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 Press Conference in Harare – 21 October 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference, held in Harare on Monday 21st October 1991.


I would like to say first of all that the organisation of this conference has been a very remarkable achievement by President Mugabe and his government and by the Secretary General and his staff. It is no mean feat to organise a conference of fifty Heads of State and Government and we have all had the warmest possible welcome and hospitality. The only slight drawback in the midst of what has been a very enjoyable and productive week is the fact that one of my Commonwealth colleagues appears to have handed me a cold, though the donor thus far has been unwilling to admit who it is. We will seek to track him down.

I think we have achieved a lot in the last week and we have achieved a lot against a background of very remarkable changes since we last met in Kuala Lumpur two years ago. There has been a rebirth of democracy around the world, a point made repeatedly by Heads of many governments over the past few days. But second, there has been a growing realisation that in terms of government, our economies and our political life, we are increasingly one world. And that is the theme that has run through all our discussions over the past week.

In the past from time to time the Commonwealth has often been divided. But the factors which unite it have always brought the members together again. And when we sit round the table it is quite remarkable to contemplate nearly fifty countries from every continent. The superficial differences are clearly vast – size, wealth, colour, religion – but sitting down together we do all speak the same language both literally and metaphorically. I can think of no other international meeting of this sort that needs no interpreter or any other meeting where as the Prime Minister of St Lucia remarked the other evening “It is not cricket” and everybody knew precisely what he meant.

So we have been determined during this week to use the collective strength of the Commonwealth to secure real achievements and believe that is reflected in the outcome of our discussions, though more of this will be apparent of course when the communique is issued and I cannot anticipate that at this stage.

But firstly the Harare declaration. All the members of the Commonwealth have pledged themselves to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights as well as the sound economic and political management. In short, all those matters that collectively come together under the term of good government.

And second, the Harare declaration puts new responsibilities on the shoulders of all Commonwealth countries. Let me say quite clearly that Britain is prepared to bear its share of those responsibilities and that is why I announced last week that if necessary Britain would implement the Trinidad terms even if all other countries cannot join in immediately. Though I would like to say how delighted I was when Mr Mulroney for Canada immediately said he would do the same and Mr Hawke for Australia undertook to look positively and sympathetically at what we proposed. And I was also very pleased at the favourable response from many Commonwealth leaders at the conference.

Thirdly, we are determined to step up our cooperation on the environment in the run-up to next year’s United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. It is a very important conference and I think it needs proper preparation and the widest possible attendance.

And there were three points from that meeting that I emphasised in our discussions this week. Firstly that we need a convention on climate change signed by the greatest possible number of countries. Secondly that we need agreements to conserve the plant and animal species of our planet. And thirdly that we need a statement of principles to safeguard our forests, which are vital for national economies, for the purity of the air we breathe, for reducing global warming and for preserving biodiversity. And all these are matters that I hope the Commonwealth will be united on and I hope the Commonwealth will collectively go to Rio de Janeiro and fight for those three important matters.

Fourthly, South Africa. South Africa was a dominant problem in the 1980s but the problem of the 1980s should now be the opportunity of the 1990s. Since we met two years ago there have been remarkable and positive changes in South Africa which we have all recognised at this conference this week. And we are agreed this week that we want to see rapid progress towards a constitutional conference and democratic majority rule government in South Africa. There is no disagreement about that in the Commonwealth.

Of course only the parties themselves can reach agreement on a constitution, but if the Commonwealth can help then we should be ready to do so and it is for that reason that we have asked the Secretary General to visit South Africa and report back to those of us who constitute the high level appraisal group.

I had a useful meeting during the week with Mr Mandela with whom I have been in frequent touch over the past few months. We naturally talked about the violence in South Africa and discussed the offer which the British Government has made to the South African government to share with them our expertise on community policing.

I explained our view that with the South African economy stagnant, that with the South African population growing at very nearly 3 percent a year, early opportunities for investment will be vital. And I argued that if the decision was delayed until the very last stage of the constitutional progress then the benefit of new investment would not be felt in terms of growth and jobs for many years. Now that is the one point of difference between Britain and our partners in the Commonwealth, it is a difference of judgment about how we achieve a common goal, there is no argument whatsoever about the goal itself.

