spokesman for the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain?
SR: People like Abdul saw the Commonwealth as a friend. We had frequent contacts with him because, of course, he was in Europe and we had contacts with any of those who were able to travel. I think they all looked on us as genuine. We had as big a fight with the British government as they had, and we weren’t hiding it.
SO: Do you recall whether Abdul Minty sought Commonwealth support from the Secretariat and the Secretary General on the question of whether or not South Africa had developed a nuclear weapon? When the South African government did achieve nuclear capability, it took the struggle in Southern Africa to a completely different level.
SR: Yes, it did. We talked about it and, of course, the implication was that white South Africa had joined the nuclear club, and the obligation to support a club member was that much stronger so far as the Americans and the British were concerned. But this was very much at the personal level. We never, as I recall it, made it a kind of public issue.
SO: Looking through the files at the Secretariat, there is one small record of a UN seminar [on ‘Nuclear Collaboration with South Africa’] that was held in February 1979. But there is no note of discussion elsewhere in the Secretariat files. Having found this seminar report, I thought, “Where else was the talk going on?”
SR: It would have been between Minty and myself.
SO So, it redoubled your determination?
SR: Oh, absolutely. For me, there was never any question as to which way we had to go. I knew the mass of the Commonwealth was with me, and as important to me as anything else was the fact that the white Commonwealth as represented by Australia and Canada was with me. This was both political parties, and that was quite phenomenal because they didn’t have black communities. There were no votes in it for them: for Malcolm Fraser or for Bob Hawke, or for Mulroney or Trudeau.
SO: So, it was determination for social justice?
SR: Yes, absolutely.
SO: When you were Secretary General in the 1970s, how far was Uganda a complicating factor for the Commonwealth?
SR: It was a complicating factor because Obote had been very prominent in the early stages of the anti-apartheid struggle, both intellectually and politically. At Singapore, he was a prominent black voice.
SO: And then there was the coup.
SR: And then he couldn’t leave! [Laughter]
SO: How did that hit the Singapore meeting? Obviously, you were there…
SR: Well, it didn’t hit the conference because it happened as the conference ended, so it never became a factor in the conference. But what was complicating was the fact that Amin was so well received by Britain. The first capital in the Commonwealth that Amin visited was London. The first Prime Minister he was greeted by was Ted Heath – warmly, at Downing Street. That did not go down very well, and four years later the Uganda issue became a dominant issue at Gleneagles. It posed a very important challenge for me in terms of what kind of leadership should come from the Secretary General. You need to cast your mind back to 1975-77, when the issue of non-interference in internal affairs was dogma. It wasn’t like now. It was dogma then. So, the UN wouldn’t touch Uganda. The Human Rights Commission in Geneva wouldn’t take it on its agenda. It was internal affairs. I took it on at Gleneagles and made a presentation to the Heads at the Retreat in which I tried to intellectualise the right to interfere. The way I dealt with it was to say that, “There is a line beyond which abuse of human rights and human dignity anywhere in the world becomes the world’s business. I don’t know how you draw the line, and it hasn’t been drawn yet, but there are situations when you know that, wherever that line is, it has been crossed, and that’s Uganda. However that line has been drawn, it’s been crossed. When it’s crossed, it’s the right of everyone – especially members of the Commonwealth – to condemn.”
SO: How did that go down?
SR: It went down pretty well, because everybody at the time wanted to square condemnation with maintenance of the principle of non-interference. So, you weren’t breaching the principle but you were saying, “It’s gone too far.” Without having to define what is “too far”.
SO: But in strict legal terms, after all, non-interference was the basis of South Africa’s claim to international legality and sovereignty.
SR: Absolutely, and I drew on that.
SO: “We must be consistent”?
SR: “We must be consistent,” and they were: they condemned Amin. It didn’t do much more, but it was a big step for Africa and for the Commonwealth to condemn the abuse of human rights in an African country. The interesting thing was that, two weeks later, the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva took the same line. They came out and condemned Amin.
SO: Backtracking a little bit, did condemnation in any way extend to the Commonwealth as a diplomatic actor taking a stance on the issue of the expulsion of Ugandan Asians? Or was that really a bilateral issue between Kampala and London?
SR: No, it didn’t.
SO: After this 1977 condemnation by the Commonwealth of the Amin regime’s human rights record, did Commonwealth diplomacy play out in any other way towards Uganda?
SR: Yes, it did. We promoted anything that would get rid of Amin. I had a big struggle at that very conference – before the condemnation – with Prime Minister James Callaghan, because the 1977 meeting was chaired by Callaghan. I took the early position with Callaghan, one-to-one, of, “Don’t worry, Amin isn’t going to come. I’m going to see to it that he doesn’t come.” I didn’t know how I was going to do it, [Laughter] but my notion was that I’d get the Africans to make it clear to Amin that he was not welcome.
SO: But Amin very definitely wanted to come.
SR: Very definitely! But we put so much pressure on them, and he was such a consummate showman.
SO: How did the ‘squeeze-play’ work?
SR: [Laughter] Well, it worked through the Africans and through me, personally, saying that it would be very disruptive.
SO: Was there one key lever?
SR: [Laughter] What did count was the British making it very clear that he was not welcome.
SO: When you say “the British”, which aspect of….?
SR: It would be diplomacy – British Ambassadors, British messages from Downing Street…
SO: Ah, okay. It wouldn’t have come from the Palace?
SR: Not the palace; not the palace, at all. It would have come from Downing Street. And Amin gave me the impression [that], “It’s all right; I’m not going to come.” I, in turn, reassured Callaghan that he wasn’t coming, because Callaghan, by then, was terrified of the political fall-out in Britain if Amin did come: the fallout for him, the fallout for the Commonwealth. All went well until two days before the CHOGM was to open, when I got a screaming message from Callaghan, [asking me] to come and see him. So, I pelted over to Downing Street. He said, “Sonny, you told me all was going to be well! It’s not well! Amin is in an aeroplane over Ireland. We’re not going to give him landing rights. But this is now a big diplomatic incident!” I said, “Who told you he’s in an aeroplane?” Callaghan said, “Our intelligence sources tell us.” I said, “Well, I have not heard anything from Uganda, which suggests that he has left Uganda and I would have thought that was likely to happen.” He said, “Look, I’m giving you two hours.” Until then, I had schooled him never to say, “You can’t come”: “This is a member of the Commonwealth. As host, you can’t say that to a member.” So, what he was telling me was, “I’m giving you two hours and then all bets are off. [Laughter] I am going to say to Amin, ‘You’re not going to be allowed to land’.’’ Well, it was pretty frantic. I got in touch with the whole of the Front Line States. They all said to me they didn’t think that he had left Uganda, and I reassured Callaghan that this was my information. “Be very careful about this message, because Amin is a showman.” Thank God, within two hours, it was established that he was very much in Kampala. He had let it be known to the press that he was coming.
SO: Because that would have provoked a public declaration by the British Government, and then he could assume the persona of an affronted, excluded Commonwealth leader.
SR: And I would have been in a position where I would have had to say I couldn’t sanction it.
SO Did you ever go to Kampala?
SR: At an early stage, yes. I felt that I had to make a move as the new Secretary General, and I made an official visit to Uganda. I took my wife with me and Amin was the epitome of charm. There was no hostility emanating from him; he was a good Commonwealth man. He welcomed the Secretary General, he got my wife to open an exhibition that he was to have opened, and stood down so that she could do it. Then he said [that], as the centrepiece of this welcome, he was going to open a game park, which was something that he prized very highly. And he was going to name it after me: ‘The Ramphal Game Park’.
SO: Better than a shopping centre!
SR: [Laughter] He then decided he was going to fly us, himself, by helicopter, because this game park was about 300 miles from Kampala.
SO: Did he have a helicopter pilot’s licence?
SR: I’ve no idea! [Laughter] But, he flew it. My wife, Lois, was with me. We were terrified!
