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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 20677

Press Conference, Commonwealth Secretariat, London -

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 12/02/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20677

The Secretary General and I have had a discussion about the situation pertaining to Zimbabwe. As you know, I have been endeavouring to arrange a further troika meeting because it is now close to a year since we met here and agreed, in the belief that there would be movement in a positive way, in Zimbabwe to a 12 month suspension.

The South African and Nigerian presidents have indicated that they see little point because of a difference in approach in having a further meeting and I have therefore had to consider what, as Chairman in office, I should do in response to that situation. I think a few points should be made. Firstly, that the 12 month suspension agreed upon almost a year ago was on the basis that progress would be made towards addressing the situation in Zimbabwe.

The evidence available to me does not indicate that any substantial progress of any kind has been made in addressing those issues, that the economic situation has deteriorated, there has been a complete unwillingness on the part of the Government of Zimbabwe to receive the meetings and, if I can put it this way, the mission of the Secretary General. He was given a charge out of the Marlborough House meeting almost a year ago to engage the Government of Zimbabwe and his attempts have been rebuffed and he's made it clear to me as recently as January this year.

In those circumstances, it's my view, very strong view and the view of the Australian Government, that the idea that the suspension of Zimbabwe automatically dissolves in March of this year - that's not a proposition that I would agree with. I think the most logical thing, given the current impasse is that the suspension continue until the full meeting of the Commonwealth which is to be held in Abuja in December. That's the view that the Australian Government has. I think it's supported by an understanding of what was discussed in the meeting in March of last year. The idea of having a 12 month suspension was the believe that progress would be made. Then you can review the suspension and the status of Zimbabwe in the light of progress or lack of progress. There's been a distinct lack of progress. In those circumstances I would think the appropriate thing was to maintain the suspension until the full meeting and that will be the view that the Australian Government will be putting in an appropriate way to other Commonwealth governments.

JOURNALIST:

Is that also the view of the Secretary General?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, that was the view he conveyed to me. He conveyed the view to me in January this year that there could be no question of an automatic lifting of the suspension in the absence of progress. That was the advice the secretariat gave me.

JOURNALIST:

How enforceable is that Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it's an unusual situation. Normally these things are dealt with only at full meetings but you've got to remember that we're operating against the background of the Harare principles, and th Millbrook declaration, and the fact that there was a dishonest election last year. And that was the finding of the Commonwealth Observer Group. That's not my assertion. It was the overwhelming finding of the Commonwealth Observer Group and that's why we have this situation that the conclusion of that Group was that the election was fraudulent and in those circumstances we took the view that there should be a suspension pending responses to the things that we agreed upon. Now, we have to put the mechanism to the Commonwealth. We have to deal with it as best we can between full meetings and it seems overwhelmingly the commonsense thing to do to continue the suspension for what would be another nine months. We're not talking about expulsion. We're not talking about anything other than suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth. Given the evident lack of progress, it would seem to me to be an odd thing, to say the least, and a very unreasonable thing given the way other countries have been treated, countries like Fiji, have been treated to allow Zimbabwe to come back before the matter is discussed. That essentially is my position.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have (inaudible) progress

PRIME MINISTER:

Let's wait and see.

JOURNALIST:

What are you trying to achieve with that suspension?

PRIME MINISTER:

To enforce the principles of the Commonwealth embraced in the past. All organisations act according to certain principles and there was a set of principles called the Harare Declaration. The Commonwealth does stand for a number of very important principles.

JOURNALIST:

If it hasn't worked in a year to date, what are you going to do the next time round?

PRIME MINISTER:

You shouldn't assume. Everything takes a long time in diplomacy.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, the troika decided last year to suspend Zimbabwe from the Councils of the Commonwealth. 2 out of 3 members of the troika now believe that Zimbabwe should be admitted. Don't they have the numbers?

PRIME MINISTER:

No because it doesn't automatically follow that the mandate was given. They were given a mandate by the last meeting at the Commonwealth, and that mandate was to deal with the Zimbabwe situation against the background of the Commonwealth Observer Group. That was the extent of the mandate. We weren't given unlimited authority to decide the status of Zimbabwe. We were simply asked against the background of the Commonwealth Observer Group report to decide what to do and we decided, we received the report, we were concerned at what was in that report, we laid down a number of issues or things, cited a number of issues that needed to be addressed and some procedures and said that, while that's happening we'll suspend for 12 months.

We have to act in acordance with that mandate and given the impasse that's now been reached, it's only logical to say in my view we hold the status quo - it goes back to the full meeting.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, can I just clarify procedures. Will the troika in your view meet again before March and if it doesn't would the suspension of Zimbabwe be automactically revoked?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it is my view that it is not automatically revoked. That is also the view that was put to me in writing by the Secretary General.

JOURNALIST:

So that view prevails because the Secretary General.