Fifthly, there was absolute agreement that there must be a successful outcome to the Uruguay Round, failure would be an absolute hammerblow for the developing countries, the cost to them of protectionism in the industrial world currently exceeds the total value of the aid that they receive from the industrial world. And I put the quite bluntly and quite frankly, there is little point in the developed countries providing aid for economic development if the developed countries then deny access to our markets for those very same countries.

This meeting this week has reaffirmed the common culture, value and goals of the Commonwealth. We have in the Commonwealth no legal powers of enforcement to make individual members live up to the goals we have agreed. But I come back to the theme of one world I mentioned earlier, a coup in the Soviet Union or a coup in Haiti is no longer regarded as simply the business of the countries concerned. And the Harare declaration is not a string of words to forget but a roadmap for our future progress and it will be backed up by practical measures, including technical and training assistance and the increasingly important role of Commonwealth monitoring of free elections.

So I think it has been a good week. It has been a week that can best be summed up in the words of the Harare Declaration itself in which we expressed, and I may quote:

“Our determination to renew and enhance the value and importance of the Commonwealth as an institution which can and should strengthen and enrich the lives not only of its own members and their peoples but also the wider community and peoples of which they are a part”.

That is what I think we have set ourselves to do this week and I believe it has been a very good week for the Commonwealth.



QUESTION (Robin Oakley, The Times):

Prime Minister, what guarantee can there be that this will not turn out to be all words this week? The actual Harare declaration does not offer us very different words to what was in the Singapore declaration in 1971. If it proves over the next two years to be nothing more than words, would you push for some kind of sanctions against backsliders at the next CHOGM in two years time?


I think it is a mixture of carrot and stick. Clearly I am much more concerned about the carrot. We set out here, and everybody without dissent has put their name and their reputation and their country’s policy behind the declaration that we have. I do not believe that this declaration, Robin, is a declaration that would have been available two years ago or four years ago, we simply would not have been able to reach agreement on it, we have this year. No doubt it will not operate perfectly in all respects but I think the extent of peer pressure and the extent to which we are increasingly independent will put a very considerable amount of practical pressure on people who may fall short of the principles that are actually there.

You are accurate in saying that we have no obvious mechanism for enforcing this. But I think the collective view of the other members of the Commonwealth is a potential force that will encourage people. In the first instance we would want to encourage them in a very positive way, I do not at this stage want to talk about negative ways in which we might apply encouragement.

QUESTION (Paul Reynolds, BBC Radio):

Can you say whether there is a British reserve on the sanctions issue and without prejudicing the wording of the communique perhaps you could explain how you have sought to resolve the difference between the Commonwealth’s approval of the Foreign Minister’s Committee and your own approach?


I cannot anticipate what is in the communique, I think it would be improper to do so, but I think it will be apparent that there is complete agreement about what the goal is in South Africa. As I said a moment ago, there is a difference of view between Britain and the Commonwealth about the pace at which we develop in some aspects but I think to go beyond that until the communique itself has been published would be unfair on my colleagues and I hope you will forgive me if I do not.

QUESTION (Commonwealth Human Ecology Council):

We have been particularly struck with your references to rain forests, we also know Britain’s support for the rain forest programmes, your references again this morning put emphasis on plant and animal biodiversity. We would like to ask you if you also are sufficiently sensitive and aware of the project within the Guyanan Commonwealth Rain forest which is dealing with the Amerindians and indigenous people. We feel that the United Nations preparatory committee are dissatisfied or saying that the Commonwealth reaction and momentum is very weak in relation to UNCED and though individual governments are speaking very much on it we want to know if Britain is going to be firmer in helping to bring the whole Commonwealth together and if they will look at the human and indigenous and say in for example in Guyana the Amerindian side?


When the G7 met earlier this year, and I chaired it, I pressed Heads of Government in the G7 to attend the Conference at Rio next year. In many parts of the world there is some reservation about attending the conference in Rio. I have said quite clearly that I believe this is an extremely important conference, that as many Heads of Government as possibly can should attend whether it is the G7, whether it is the European Community or whether it is the Commonwealth. And I certainly stressed in the remarks we made earlier this week that it would be very desirable for Heads of Government to attend. There is no compulsion within the Commonwealth, we cannot compel them to do so. What we can do is set out before them the importance of this and encourage them to believe that it is as important for the developing countries of the Commonwealth as it is for the developed countries of the Commonwealth that we reach satisfactory conclusions at Rio.