SO: I bet you were! [Laughter]
SR: But he flew it very competently, and we landed at this remote game park – then called the Queen Elizabeth Game Park. The whole diplomatic corps was there. I was introduced to them and I thought they were a pretty surly lot. They didn’t look at all happy and didn’t really greet me. Something was wrong! Eventually, I remember, the German ambassador took me aside and he said, “Look, nobody’s going to tell you if I don’t tell you, but we do this at least once every three months. What is more, we have to drive!” [Laughter]
SO: So, you said, “Well, after that helicopter ride, I wish I had, too!” [Laughter]
SR: That’s the level of the games that Amin was up to.
SO: As you say, buffoonery, but dangerous buffoonery.
SR: Very, very dangerous.
SO: When the civil war erupted, was the Commonwealth in any way in touch with Museveni’s forces, thinking ahead of what was likely to happen?
SR: No, not at all.
SO: Were you in any way aware of Tanzania’s particular interest in the outcome?
SR: Oh, yes. I, like most of the Commonwealth, was pleased that Tanzania engaged. Although, in fact, they did cross over into Uganda and I remember Trudeau – again, out of principle – saying he couldn’t support Tanzania invading Uganda.
SO: Was the Tanzanian High Commission here in London giving you detailed briefs about what was going on?
SR: Yes. The High Commissioner, Tony Nyaki, was especially close to Julius, who took the right line: “We followed them across the border; we didn’t invade.”
SO: So, the Ugandan army overstepped the line: a question of ‘dynamics on the ground’. I have one last question about the 1970s and other internal problems which you felt might have required a statement from you. One such issue was Northern Ireland. Did the Commonwealth act behind the headlines in any way on the Northern Ireland issue?
SR: No, not until later. Not in that early stage. And I didn’t think there was any disposition from any quarter in the Commonwealth to act.
SO: But, the 1980s, in the run up to the Anglo-Irish agreement…
SR: Yes, I made a visit to Northern Ireland.
SO: Were you invited or was this on your own initiative?
SR: Well, I wanted to go, and then I got invited to make a speech. I went – with the blessing of the Foreign Office – and made my reconciliation speech.
SO: Were the Secretary General’s ‘good offices’ used in any way?
SR: No. Again, it was Britain: this was a domestic matter. I don’t think Britain wanted the Commonwealth to get involved at all.
SO: But did Ireland want the Commonwealth involved?
SR: No, no.
SO: Ireland seems to have paid particular attention to the Commonwealth since its withdrawal in 1949.
SR: Later on, in the days of Garrett FitzGerald, I had personal contacts with him and that was his disposition.
SO: But in the 1970s and 80s, leading up to the Anglo-Irish agreement, this was not an encouraged role on your side?
SR: No, no.
SO: Sir Sonny, thank you very much indeed. If I could come back to you again to continue this discussion, that would be excellent.
[END OF AUDIOFILE PART ONE]
Transcript Part Two:
Location: The Garden House, Bridgetown, Barbados
Date: 29th January 2015
SO: In your interview with me in 2007, I remember you describing your involvement in resolving the [Zimbabwe] land issue behind the scenes at the Lancaster House talks in 1979: your discussions with the American Ambassador, Kingman Brewster; his immediate contact with the State Department to get Cyrus Vance’s agreement; and President Jimmy Carter’s endorsement of unspecified American funding for land restitution. Do you feel that the advent of Ronald Reagan’s presidency contributed to the unravelling of the Zimbabwe land story?
SR: Yes, of course. Because, had Carter remained, he might have even pushed Thatcher and Carrington in the direction that we had agreed. But that whole scene changed.
SO: Indeed. At the time, in 1980, did you have a conviction that the British Government would hold good to its promises? I know that Christopher Soames came back when he was Governor – after the election but before Independence – and was pressing people in the Treasury, and the Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, saying, “We have to commit more to address Rhodesia/Zimbabwe’s problems.” I understand the Secretariat was encouraging this, arguing, “Forget this relatively small promised figure. They need a massive injection of funds.”
SR: That’s right.
SO: So, were you part of that lobbying process?
SR: Yes, of course. Because I felt I had persuaded – or helped to persuade – Mugabe to stay [in the Lancaster House talks in October 1979]…They were on the point of going!
SO: Yes, indeed.
SR: And Lancaster House would have been abandoned. And Carrington had his plan for that end; he would have negotiated with Muzorewa and Smith.
SO: He would have done, yes. The ‘second best’ option, it was called.
SR: Yes, that’s right. So, I felt a personal responsibility, as it were. But I had grave doubts whether Carrington was going to fulfil his promises and, much less, go further. But Mugabe himself had bought into the promise. He believed things were going to happen, and he became this angelic figure to the whites – to the Foreign Office, to everybody.
SO: Sir, so much attention on Zimbabwe is identified with the persona of Robert Mugabe and yet he obviously was under pressure from his own party: from the radicals within ZANU-PF who wanted to go further, to go faster. So, he – to a degree – needed to ‘ride the tiger’, right back in 1980. There were those in ZANU-PF who thought they had power now. They needed control of the commanding heights of the economy to accelerate change, and the agricultural sector was a vital element of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe’s political economy.
We identify very much the story of Zimbabwe since independence with the story of Robert Mugabe. Surely we need to look wider than that to understand why what happened did happen.
SR: He was pretty dominant. He won the war; he won the election. He was the father figure of independence. He was, by disposition, authoritarian. I don’t think the others could have influenced him too much. Josiah Tongogara had passed on.
SO: Yes, he died in a car crash on 26 December 1979.
SR: Nathan Shamuyarira was not strong enough, politically. They all knew these things were happening, but there wasn’t really any redistribution.
SO: So, what about the political problems in Zimbabwe after independence? The Commonwealth had invested so much into a successful Zimbabwean transition; hence the added joy of Zimbabwean Independence in 1980. But once the violence started in Matabeleland in 1983, were you in any way able to reach out to Robert Mugabe, to moderate the treatment of Joshua Nkomo’s supporters?
SR: Robert distanced himself a little from the Secretariat.
SO: Did he now?
SR: He became the darling of the Foreign Office. He drew closer to Carrington, which was the British game plan anyway. So, we weren’t able to exercise the same influence that we did during the struggle.
SO: Were you in any way trying to use discreet, quiet diplomacy to stop the violence in Matabeleland?
SR: Oh, we were. It began with, you know, what we tried to do when the Government was formed: try to keep Joshua involved. And we tried to persuade him to accept Mugabe’s offer, but he was caught up with his own belief – which was wrong – that he won the election: that Britain had stolen the election result, that he was really the Father of the Nation [and] then this upstart has stolen it, all of which was really quite wrong. And Joshua was himself not free of his own game plan, because he would have joined into any kind of power structure that emerged without Mugabe from Lancaster House.
SO: Indeed. I know that British Foreign Secretary David Owen, for instance, had been trying to reach out to him in 1979, and [of] Owen’s secret diplomacy to try to expand the Internal Settlement to include Nkomo. As you say, behind the scenes at Lancaster House, there were those in the Foreign Office who were thinking of getting rid of Mugabe, trying to drive a wedge between him and Joshua Nkomo, with a view to a Nkomo/Muzorewa deal. Richard Luce and Ian Gilmour, who were both members of Carrington’s team, protested very strongly against this.
So, when you started to hear of violence in Matabeleland, the Gukuruhundi campaign, did you feel you could speak out? To say, “The Commonwealth is going to take a stand on this”, or not?
SR: You know, we didn’t, because we were becoming caught up in South Africa. There is a story – which I can’t vouch for – that one influence on Mugabe was the ANC: that it did not suit the ANC for things to be going bad in Zimbabwe. Not ‘bad’ as between Joshua and Mugabe, but ‘bad’ as between the whites and Mugabe. In other words, that moratorium period on accelerated land reform suited the ANC, because that was the period of negotiation in South Africa. And the message [that] Mugabe may have been getting from the ANC was, “Cool it. We don’t want this stirred up in Zimbabwe.”