PRIME MINISTER:

I will be putting that view to all the members of the Commonwealth. In the end it's in the hands of all the members of the Commonwealth. It's only in my hands or the shared hands of myself and the President of South Africa and the President of Nigeria by virtue of the authority we were given by the last full meeting. We weren't given, as I said a moment ago, unlimited authority to decide Zimbabwe's status. We were given specific authority to deal with the issue against the background of the observer's report. The observers report said it was a dishonest election, found it was a dishonest election, and we then said this and this should happen and while that is happening, and in anticipation of making progress, we suspended Zimbabwe for a year. We'll have a look at it in a year's time. We haven't made progress and two of the three members have said they don't want to have another meeting and are suggesting that progress has been made and we can possibly readmit Zimbabwe. That is not my view and it is manifestly not the case on the publicly available evidence that progress has been made. In those circumstances, I will be arguing to the other members of the Commonwealth that we should simply preserve the status quo until December of this year when the matter can be thrashed out at a full meeting.

JOURNALIST:

Who will make the final decision?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am writing to all the other governments. It's up to them. It will be interesting to see what the responses are. I can't do any more than that.

JOURNALIST:

Is this something that you will take into account? Has there been a strong reaction from African countries for example?

PRIME MINISTER:

The Commonwealth is made up of 55 countries from all around the world. I don't think it's helpful to see this as one region against the rest. I don't think that's helpful to the Commonwealth and I'm not painting it as that. This is an issue of principle. Bear in mind what happened to Fiji. Fiji had the book thrown at it by the Commonwealth before it was re-admitted. And Pakistan is suspended despite the very praiseworthy contribution that Pakistan is making to the war against terror. A very courageous contribution. Pakistan is suspended because it is not regarded as a democratic government. Now the government of Zimbabwe was elected in an election which was found by the Commonwealth Observer Group to have been rorted, to use an Australian expression that you will understand. That's the reality.

This is not based on region or anything else. It's based on principle. And if it's good enough to say to Fiji and Pakistan you can't be in the show because your government is not democratically elected, then many people argue, and myself included, that it's good enough to say the same thing to Zimbabwe.

JOURNALIST:

Does that mean you think Zimbabwe should be fully suspended from the Commonwealth?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think Zimbabwe should be treated in the manner I have suggested.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)situation is based on region (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

We are three members of the troika. I do not choose to talk about it in regional terms. We're three members of a group and I'm not going to divide it on that basis.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) are not defending Nigeria on that basis. Why are they doing that?

PRIME MINISTER:

That's a matter for you to take up with them. I can only do with the reality.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) Commonwealth as a whole.

PRIME MINISTER:

That depends on how it's worked out. If you go back to basics, there's an issue of principle involved here. We've applied the principle against other countries and there's an overwhelming case in my view to apply the same principles to Zimbabwe. And that's all I'm arguing for. Whether it's damaging to the Commonwealth will depend on how the Commonwealth handles it. if the Commonwealth adopts a double standard then it will be very very damaging for the Commonwealth. I mean you can't adopt a double standard on things like this. And might I remind you at the Pacific Forum meeting in Suva, 16, what, countries meeting there 13 or 14 of them were Commonwealth countries and they all expressed a very strong and unambiguous view. So if the Commonwealth adopts a double standard it will do itself great damage on this issue.

JOURNALIST:

There is a tradition Prime Minister of the Commonwealth making decisions by consensus. Is...

PRIME MINISTER:

That's a very good idea for the thing to go back to....another reason why it should go back to the meeting in Abuja. That is....I will, amongst other things, be reminding the Commonwealth of that convention when I write to the leaders.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you're asking me to engage in political commentary. I'll leave that to you.

JOURNALIST:

How moving did you find the memorial service?

PRIME MINISTER:

It was a very nice service, very nice service indeed. And you will be aware that there was a very moving service at St Paul's a few months ago immediately after the tragedy to honour the victims who had died there- most particularly, but not only, the Australians. And I thought as I happened to be in London at the time I it would be a gesture of courtesy to the British families for me to attend. I'm glad I had the opportunity of doing so.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon, I can't hear you.

JOURNALIST:

I'm trying to ask you the consequences of your policy positions on Iraq [inaudible] UN Security Council?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't know that...look we haven't reached....I mean we're still a long way from this thing being finished and I'm not going to make that kind of pronouncement at this stage. I'm really not.

You know my position. It's right and it's the position that the Australian government is adhering to and I never pretended that this was an easy issue but you are asking me to sort of make some evaluation of political challenge and so forth. Well I've stated my position over and over again and I think we're just sort of going around in circles.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] in the past 24 hours in the situation in regard to heading into the Friday report?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't have anything to add to what I said to you a few hours ago. Didn't I mention....

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard...

PRIME MINISTER:

I must of somewhere.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no I saw Lenore outside Claridge's this morning, that's right. And I last saw you in New York.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

No, see that's what happens.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] commented on the comparison with the League of Nations and what have you. Following on from Lenore's assessment, do you regard the current impasse, trans-Atlantic impasse as having potential such serious consequences for things like the United Nations...?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'll leave musings on trans-Atlantic relationships to trans-Atlanticists.

[Ends]

Transcript 20677