So the answer is yes I do regard it as very important, I did press people to attend, you must ask them individually whether they will, though we did not discuss any individual rain forest project whether it was in Latin America, in South East Asia or the particular project that you mentioned.


We hope they are not going to put all the emphasis, as is happening in Guyana, on the review and inventory side, we feel that the human side is more important.


I understand that point but that is one of the matters that will be discussed at the conference.


Prime Minister, your Opening Statement had the welcome reference to access to markets by developing countries. Over recent decades, the growing economic integration of Europe has had disastrous consequences for some Commonwealth countries. Do you feel that at the meeting this was taken into account and that they can expect some further protection for the Commonwealth?


We didn’t discuss the particular position of the European Community in our discussions this week though as a member of the European Community, you may know that Britain has been arguing generally for open markets. The one thing we don’t want is a closed Community. It is for that reason, partly Community but also a bigger matter as well, that we are so concerned to get an agreement to the Uruguay GATT Round as speedily and as comprehensively as possible. I have said to my fellow Heads of Government in Europe that such an agreement is vital. It may be an agreement that isn’t entirely comfortable for us; it may be an agreement that isn’t comfortable for Japan, for the United States, for the Cairns Group that is chaired by Bob Hawke of Australia but the damage that will be done to the international community and in particular, I think, to the developing world if there is no satisfactory GATT agreement on opening markets, will be immense.

It will not be that there is much in the GATT Round that is there and will be lost if there is no agreement; it is also to an even greater extent than that, the possibility that no agreement would lead to trade blocks and protectionism and that would be absolutely fatal – absolutely fatal – and that point is increasingly recognised, I think, in all the trading blocs and it is certainly now increasingly recognised in the European Community.

We will push very hard within the Community – the Foreign Secretary does so repeatedly, the Agriculture Minister does, I do so, the Chancellor of the Exchequer does so – for movement in the Community’s position so that we not only get an agreement on GATT but if possible, get an agreement on GATT this year.


In your discussions with Mr. Mandela, did you agree on all aspects that you were talking about or was there any disagreement? If there was, what was it?


We agreed on many things. If I may put it this way without it being misunderstood, there was no special drama in my meeting with Mr. Mandela. We have had several meetings in recent months and we speak on the telephone frequently so it wasn’t, as it were, a set-piece meeting in which we dealt with all sorts of things from the bottom upwards.

We discussed what was going on in South Africa, we discussed the problems with violence, we discussed the desirability of moving forward to a constitutional conference as speedily as possible, we discussed the bilateral offer of assistance that we have given to train black South African citizens for a future role in the Civil Service, we discussed practical matters like this. We didn’t spend a lot of time discussing individual items of sanctions.

Mr. Mandela, as I said in my Opening Statement, knows that I am concerned that we should actually get investment and access to the financial markets as speedily as possible and for this very practical reason, which he understands.

If one waits too long before those are lifted and suddenly one waits until there is a settlement and there is a majority government and then all the barriers come up at that stage, my fear is that then the investment starts to dribble in, it takes years before it builds up and it will be quite a few years down the road before the jobs that are necessary and the growth that is necessary actually become apparent. It is for that reason that I think we should move a little faster than previously we have and there is a difference of view of about that. There is no ill feeling about that; it is a different perception of the way in which we should proceed.

Mr. Mandela, in the meeting, mentioned the fact that he had just seen the figure that there were 7 million people unemployed in South Africa and I must say if anything that rather reinforces my concern that the sooner investment begins to flow into South Africa and you begin to narrow that difficult gap between no economic growth and 3 percent population growth, the better it will be for the people most in need in South Africa.


To what extent is the British minority view on sanctions that you have just expounded now based on a greater trust of President de Klerk than is shared by other Commonwealth leaders and what would you say to cynics who might suggest that the British view is motivated by British commercial interest?