SO: “Cool it” on the land question? That I can understand, in the context of the early 1990s, once the ANC had been unbanned as a political party and [was] in negotiations with the NP government…
SR: Yes, and it was mainly the land.
SO: …but you feel that this was also a knock-on factor in the 1980s? Such that it influenced ANC attitudes to the news of what was coming out of the violence in Matabeleland?
SR: Yes. If you notice, the ANC didn’t, as it were, intervene.
SO: But if they were focussing on their own struggle…?
SR: That’s right, which is understandable.
SO: And if, indeed, it was believed that South Africa was behind what was going on in Matabeleland – with Super ZAPU and associated stimulated unrest – the logic then would be to keep the focus on the struggle in South Africa, from the ANC leadership in exile – from Oliver Tambo, from Thabo Mbeki. That has a logic.
I’ve wondered, Sir, given your extraordinary diplomatic, intellectual and emotional investment in Zimbabwe’s Independence, whether you felt a particular commitment to make sure that Zimbabwe worked as well as possible.
SR: Yes, it was, but Mugabe made it difficult.
SO: Indeed, he did.
SR: As I say, he distanced himself from us. He became closer to Carrington – did you know that?
SO: I did. And I also know that, for instance, he permitted the British and the Americans to bug the Soviet Embassy when this was finally opened in Salisbury/Harare.
SR: Yes. It would be unthinkable of the Mugabe we know.
SO: I know, exactly. I think it was quite a revelation to some Americans and some of the Brits who had convinced themselves before 1980 that Robert Mugabe was close to Moscow.
Sir, I’m also aware that Sir Don McKinnon asked you if you could contact Mugabe when things started to deteriorate after the referendum and Presidential election in 2000.
SR: Yes, Don asked me to write him, and I did. I never got a reply.
SO: Did you not?
SR: I pleaded with him.
SO: I must admit, I have been asked by the LSE Africa programme to prepare an obituary for the eventual day when Robert Mugabe is no more.
SO: I am going to take the line that this has been the tragedy of Robert Mugabe – as well as the tragedy of Zimbabwe – because I genuinely believe that.
Sir, another question I have coming out of your book is this: given your emphasis as Secretary General on supporting post-Independence, nation-state building – supporting everything that young states needed – and on joining the Commonwealth, it seems to me that you fostered diplomatic independence [and] support for bureaucrats where you could. You gave the lead on opposition to the apartheid state in South Africa. I was wondering why you didn’t talk more about the Commonwealth and development. You obviously make express reference to your participation in the Commissions and the expert groups…
SR: Yes, the expert groups.
SO: Yes. And your membership and contribution to the Brundtland Commission, the Brandt Commission, and the importance of those Commissions in dealing with the challenges of the day that were not being addressed elsewhere because of the Cold War. It is excellent to have that detail. But I was also wondering about the Commonwealth and the Secretariat and development, on your watch?
SR: I thought I had looked at that in detail, actually. There certainly was no policy on my part to downplay this. I was anxious to get across that the Commonwealth was not just about Africa, that the development dimension was very big: all about the New International Economic order, the part that all the expert groups played. Maybe I didn’t do it strongly enough in my book.
SO: Perhaps I was just greedy for more!
SR: [Laughter] Maybe. I was also conscious that, when you went deep into the development issues, a lot of their arguments were technical, and I didn’t want to load it with technical stuff that the reader I was aiming for would find dull.
SO: Well, Sir, I understood you were writing to appeal to a wide-ranging audience – just as when you give a keynote lecture, you pitch it for a specialist audience, for those who have lived the experience, as well as to a generalist audience. It’s very difficult to satisfy all who are going to read it.
SO: Please could you add more, now, on CFTC and its role? I am aware it had considerable autonomy in the Secretariat during your time…
SR: Now, I didn’t regard CFTC as the heart of the development effort. The heart of that development effort was in the Economic Affairs Division, with people like Vishnu Persaud and Vince Cable…
SO: Yes, and Peter Marshall.
SR: Led by Peter Marshall. And the Commissions provided an opportunity for them to further ideas developed in the Secretariat in an international forum, like the work we did with the Brandt Commission. I don’t know how much further I could have gone.
SO: As you say, so much of the work was technical and it was – to use a modern expression – ‘slow burn’. The Secretariat seems to have been a real powerhouse for economic ideas…
SR: That’s right.
SO: …for practicalities: the ‘applied economics’ approach of, say, Professor Mike Faber, rather than the theoretical economic, academic approach.
SR: Right. Maybe I didn’t say enough about CFTC. Well, CFTC was that practical arm in which we helped countries, at the practical level. I would say. That may be relevant. But it does not reflect any lack of conviction, on my part, that CFTC was a very central feature of our work and a very successful dimension of our work.
SO: In that it was a key feature, did you work expressly to expand its activities?
SO: To boost its funding?
SR: Absolutely. I don’t have the figures now, but it was the great day of CFTC – the great time of CFTC. I was conscious that, for many Commonwealth leaders, that’s what the Commonwealth meant to them. When Ratu Mara could pick up a telephone and tell me he wanted a harbour master next week, and we could deliver it, because we could pick up another telephone and call Lee Kuan Yew and say, “Ratu Mara’s in trouble. We need a harbour master. Can you get one?”, and they did. That was the Commonwealth in action.
SO: You are emphasising the element of personal, high-powered networks for immediate delivery at point of need.
SR: That’s right. And at the country level they then compared that with everything else: with the UN Agencies and bilateralism, things which took months and months. So, the Commonwealth was delivering in a practical way.
SO: So it was – to use more recent expressions – ‘nimble’? It might have been relatively small scale in terms of multilateral aid, but it was the speed of delivery and flexibility that was key.
SR: That’s right. I accept that: you’re the first person to mention that to me, that maybe I could have said some more on CFTC.
SO: Well, Sir, your memoir was over 650 pages.
SR: [Laughter] Yes.
SO: So, there is a point when one’s publisher says, “Stop!”, even though you want to go on. [Laughter]
You say, Sir, that it was the heyday of what the Commonwealth meant. In the 1970s, it was the time of the independence of the ‘Pacific empire’ for Britain…
SO: Shortly after this, many smaller and micro states became independent. The debate about the New International Economic Order was under increasing attack from the World Bank – with the publication of the Berg Report – and from Thatcherism, Reaganism, and the associated international finance institutions’ demands for ‘rolling back the state’: deregulation, the floatation of currencies, and privatisation. So, particular emphasis on the continuing need for development and development funds was under attack in economic discussions from a number of powerful financial quarters. Do you recall how you continued to fight this in the 1980s?
SR: Well, first of all, I dealt with this issue, this problem, in the chapter on ‘The Other World’ [in Shridath Ramphal, Glimpses of a Global Life (Hertfordshire: Hansib, 2014)] – all about McNamara and poverty, and all of that. I tried to deal with the small states dimension and the particular emphasis that the Commonwealth began to place on small states in the conclusion of the ‘Grenada’ chapter. But, really, what it boils down to on the Grenada issue was [the] vulnerability of small states and all of that, which continues to this day. So, that’s what I would say to you.
SO: I was just wondering whether your championing of CFTC – its work and its funding – became more problematic as the international economic climate shifted?
SR: Not in my time. I think the waning of CFTC came afterwards.
SO: I know the High Level Appraisal Group which was launched at Kuala Lumpur – your final Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which saw the selection of Chief Emeka as your successor – included the review of the working of the Secretariat. As Secretary General, Chief Emeka had the intention of bringing CFTC much more under his control within the Secretariat, which had not been your style.
SO: Please, could I ask you about Malcolm Fraser and Michael Manley’s idea of a Common Fund?
SR: Yes, the Common Fund negotiations in Geneva?
