The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech in Harare – 17 October 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Harare on Wednesday 17th October 1991.


Mr President, Your Majesty, fellow Heads of Government, Ministers, Secretary General, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a particular pleasure to be able to thank President Mugabe for the warm and friendly welcome that we have all received here in Zimbabwe. And I think in that warm and friendly atmosphere I both hope and believe that today we can see the opening of a new chapter for the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is unique, nothing like it has ever existed and nothing could replace it. It belongs to all of us and in particular perhaps it belongs to the young people who are with us today whose future we will be discussing this week.

When we last met in Kuala Lumpur, East Berlin had just marked the first 10,000 days of the Berlin Wall. Little did the authorities realise, little did anyone realise that that wall would be breached before it was 100 days older. And I must say I had just completed the first 80 days of being Foreign Secretary, little did I realise I would no longer be Foreign Secretary 10 days later. But the world has changed dramatically since we last met. Communism has been discredited and it is being discarded. The events of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have proved that government by centrally controlled ideology is unfair, inefficient and ultimately unacceptable.

People will not be governed indefinitely by a remote authority, people demand the right to express their nationhood and they also increasingly insist on their rights as individuals within each nation.

In the Commonwealth we have long realised that international order is based on cooperation and that where a relationship rests on coercion then there is no basis for cooperation. Our common language is a cornerstone of our organisation but common values are even more important than a common language. Most of the world now agrees that democracy and the rule of law are indispensable to a civilised society. And since its establishment 45 years ago, the principles of the Commonwealth have been based on those values. The common law enshrined in the constitution of nearly all our members is there to uphold the impartial rule of law and our largest country is also the largest democracy in the world – India.

Member states of the Commonwealth have not always applied the values which our organisation represents but we have always held on to those values, they represent a yardstick of behaviour for each one of us. The Commonwealth is well placed to catch the tidal wave of human rights and democracy which is sweeping across much of the world. We can ride that wave or be carried along by it, but we cannot ignore it. This meeting must set the framework for the Commonwealth of the 1990s, we must build on our existing strengths, make the most of new possibilities. But the bedrock of what we must do must be the general application of democracy and human rights. It is on that basis that we can build good government and economic prosperity.

There is no wish to impose particular models. Different parts of the world have different traditions, different means of establishing a consensus, different institutions and different problems. Of course each society will strike its own balance between individual rights and the responsibilities of the state. But recent history shows us that stifling individual rights leads to discontent and economic failure and ultimately collapse.

We must all meet basic standards in human and democratic rights, universal standards, not Western standards. When the Commonwealth discusses those standards the debate is not one part of the membership lecturing another, it is all part of the membership consulting, I hope also agreeing on what we should all strive to achieve. Those achievements should include tolerance of free debate and genuine democracy. That means the rights of our citizens to choose freely who governs them.

These are the yardsticks by which increasingly governments will be judged and thanks to its traditions the Commonwealth can give a lead.
Today President Sam Nujoma joins us for his first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting since Namibia’s independence. For years Namibia was one of the world’s unsolved problems and seemingly some thought unsolvable. It took pressure, internal pressure and external pressure, hard negotiation and ultimately realism to bring Namibia to freedom and independence. And in welcoming Namibia to the Commonwealth we are doing more than simply inviting her to join a club. Namibia is joining an organisation which stands for certain values and which can use its collective strength to help its individual members and to wield influence in world affairs.

In the past there have been differing views about how we should use that influence to bring about fundamental change in South Africa. But all of us have used our influence and all of us can welcome the radical changes that have taken place.

In the last 20 months the South African government have repealed the Land Acts, the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act. The burden that now rests on all the leaders of all sectors of community in South Africa is a heavy one. There will be many obstacles and set-backs in the way of South Africa becoming a genuinely democratic nation. The core issue will be to draft a constitution for majority rule in a multiparty state. We can all play a part in helping South Africa to tackle the obstacles to agreement but only the South African parties themselves can make a new democratic constitution for their country and we all wish them well in that endeavour.

But South Africa will need more than just our good wishes, they will need the help of the international community if they are to return to economic growth which is essential for the stability of South Africa and the prosperity of all the people who live in South Africa.

At the heart of the constitutional negotiations will be the values that we and the Commonwealth hold to be fundamental. I hope and I believe those values will be carried through into a new constitution and I look forward to the day when a non-racial South Africa might want to rejoin us. And we must in any case stand ready to re-admit South Africa to the international community of nations.

As old problems are solved so a new agenda unfolds. On the environment, drugs, anti-terrorism, health, Commonwealth members have long had a tradition of cooperation. In these fields and others Britain stands ready to help where it can. Eighty percent of British development aid goes to members of the Commonwealth.

Next year the United Nations will hold a conference on environment and development, a unique event. So far progress in preparing that conference has been slow, there is little sign yet of real consensus as to what the conference’s outcome should be. But here I believe the Commonwealth can give a lead. We, the Heads of Government can give a practical political push to the conference process. We can help to promote the signature at Rio of effective framework conventions on climate change and biodiversity.

These are not just buzzwords, these issues are vital. The world is still losing a tropical forest the size of a football pitch each and every second. Many of the countries of Africa are having to find a balance between the competing claims of human development and natural conservation. All of us, developed and developing countries alike, have come to realise that the only solution is to work as one to safeguard the future of the one world that we all share.

In these hectic times the chance to talk comprehensively over a few days is rare. But it is essential if we are to understand each other’s problems and each other’s hopes.

I know this week, under your chairmanship, President Mugabe, we will all bring the spirit of mutual encouragement to our talks here. The Commonwealth is in tune with the spirit of the times, its structures, its history and its ethos all equip it to flourish in the 1990s.

The Commonwealth has new relevance, its way of doing things will I believe be seen as among the best ways to conduct international relations. The Commonwealth can set an example, dialogue, negotiation, the peaceful settlement of disputes – that is the way forward and the Commonwealth can set the trend.

Mr President, under your chairmanship this week we can begin that work.