I would say that they were cynical! [Laughter]

The view that motivates the British interest is the view I have just expressed and I don’t think I need reiterate it. There are 7 million black South Africans who at the moment are without work; the sooner we get growth, the sooner they will get work.

If you actually get a majority government, as I am sure we are going to get at some stage in the not-too-distant future, I would like to see some of the problems that government will have to face beginning to be solved, not all there waiting for them to begin to solve over a longer time-scale. That is the point. It is not a new British position and I must emphasise to you that there has been no squabble whatsoever about sanctions. The British position and the reason for the British position is understood and appreciated. People take a differing view but there is no difference about the end game; the difference is simply about the pace at which sanctions will be removed. The direction and flow of policy is now clear.


Prime Minister, have you been concerned by developments on the European front during your long absence in Zimbabwe? In particular, are you concerned by the European Commission’s intervention into British construction projects?




What are you going to do about it, Prime Minister?


The answer to that is “Yes”. I think it was an astonishing intervention. We had no previous notice of it; it was not the first time it had happened. It seems to me to be on the basis of ill-founded reports and not facts; it is also on the basis of reports that were not discussed with the United Kingdom. It seems to me to be absolutely how the European Commission ought not to behave and I have told them so.


Mr. Prime Minister, the Commonwealth Secretary-General said that the Commonwealth was likely to look at itself and South Africa has often argued that certain governments in the Commonwealth have no moral justification in questioning its system of government. Did the Summit ever look at certain governments in Africa, for example military regimes, certain absolute monarchs and other things like that?


I think the Harare Declaration sets out an elaboration of what good government is and what people should move towards and clearly, we are looking towards everywhere a plural society, a non-racial society, a democratic society, a society in which everyone has the right to vote for whichever political party as a government they wish to vote for and a multi-party society but the way in which those matters are interpreted cannot be uniformly prescribed by the Commonwealth or by any individual members of the Commonwealth. We have greatly diverse histories, greatly diverse structures, but the broad principles I think are quite clear but you can’t set down in black and white terms precisely the way in which such a system ought to operate in every country and I don’t think we should attempt to do so. We should set down the principles and the ideals that are there in the Declaration and then judge the activities of individual governments against those principles over a period of time.

Every government that has agreed with this has implicitly, by their agreement with this document, said that they will move towards the principles that are enshrined in that document and every other government that has put its name to this document will be looking to see that they do over a period of time.


How will you react to the criticism that Britain has not been doing enough for its former colonies, especially on the economic front; that most of the programmes they are adopting now are just run by the IMF and the World Bank, that Britain has enough capacity to have assisted them more rather than allowing them to go through the draconian policies of the IMF and the World Bank?

Britain appears to have left them to their fate whereas Britain has the capacity to be a model for members of the Commonwealth.


I think I would answer the criticism this way: by saying that not one Commonwealth leader this week has put that criticism to me. A lot of Commonwealth leaders have said to us this week that they believe that Britain is batting very strongly on behalf of the Commonwealth.

I made it perfectly clear earlier this week not only that we would continue to sustain large aid programmes and large technical assistance programmes where that was appropriate but also that we very strongly believe your own country for example, Nigeria, should have access to the enhanced Structural Adjustment Fund and that we, Britain, would fight for that with our colleagues elsewhere to ensure that they would get it.

I also yet again, though I hesitate to return to the point, increased the Toronto terms to the Trinidad terms and gave that a further push down the road so that it actually becomes enacted and I think people perhaps have not entirely understood what that means. What that means for the countries that qualify is that we take two-thirds of their debt and we don’t roll it up and say pay it later, we don’t ease the terms upon which they pay it; we say: “We write it off lock, stock and barrel!” or perhaps I should say: “Pounds, shillings and pence” in the old terms in which so much of it was built up. Nobody has ever done anything like that before and I don’t think there is a prevailing view out there amongst our Commonwealth colleagues that we are not shouldering a very fair share of the burden in assisting many of our lesser well-off colleagues in the Commonwealth to face the problems they have.

There is one other point I would make too; we are actually supporting Nigeria’s attempts to be eligible for Trinidad terms so as you asked the question for a Nigerian perspective, I think it is worth adding that.