SO: I am aware that Prime Ministers Fraser and Manley’s Common Fund idea was to create a fund to help compensate for fluctuations in commodity prices. But there was also a Commodity Fund idea which was something rather different: [aiming] to intervene actively in the market to ameliorate price fluctuations.
SR: Yes, but they kind of got merged. You have to bear in mind [that] Malcolm Fraser was a sheep farmer. He understood commodities; he understood price fluctuations and so on. He understood a farmer’s point of view. Michael Manley was seeing it in developmental terms. But they clicked, and they clicked in personalities, too.
SO: And over cricket, as well!
SR: I haven’t said it in the book, but Malcolm Fraser went down to Jamaica [and] visited Michael Manley…
SO: He did, yes. They met at a ‘mini-summit’ on North-South issues at Runaway Bay in 1979, with the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
SR: Yes, that’s right. And this was among the things they talked about. But developing at the same time in Geneva was the larger international thrust for a Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) writ large. And I think the things merged later so that they didn’t become a Commonwealth proposal.
SO: Okay, I see.
SR: But we worked very hard in support of the Common Fund negotiations. And the person who got drawn into that – and again, you know, I forgot to add this in my memoirs, but can now –…
SO: Please do.
SR: …was Pierre Trudeau. Pierre Trudeau actually angered his bureaucracy by responding to my entreaties to change the position of Canada in Geneva, to be more flexible.
SO: He went against his officials and his advisors?
SR: Well, he went against the Cabinet decision. They had had a Canadian position, which he changed, and they were very angry with me. [Laughter]
SO: Yes, I can just imagine the wrath of the Cabinet: they’d not been able to stamp on their Prime Minister!
SR: And that was really because he’d developed the conviction of Michael and Malcolm; it wasn’t just that he bludgeoned into it. That was Trudeau. Trudeau was an intellectual. That was what the Common Fund argument was all about: this was the way out of poverty.
SO: So, why did that Common Fund for Commodities stumble and fall?
SR: Ah, that was the international community. That was the Americans. That was a bigger fight.
SO: Okay, so that was bigger fight?
SR: Yes. And it became ideological. It was a fight against Milton Friedman, monetarism and market forces. This was a big idea to create an international…
SO: This was intervention at a macro level…
SR: That’s right.
SO: …which was designed to iron out fluctuations in commodity prices.
SR: That’s right. So, it never really happened in the big way we wanted, but the ideas influenced a whole series of developments all around it.
SO: In what way did it influence developments around it?
SR: I think it influenced the whole development debate. [It] changed the climate of delivery. These big UN ideas – that so seldom get accepted as ‘big ideas’ – do infiltrate the thinking of the discussants in a whole variety of other ways and change the climate slightly. And it did change it. It was never the pure monetarist formula after that.
SO: So, the Commonwealth made a contribution to the amelioration of a hard ideological line?
SO: There is another question I would like to put to you, as a researcher. I’d like to suggest that, under your leadership, the Commonwealth manifest very much a Non-Aligned philosophy. I’ve done a lot of work looking at the struggle against white minority regimes in Southern Africa from a Cold War angle: the ideological debates, perceptions of the opposition, the role of the Soviet Union, the PRC, [and] Cuba. Having done this oral history project now for two and a half years, I’ve become increasingly conscious of how the Commonwealth, in its myriad forms, operated as a ‘global sub-system’, but deliberately outside of the Cold War environment.
SR: Yes, and it had to be so. After all, India was of the Commonwealth, and India was the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. My own personal predilections were non-aligned, and I came to the Commonwealth almost straight from chairing the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers meeting.
SO: In Guyana, in 1972. I saw the site of the meeting earlier this week.
SR: Yes, but it burnt down.
SO: Well, there’s a space there in the middle of Georgetown with a big sign saying, ‘The Non-Aligned Meeting’!
SO: I was looking for the huge palm-roof construction you described in your book.
SR: That’s right. And, anyway, I’ve persuaded them to rebuild it, as it was [done] by the Amerindian tribe that had built it, and all that is going to happen.
SO: Good. So, the input of India, as you say, together with your own political background, your own philosophy, ensured the influence of Non-Alignment on the Commonwealth?
SR: And by then, the Cold War antagonism to Non-Alignment was abating. The Cold War was not as ‘cold’ in the 1970s and 80s as it was in the 60s.
SO: No, the 1970s was the period of détente, of course. But the Cold War was also starting to hot up in Southern Africa, with the disintegration of the Portuguese Empire in 1974-75.
SR: Yes, and, of course, PW Botha and the white community’s stand kept the Cold War dimension going in Southern Africa. It suited them. The West would be more steadfast in its support if South Africa could be seen not in apartheid terms, but in Cold War terms.
SO: Well, the National Party leaders were convinced to their very bone marrow of the ideological justification of their policies.
SR: Yes, I know. I saw the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Commonwealth, even before I went to the Secretariat, because…I think that you saw it in Singapore, in 1971, in the stand that Heath was making for this Simonstown Agreement and so on. But that was fading. Within a year or two, Wilson had actually scrapped the Simonstown deal.
SO: In 1974, yes. Sir, you mentioned India, the largest democracy in the Commonwealth. Please could I ask you to reflect on Mrs Gandhi and on India’s attitude and policy towards the Commonwealth during your time?
SR: Well, I was always very conscious that a modern Commonwealth needed India and, in fact, if ever India was lost in the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth would be diminished. That is why, as you see in the book, I said [that], when the idea came up about my going to London, I talked to Mrs Gandhi. I wanted to talk to her: I wanted India on my side. And she was uneasy at first and then I said, “Well, you know, maybe we can do something.”
SO: Her unease was because she felt that the Commonwealth was insignificant?
SR: She felt I was doing a great job with Non-Alignment and she had scepticism about the Commonwealth. So, she said, “Why are you leaving this winning thing to come here?” And I said that we can win here. We can make the Commonwealth something. And she reflected on it and she said, “Okay but, if you go there, you give it a good kick in the balls. It must be vigorous!”
SO: “Shake it up”?
SR: Yes, “shake it up, I tell you.”
SO: Yes, those are the words in your book.
SR: And so, that helped me, that was enabling, and India turned out to be absolutely crucial.
SO: Reflected in your headhunting of Moni Malhoutra?
SR: Oh, that was it. [Laughter] That was very considerable. And that started at Kingston when I got elected.
SO: Is that where you first met him?
SR: That’s right, at Kingston, where I was elected. I knew nobody in the Secretariat, no one, because I wasn’t a frequenter in the Secretariat. I had the Government meetings as a foreign minister, but I didn’t know the staff. I knew Patsy [Robertson], as a West Indian, and I said to Patsy in Kingston, when I was elected, “Tell me about the staff. First of all, tell me who you think is the brightest person?” And she said, “Moni.” So, I said, “I must meet him.” And I explained to her, “Look, if I’m coming here, I want bright people and I want them to be prominent. Is he here? I want to meet him here.” So, I met Moni, I talked to him…
SO: So, he was part of Mrs Gandhi’s entourage at the Kingston CHOGM?
SR: No, Arnold Smith had recruited him, just before.
SO: Ah, because I had believed that he was your appointment to the Secretariat.
SR: No, Arnold had recruited him. He had wanted to leave Mrs Gandhi’s private office – which is what she had used him for, very wisely! So, he wanted a break from that. So, Arnold found him, recruited him, but not very long before [the 1975 CHOGM]. And he was languishing somewhere in the Secretariat, and I said to him at Kingston, “I hear all this about you and so on. I would like you close to me, in my private office.” And I remember his reaction. He said, “Look, I fled from Delhi, from Mrs Gandhi’s private office! [Laughter] I don’t necessarily want to be in a private office.” And I said, “All right, we will talk, but I’m glad you’re there.” You know, he’d been a Rhodes Scholar; he’d been at Balliol. He was brilliant…
SO: A brilliant mind.