Prime Minister, could you explain to us why the term “good government” which figures in most publications by the World Bank and the IMF was not used in this instance? “Just and honest government” is all right – it means roughly the same but it doesn’t have quite the same connotation in international terms.


There is no special significance in the fact that we used this term rather than that. We preferred this term. The real important point is the elaboration of what it means. One can use “just and honest government”, one can use “good government”, one can use “sound administration”; the important point really is the elaboration of what we actually mean by those rather generic terms that are capable of different interpretations and we have actually set out in the Declaration itself what we mean and that, I think, is the most valuable part of the Declaration.

QUESTION (Simon Walters, The Sun):

Prime Minister, after your rigours on the cricket pitch and alleged twinges in your leg, back and now a common cold – or should I say “Commonwealth cold” [Laughter] – will you be seeing a doctor when you go back to Britain and if so, will it be an NHS doctor? [Laughter]


The answer to whether I will be seeing a doctor is no; the answer to whether I have an NHS doctor and whether I see him when I am ill is yes but I do not anticipate any necessity for that at all and if you come close, Simon, I promise to try not to give you the cold – but I don’t promise too hard!


Prime Minister, the Human Rights Watch has just issued a report in which it has criticised a number of Commonwealth countries, including Britain, for the violation of human rights. What is your comment?


I will study the report. I haven’t seen it in any depth yet so I can’t comment on it but I think it is quite difficult to criticise Britain on human rights. I will be interested to see what they have managed to produce that is a form of criticism but I will certainly look at it.


The Commonwealth Secretary-General announced yesterday that he will visit South Africa at the earliest opportunity. I understand that Australia’s Bob Hawke has expressed an interest in being part of the team that visits South Africa and perhaps some others. Presumably that idea has been shelved since you said that the Secretary-General would be coming to report to the High Level Assistance Group. I am just wondering whether you yourself are itching to visit South Africa, whether you have set a date for that visit and what would be your reason.


Two points to that question:

As to the impact of the Secretary-General’s visit and what follows it, I can’t make a judgement about that until the Secretary-General reports back. I don’t know what will follow his Report. The purpose of sending him there is for him to come back and report and for us to consider if there is some way the Commonwealth can help. We can’t impose anything but we stand ready to help if there is anything we can help with.

As to whether I have any immediate plans to visit South Africa, the answer is I have no immediate plans to visit South Africa and don’t expect to do so in the next few months.


In the light of your commitment to relieve part of the debt owed to Britain, how far are you prepared to go to review the structures set up at Bretton Woods and how much pressure would you be prepared to put on commercial banks to relieve the debt burden on Third World countries?


I don’t think I have anything to say about Bretton Woods at all or the changing institutions – certainly that isn’t part of our present package.

As far as the commercial banks are concerned, I have invited them in the past to make comparative amendments to their own debt positions. A number of banks over recent years have written off a lot of debt; they do it progressively year upon year for their own sound commercial and I think social reasons as well but it is a matter for them, not for me but I have expressed the hope that where appropriate banks will act similarly.


On the subject of the elaboration of what constitutes good government, I would like to know if the practice of one-party state-ism is incompatible with the idea of good governance as set out in the Harare Declaration.


It is not ideal at all and over a period of time one would hope that people would be presented with a choice. It may be that one government will continue to be elected – I have no objection to that happening for quite long periods of time [Laughter] – but it clearly isn’t ideal and it clearly isn’t what is intended over a period of time with the Harare Declaration.


What kind of period of time, Mr. Prime Minister?


It will vary, will it not? You can’t draw a single conclusion for fifty different countries of different size, different backgrounds and different events occurring in them. It is the direction in which we move that we have set out the principles. We will have to examine how people behave against these principles and decide whether they are behaving in a way that we think is satisfactory and that is what we will do.


A very brief cricketing point: following your private discussions with various Commonwealth Heads over the last few days, can you tell us if you think that South Africa will actually be playing in the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand early next year?


I can’t tell you that answer today, no. My own position is quite clear: I would wish to see the new non-racial cricket organisation in South Africa admitted to the World Cup in Australia. I think the Australian Prime Minister has expressed the same view. We will have to await the communique and other matters to see how far we have got.