SR: …and I identified him straight away as the kind of person we wanted. So, he agreed. I think he became Head of International Affairs Division, and then eventually I got him into the private office. And so, then, at the time of the EPG, he was head of the private office.
SO: Yes, his draughtsmanship of the Commonwealth’s mission’s report…
SR: Oh, it was marvellous.
SO: …together with Jeremy Pope.
SR: Jeremy Pope was the first person I recruited to the Secretariat. He came as Assistant Director and then he became the Director of Legal Division. And he was the Director of the Legal Division for all of my time.
SO: Was that because you identified a particular need for an expert in international or constitutional law? Or just legal drafting?
SR: Just for a good lawyer with good, legal liberal instincts, not a stick-in-the-mud kind of lawyer. And that Jeremy was.
SO: It seems that the calibre of appointments during your time as Secretary General was particularly very high. It was not simply leadership issues: it was also the calibre of appointments across the board.
SR: That’s right. Do you know Peter Williams?
SO: I do, yes.
SR: Just brilliant. Getting people there was really crucial for advancing education. I knew that we had – and would always have – a very small bureaucracy. Therefore, we had to have the best. We were going to be few, but we had to be good. And I had no insecurity that would keep bright people away from me. I wanted them near to me, and I think that was part of whatever success I had at the Secretariat – having around me these people who were respected in their fields, who were activists and [who], because I was giving them their head, were happy in the Secretariat.
SO: Others have commented on the energy when coming to Marlborough House during your time, and the sense of pride in an institution, however small.
SR: I think one of the things that helped is that I would never ask anybody to do what I wasn’t willing to do and join them in doing. I wasn’t a ‘boss’, delegating these hard things to them. Yes, I was delegating, but I was willing to do the 24 hours I expected them to work, and I was willing to sit down and work with them and draft with them.
SO: But also, Sir, inevitably, in any organisation, there are going to be particular areas that draw your time and your attention, so some divisions, departments and units are necessarily on an outer…not an outer burner, because that implies they were of lesser importance, but just that there’s only so much intellectual energy one individual can commit to various portfolios. Did you adopt a highly conscious way of identifying, “This is the prime focus of my work; this is my strategy. On other issues, I have appointed good people. I trust them to do an excellent job and to alert me when there are problems”?
SR: Yes, but it was a broad range that I interacted with. I mean, the Economic Affairs Division…I’m not an economist, but bear in mind we were arguing the case for development [on the world stage]. It was not only a particular thing, it was arguing in the international community.
SR: That McNamara is right.
SO: Sir, as Secretary General, you oversaw the creation of the first Women and Development post.
SR: That’s right.
SO: I just finished interviewing Dorienne Rowan Campbell [appointed when Dorienne Rowan Smillie], which was a pleasure to do.
SO: How political was that appointment?
SR: Oh, very. We were responding to the mood, to the need. I myself was part of that sentiment that not enough had been done, and nothing was being done in the Secretariat except peripherally. And we had to be part of this, and we were lucky in getting her.
SO: Very, very lucky to get her.
SO: She is extraordinarily articulate, energetic and clearly highly adept at networking! When you say it was ‘very’ political, was there any particular group within the Commonwealth – among Commonwealth heads or bureaucrats – who were urging for this, against others who were resistant? I’m just wondering if you can remember where the impulse came from.
SR: I think it came from outside. Well, not outside, because we were part of that outside…It came from the environment. The argument was an international argument, and the Commonwealth was there for part of it. In all major Commonwealth countries, the women’s movement was prominent, so there were all of those pressures. And I believed in it; people in the Secretariat believed in it. So, she didn’t come to a hostile environment. I hope she didn’t find it so.
SO: Sir, if it had been a hostile environment, she would not have been able to achieve what she did.
SO: Sir, if I could go back to asking you about India. I asked about Mrs Gandhi’s particular attitude to the Commonwealth because she, obviously, was the Prime Minister of India when you became Secretary General. She was assassinated nine years later, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, became her successor as Prime Minister before himself being assassinated in 1991. Mrs Gandhi, you indicated, placed most of her international political energies into the Non-Aligned Movement. How great was her commitment to the Commonwealth after you arrived there to start to ‘shake it up’? Was she one of the key heads on whose advice you drew?
SR: Yes, I was close to her. I think she related to me. She was a very special kind of person. She was not effusive, but if she was with you, she was with you. And I think I have, by that personal relationship, [been able] to keep India with the Commonwealth. And that is going to be necessary now.
SO: Did you ever have the sense that she was withdrawing from the Commonwealth?
SR: No, no.
SO: So, there was no undertow of India’s disengagement or contemplated withdrawal – comparable to what Michael Manley suggested in 1979, saying to a Soviet journalist that he was thinking of leaving the Commonwealth and emphasising instead the Non-Aligned Movement?
SR: Yes, well, that was typically Michael! [Laughter]
SO: Oh, he was given to those grandiose statements, was he?
SO: Were you ever worried about that?
SR: No, that was Michael. Mrs Gandhi drew closer to the Commonwealth. I persuaded her to have the Heads of the Government Meeting there [in Delhi in 1983]. I persuaded India to host the Commonwealth Games [in 2010]. Things that you wouldn’t have taken for granted, given their distance.
SO: So, the fact that Mrs Gandhi hosted the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in March of 1983 and then, in October of the same year, hosted the Commonwealth Heads meeting…
SR: That’s right. That said something.
SO: Indeed. At what point did you ask her if she would be prepared to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting?
SR: Oh, it would have been a year…maybe a couple of years before. You see, one of the things I was very jealous of was the decision about the venue of a Commonwealth Heads meeting. And I guarded it because I felt that the venue of a Commonwealth Summit was a Commonwealth asset, which should not be left to the ambitions of Heads of Government or a particular Head of Government. It should be used to forward the interests of the Commonwealth. It was necessary, I felt, that India should host the summit meeting. So, it was never in my time a situation where you had a summit meeting and then you came to an agenda item where the next one would be, and somebody puts up their hand. It was not on the agenda. The Secretary General would, in consultation, over the next few months, develop the venue of the next meeting.
If you go through all of my summits, they were all in places that have a special meaning in terms of benefiting the Commonwealth. Now, I thought it was necessary that India identified at the summit level. I thought it was necessary that India hosted the Commonwealth Games and brought the Commonwealth to India. I was conscious that India was not Nehru; Nehru had a close ownership and involvement.
SO: Indeed, it would have been a much smaller Commonwealth between 1949 and 1964: originally, a Commonwealth of seven nations.
SR: Well, precisely. Also, I didn’t have arguments with India because India related naturally to the whole South African agenda. This dated back to [Mahatma] Gandhi in South Africa. India was one of the first to apply sanctions and things like that. So, there was never a problem. And Mrs Gandhi played her part, and then Rajiv. Rajiv was very prominent in Nassau and Vancouver [CHOGMs]. So, I had a good relationship with her, and I had Moni. I had all the access I wanted, behind and in the private office.
SO: So, when Mrs Gandhi declared the State of Emergency in India [from 1975-77], and there was that time of increasing political authoritarianism, did that in any way complicate your particular responsibility as the figurehead for the Commonwealth, as Secretary General?
SR: Not really. Not really. I didn’t have the best of relations with her successor – Morarji Desai [of the Janata Party] – because he was sceptical about the Commonwealth. And the one time that some name emerged against me was under Morarji, and I forget the fellow’s name, but it didn’t get very far. And Indira made it clear that this was not her will – this was not her wish – and, of course, it would never have happened had she been Prime Minster. But, then, Morarji didn’t last very long. [Laughter]
SO: And, as you say, that bid to put up an alternative Secretary General in the run up to the 1979 Lusaka Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting hadn’t been widely canvassed through the Commonwealth. It was obviously very much the product of Indian domestic politics?
SR: That’s right.
SO: Given that there were considerable political tensions within India leading to the State of Emergency, was this something that you felt needed your particular contact with Mrs Gandhi? Or was this something that was a domestic issue within the Indian state, and it was not the responsibility of the Secretary General…
SR: I think it was the latter. I mean, you could be critical of the policy, but this wasn’t a cause for the Commonwealth to take up.
SO: My question comes out of the challenges presented for your job by those various members of the Commonwealth going through periods of authoritarianism and one-party rule, periods of dissent and violence, despite pressing, understandably, for racial justice and universal political rights in South Africa.
SR: Yes, but Amin in Uganda…I took on Amin, and I didn’t just take it on as an event, but tried to argue why the Commonwealth had the right and the duty to intervene and to speak out. And, bear in mind, those were days when the UN never spoke out because of the Charter interpretation. It was the Commonwealth that really – with Uganda – broke the ice.
SO: And those were the discussions you had at the Gleneagles retreat in 1977?
SO: This was in conjunction with the Gleneagles Declaration and sports sanctions coming in?
SR: That’s right. Because the international environment said, “Don’t interfere, this is domestic,” and I tried to argue, “But we know the line is crossed – I don’t know where the line is but it has been crossed in Uganda.” And they bought it, and they spoke out.
SO: Yes. Sir, as a lawyer, after all, one of the fundamental tenets of international law – embedded into the United Nations Charter – is sovereignty and associated non-intervention in a country’s domestic affairs. This was the consistent and perennial argument by the National Party government of South Africa, claiming that they were abiding by the UN Charter…
SO: Of course, South Africa had been one of the founder signatories, because of Smuts in San Francisco in 1945. How did you address that, as a lawyer?
SR: That it needed an interpretation which squared with the rest of the Charter, and in particular with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yes, you had to respect it, but there were limits to it. There was a time when sovereignty could get so bad that it had to be trimmed. So it was in South Africa; so it was in Uganda. You know, and you could go…well, and the next encounter was Grenada.
SO: Indeed. So, in a sense, this is one of the antecedents of the doctrines that emerged by the end of the 1990s: of the responsibility to protect, and duty to assist?
SR: Yes, that’s right. It evolved – and it evolved slowly – but it was consistent with what we were doing. I mentioned Grenada because that was particularly poignant for me, because it was in the Caribbean. There were people I knew closely. Before they intervened in there and all that, the Commonwealth was the first to go down to Grenada when they had the coup.
SO: In 1979?
SR: Yes, and I said, “This isn’t on, this. Gairy was an ogre and all that, but you’ve got to regularise this. You have to have the election here.” And, of course, they rejected me. But that was the Commonwealth line, and I had many Caribbean countries against me.
SO: Before the interview started, I’d mentioned Rashleigh Jackson’s recollection of the concern around the precedent that the New Jewel Movement coup of 1979 had set, as well as their relief that the ‘ogre’, as you put it, had gone. The first time in a Caribbean country…although, it was ‘coup by radio’…
SR: That’s right.
SO: I’ve also seen in Mrs Thatcher’s papers [via the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website] the response from her Private Office to you, Sir, when you forwarded the Grenadian Government’s letter…
SR: [Laughter] Right.
SO: …saying that they were acutely concerned that there was about to be an American invasion – this is the March-April of 1983 – and asking for British assistance.
SR: Right. Isn’t that wonderful to have those documents now?
SO: It’s terrific. But what is also disconcerting, with the benefit of hindsight, is the response of the British Government. Because you forwarded the letter, and…
SR: She scribbled in the margin, “Why did he do that?” [Laughter]
SO: Yes, she did indeed! And then the Foreign Office were sending messages back to Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, saying these acute concerns about a US invasion are “fanciful” – I apologise, but my father’s name [Cranley Onslow] is at the bottom of that FCO letter! But the concern of the Grenadian Government that there would be a violent overthrow of the New Jewel government was very obvious and sincere.
SR: And [that’s] why I spent so much time on Grenada in my book, because it reflected lot of things: the Thatcher-Reagan relationship…
SO: But also, Sir, [it reflected] what was felt about that relationship between countries within the Caribbean…
SR: Oh, yes.
SO: …and the broader context of the Cold War in the Caribbean from the viewpoint of those smaller states. When I was in Georgetown at the beginning of this week, I was reading newspaper reports on the Commission of Enquiry into the assassination of Dr Walter Rodney in 1980. There was lengthy reporting of the evidence provided by Robert Allan Gates, who seemed a rather questionable witness. Gates had given his statement to the Commission two or three days before, and what came through powerfully was his description of the concern among certain elements of the Guyanese security forces, his account of the autonomy of the particular unit within the police, the justification of “arms and ammunition” in the Joint Intelligence Command in eliminating a radical politician and head of the Workers People’s Alliance (WPA), who was on the extreme left. As I was reading, I was thinking, “This is really the climate of the Cold War.”
SR: Yes, and, you know, Reagan was a ‘Cold Warrior’; so was Thatcher. And it was probably easy for him to believe – if he did believe – that the Cubans were militarizing Grenada, which they weren’t. But, if you’re a Cold Warrior, it doesn’t take a lot to believe that.
SO: Former Jamaican Prime Minister Eddie Seaga made reference to Cuban ‘soldiers’ firing at the landing American troops – saying that, when the Americans arrived, it was the Cubans who fought back, because they were all soldiers; they were not workers on the airstrip. I was thinking, “But wait! They would have done their compulsory military service as Cuban nationals on leaving school; they weren’t ‘soldiers’!”
SR: That’s right! That’s what all Cubans did. Oh dear! Seaga did not cover himself with glory over that.
SO: And he didn’t come to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Delhi, either.
SR: No, he didn’t. He dared not.
SO: Seaga said, “I needed to stay in the region. There were demands of national security.”
SR: I don’t know if he has looked at the Grenada chapters.
SO: Well, I don’t know, but he was very keen, understandably, that I should read his book on Grenada.
SR: There are two books. [Laughter] He was locked into the inner group in Washington, and there, Tom Adams was his buddy. But here, they had begun to have a real fear of the radical movements, because those fellows used to talk wildly about overthrowing governments.
SO: There really seems to have been that perception: of being on the back foot. And the rest of it, as with so much of the Cold War, was conditioned by that climate of fear.
SR: Yes. And, you see, you take little islands – like here, Barbados, or St Vincent. If you have a little radical movement that is developing on a regional scale, and is talking about revolution, you are defenceless. And fear…
SO: Well, looking at police or the armed forces’ numbers at the time, Barbados had the largest in the region – with 270 members in its defence force.
SR: [Laughter] Right. So, that played a big part in their reaction. You know, I think [their] reaction was bad and wrong and all that, but I know what forces played on them. And with Seaga urging, locking in to the Americans, and being able to say, “The Americans will do this for you, but you must give them cover.”
SO: Sir, what was your former Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s particular approach? I understand that Belize, Trinidad and Guyana were all against intervention.
SR: [George Cadle] Price was a good man, but he had his own problems in Guatemala. In the Eastern Caribbean, it was Guyana and Trinidad – Burnham [in Guyana] and Chambers in Trinidad – who tried to make a stand, but…
SO: Were they on the phone to you straight away when the news of the invasion came through?
SR: Oh, yes. I was on the phone constantly – not only with them, but I was talking with people like Tom Adams and so on.
SO: Yes, I understand Tom Adams’ own cabinet was divided. Dame Billie Miller confirmed this.
SR: Yes, that’s right. But, well, it wasn’t a good time.
SO: No, not at all.
SR: You didn’t go to Grenada, then?
SO: Sadly, no. But the project funds, sadly, don’t stretch to this.
SR: I wouldn’t know who to tell you to talk to in Grenada now…
SO: It’s been thirty years since Operation Urgent Fury.
SR: And they are still very confused.
SO: Indeed, it was a very large rock to drop into a small pool.
SR: Yes, but, the thing about writing – and writing as late as I did – was the benefit of the thirty-year rule [on the declassification of documents]. I’ve actually seen the US Army report on the operation in Grenada.
SO: Sir, I wanted to ask you about this. I have a little note saying that you used documents from the Thatcher archives, under the thirty-year rule, but that you wouldn’t have seen [these documents] at the time.
SO: I’m fascinated by how you tell your story in your memoir, because any memoir is retrospective, yet you would not have been privy to these inner discussions in Whitehall or in Thatcher’s Cabinet office.
SR: Well, what those documents did, really, was to confirm all we thought at the time. I mean, we thought Thatcher was locked in with Botha, and we could have said that, but not until you see the letters.
SO: So, your usage of these documents in your book is to illustrate that these prove to be later confirmations of your beliefs at the time?
SO: I would like to ask you…As a lawyer, though, is there a problem of thinking, “Yes, I believe I thought that,” or, actually, “Goodness me, that causes me to revisit what I believed at the time.” Were there any revelations in those documents, once you got hold of them? Which prompted you to think, “I don’t remember that particular conviction”?
SR: Not really. They were a confirmation. Sometimes there were indications that it was really worse than I thought it was. I think that initial letter by PW Botha was striking: the long letter he wrote to her on [the] strategy of Apartheid.
SO: Now, let’s think…He wrote her a long letter on the strategy of apartheid in February of 1980: is that the one you’re thinking of?
SO: No, I remember, because I’ve looked at it. At that point, PW Botha was reaching out to Thatcher – just at the time of Zimbabwe’s transition to independence, after the Lancaster House settlement. The letter was written during the election campaign period, before the actual elections, because he wanted a united stand in Southern Africa. And, actually, if you look at all of the British notes, Carrington was warning Thatcher to be careful with this one, and to proceed with extreme caution. And Thatcher was listening to her Foreign Secretary at this particular moment. She was a relative novice in international affairs, and was focussing principally on the economy. It’s very interesting to see how the British were calculating to send Lord Hunt as a trusted but relatively low-key emissary down to South Africa after the Zimbabwe elections.
SR: Yes, one of the things that emerged more clearly for me was the complex nature of Thatcher’s personality. You know, I may have said it there: she was more than one person.
SO: Do you think it was a case that she presented different sides of herself, as we do as human beings?
SO: Or, perhaps, that she actually had this complex persona in every situation, despite her well-known combative carapace?
SR: And many things played in, you know. She might work out the Cabinet position but then you get into a situation, like in Rhodesia. Then, all kinds of forces begin to enter the picture – like the Queen and Malcolm Fraser and the Church – and how does she react? And she sometimes, in those situations, reacted differently; unpredictably. And I think she was a little unpredictable to Carrington, as well.
SO: Oh, yes. He used to describe his debriefing sessions with Thatcher during the Lancaster House talks as his ‘other negotiations’.
SR: Yes. [Laughter] And that was part of British politics. He was not loved in the right wing of Tory party.
SO: I know. He went to the Conservative Party Annual Conference in October 1979 and there were banners in the hall saying, ‘Hang Carrington!’ Indeed. Although, Julian Amery – his most fearsome critic from the platform – then shared a carriage with Carrington back to London and they drank some wine together. So, that’s British politics!
SR: That’s British politics, yes. But I think he promised her a result other than Mugabe. His whole handling of the Lancaster House Conference…
SO: Well, it’s interesting you should say that, Sir, because I’ve read elsewhere that Lord Carrington was more pessimistic about the outcome of the Lancaster House negotiations. Although, as things developed, he felt that these negotiations were acquiring their own momentum, which is an important thing in negotiations. But that Thatcher, in contrast, was more positive, in the sense that these negotiations would work and win through. Obviously, this sense was not something either Thatcher or Carrington conveyed to you…
SR: I think that was what he conveyed to her.
SO: There was a lovely description, recently, from Michael Heseltine, talking about Mrs Thatcher, in which he said, “There is an extraordinary gap between what Mrs Thatcher thought and said, and what people thought she thought and said.” And I thought, “That’s a beautiful summary!” It goes back to your point about complexity.
SR: Yes, very complex.
SO: Sir, do you think overall, then, that she was a Commonwealth asset in a strange way?
SR: Yes, in a strange way, because she made it happen.
SO: But was she a Commonwealth asset…
SR: Well, to say a ‘Commonwealth asset’ implies too much.
SO: I’m trying to be provocative here, because there’s so much negativity attached to her because of South Africa, and yet…
SR: Yes. No, you can’t say she was a Commonwealth asset.
SO: She was also arguing for PW Botha to accept the Eminent Persons Group. If it hadn’t been for her, PW Botha would not have allowed the Commonwealth mission to visit the country at all.
SR: Yes, allow them to go? Yes, because that was their answer…She needed that to stave off sanctions. The burden of the argument coming at her from Australia, from Canada, [and] from India on sanctions was considerable. The EPG held that. So, getting the EPG to be accepted by South Africa was very important to her. You know, she didn’t expect it to come out the way it did. Yes, she persuaded Botha to accept it, but for her own reasons. It was very important to her.
SO: She also came to Kuala Lumpur arguing that the Commonwealth could start rolling back sanctions because Walter Sisulu had been released, as had others. Although Mandela, of course, was still a prisoner.
SR: That’s right, and that’s why she kept urging Botha to release Mandela. That wasn’t the end of Apartheid.
SO: No, indeed. It was the beginning of the negotiations.
SR: Right. And so, yes, she did do that – but in that context.
SO: I’m not saying that she was driven by altruism – far from it.
SR: [Laughter] No. Actually, she still in her mind regarded Mandela as a terrorist – after the EPG. And I’ve said it.
SO: It’s interesting. I’ve looked at that press release from the Vancouver press conference, which must have made her officials just tear their hair out. And, when the reporter said the ANC have announced that they would target British-owned companies in South Africa as a legitimate target, Thatcher’s response was, “Well, if they say that, then the ANC is a typical terrorist organisation.” She never actually said, “Mandela is a terrorist.”
SR: [Laughter] Yes.
SO: With the benefit of hindsight, it seems to me that she was certainly a lady who would not be told, and who was being wound up by the press.
SR: Yes. But I think in her mind – forget Mandela – she never got rid of the notion that the ANC was a terrorist organisation. And her concept of terrorism was the IRA. The IRA influenced her thinking enormously, and you can understand why.
SO: Totally. Those were the lenses through which she saw another three-letter organisation.
SR: That’s right. “Yes, they’re just like the IRA,” is what she told me. And I’m saying, “They’re not. Think of them as partisans, think of Yugoslavia. You know, the British public have embraced them because they’re fighting for their freedom. That is what these people think they are doing. They’re not terrorists.” “Of course they’re terrorists. They’re just like the IRA.”
SO: Did she also make the connection with the PLO?
SR: No, no. I don’t remember that.
SO: Okay, that’s interesting. Because I have heard it said that Mrs Thatcher had a fundamental loathing of all three-letter political organisations – [Laughter] ANC, IRA and PLO. But the direct domestic analogy was understandable.
SR: That’s the one she made to me. I mean, in another context, she might include the PLO, but…
SO: No, but that is highly specific in the context of the ANC.
SR: Yes, and I understood the IRA thing, because it was so central to her reality: attempts on the Cabinet and all that.
SO: Well, you were living in London. Margaret Thatcher’s great friend and political adviser, Airey Neave, was blown up on the ramp of the car park at the House of Commons, in the run up to the 1979 election. And then there was the attack at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, where she was nearly killed, and friends of hers were. Actually, my father was on an IRA hit list in the late 1980s, and he had to have 24-hour police protection.
SR: Really. Well, he would have been.
SO: And I remember staying with my parents when my son was tiny, running downstairs in the middle of the night, and there were three men sitting round the kitchen table. They put down their assault rifles on the table and I said, “Er, wait a minute…”, and they said, “No, no, it’s fine. We’ll take the baby.” [Laughter]
SR: Really. [Laughter] You had some protection.
SO: Well, my father had to. I had to check under the car every morning if I was staying there. It became very normal.
SR: Well, I understood her IRA thing. And the other thing is, Mrs Thatcher never knew South Africa. You know? I was sorely tempted to say what I have often said: the degree to which she was influenced by the ‘pillow talk’.
SO: By Denis Thatcher? Indeed.
SR: Who knew South Africa well, who…
SO: Well, he knew a type – a version – of life in South Africa. He didn’t know the full, appalling reality of apartheid for black South Africans.
SR: That’s right, no, he didn’t. And there’s that guy who’s so close to Charles…
SO: Oh, Laurens Van der Post.
SR: Those were the lenses. But, you know, you have the other peculiarities. She was many people. It was Margaret Thatcher who nominated me for a second and third term.
SO: Indeed, she had a very high regard for you as an effective Secretary General, hence the signing of the photograph…
SO: …and the lunch that she gave you before you stepped down, that you talk about in your book. She was a generous political adversary, a generous politician.
SR: Yes. But that is not how she would be generally regarded! [Laughter]
SO: No, indeed. It’s the dichotomy of Thatcher, the Iron Lady, hitting people with her handbag, her increasingly authoritarian style in Cabinet, compared with her enormous sensitivity and private kindness to her staff.
SR: At that dinner – and my wife tells me, or reminds me, all the time – she reached out and held her hand all through my speech, and said to her, “Family is so important.” That was the other Mrs Thatcher.
SO: Yes, as you say, that was the other Mrs Thatcher. Sir, please, could I ask you about Dr Mahathir and his changing attitude towards the Commonwealth? Earlier you made reference to the importance of hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the Commonwealth Games…
SR: Yes, well, I take a lot of credit for his change. I spoke to him at great length. I was very anxious to bring Malaysia into the Commonwealth. It was a Commonwealth member, but Mahathir was more sceptical than Trudeau was, in the beginning.
SR: Very sceptical.
SO: Do you know why?
SR: Nothing in particular.
SO: Do you think he remained convinced – erroneously, it must be said – that it was, to a degree, a ‘British’ Commonwealth? The beginning of the 1980s was a time when there was, of course, intense animosity towards the British over the student visa issue: the ‘Buy British Last’ campaign, landing rights…
SR: I think there was that, and I think he was slightly anti-monarchical and translated this into the Commonwealth.
SO: Dr Mahathir had had a particular personal experience of British colonialism, given his age and his own personal background.
SR: Right. And, for all that, I was very keen. And I argued with him.
SO: When did you argue?
SR: Before the Malaysia meeting [in 1989]. Because my object was to try to get a summit in Malaysia. That’s what I meant by saying to you [that] I saw the venues as an asset, and that was the asset: to get Mahathir to hold a meeting. Now, here’s a great sceptic. He really doesn’t believe in it, and I’m telling him, “I understand all the problems you have with the Commonwealth. Change it. Have a hand in doing something about it, not sulking.”
SO: “If you want to change it, get inside and change it”?
SR: “And to do that, you host the summit. You run the summit.” And he did. He rose to the challenge. And then, as it went along, he began to see advantages in hosting the summit. He held a retreat at Langkawi, which was his constituency. He developed this huge conference complex there, and it was a brilliant summit.
SO: Indeed, and the Langkawi Declaration that came out of it: he was determined it was not going to be a single issue summit on South Africa…
SR: That’s right.
SO: And he had to manage the election of the next Secretary General.
SR: Yes, that’s right. And, you know, from there on, he and his wife – his wife played an important part in it – were enthusiastic hosts. They held a sing-song at their retreat, led by the two of them. They are both doctors.
SO: So, how long was this campaign by you to acculturate Dr Mahathir to the advantages of the Commonwealth?
SR: Well, certainly two years.
SO: He made the offer to host the Commonwealth Games at the Vancouver CHOGM; that I know.
SR: Because, by Vancouver, he’d got turned on.
SO: Yes. Were you aware that he had also requested a briefing document from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malaysia and from ISIS – which was his independent think-tank – on the benefits or the disadvantages of Commonwealth membership?
SR: I don’t think so, no.
SO: Both documents argued that, on balance, it was to Malaysia’s advantage to remain in the Commonwealth.
SR: Now you mention it, I seem to recall…I seem to recall the ISIS contents.
SR: Yes. But they were good: I admired the Malaysian Civil Service and the Foreign Ministry.
SO: Mahathir was certainly assisted by a small, high calibre team…
SR: Oh, yes.
SO: …[including] Kamil Jaafar, Musa Hitam and Razali Ismail.
SR: Musa was an ally, because Musa Hitam had been the Chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
SO: Ah, yes.
SR: And there’s much store by that. So, in a sense, he was a Commonwealth man, and I knew I had him on my side.
SO: Razali Ismail was another key Malaysian diplomat who went to New York as their Permanent Representative [to the United Nations]. I know that these figures were very important contributory influences, with whom Dr Mahathir would discuss his foreign policy and use as his sounding board.
SR: Over that period, Mahathir became – and very much through the Commonwealth and through all that we were talking about – very much a man of the South.
SO: Yes, and it’s interesting to see how ASEAN also started to gain a degree of solidity and functional cooperation with the creation of their Secretariat. There appear to have been echoes of the way that the Commonwealth’s bureaucracy was structured and behaved, even if the Commonwealth was not used as a deliberate template.
SR: And, you see, Mahathir began to interact with people like Nyerere – particularly Nyerere – and Kaunda. So, Malaysia, which had always been a little distant from these things, became, under Mahathir…
SO: I’ve been told that: that he was very much reaching out to African brothers…
SR: Oh, yes.
SO: …and that the Commonwealth provided a platform for Malaysia to reach out towards a relatively unknown continent, but one that for Malaysia could prove advantageous.
Sir, with your benefit of the long view, what do you feel about the future of the Commonwealth now?
SR: I’m troubled now; it’s true – very troubled. I think it has lost its way. I mean, my years, in a sense, were lucky because I had a cause.
SO: You did, with development and the struggle against apartheid. And you had a high value media cause.
SR: Right. I think the Commonwealth could have a cause – could have causes – and fight for them and pursue them, but it seems to have lost [its] fight. So, I am troubled, and the choice of the next Secretary General is going to be absolutely crucial.
SO: Yes, Sir, it is.
SR: And I don’t know where it’s going, really.
SO: It seems that the Secretariat is a whisper of its former self.
SR: [Laughter] Yes, it is always hard for me to concur in that, but…
SO: Well, the physical size of it…It’s a much smaller organisation than it was in your day. There has been a dramatic contraction in the number of personnel, and…
SR: In the number and in the quality.
SO: Indeed. It’s diminished in a number of ways. It’s not just a question of the size of the bureaucracy.
SR: No, I know. It’s a hard discussion for me always, because so many people talk about it. “Oh, well, we had the glory days.” But it is bad. And to me, because I really do believe that it is a global asset, it diminishes the global nature [of the organisation]. I was very moved when Kofi Annan did the endorsement of my book – it’s just two lines there, but what he implied about the importance of the Commonwealth, as he saw it from the Secretariat, the UN…
SO: Yes, and, of course, he was a long-standing UN official…
SR: And, as a Ghanaian, you know, I suppose he saw the Commonwealth in larger terms.
Well, it’s a very important thing you’re doing.
SO: It’s been a privilege to do this interview project, Sir, it really has. I’m lucky enough to have talked to an extraordinary range of people who’ve made a difference, and each of whom is a fascinating personal study.
Sir Sonny, thank you so much indeed for a wonderful discussion. I am very grateful indeed.
[END OF AUDIOFILE PART TWO]