Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Transcript of the Prime Minister joint press conference with Secretary General Don McKinnon, Coolum, Qld: Zimbabwe.



Download PDFDownload PDF

1

4 March 2002

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SECRETARY GENERAL DON McKINNON - COOLUM, QLD

Subjects: Zimbabwe

E&EO…………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, the issue of Zimbabwe has come under a lot of

discussion at this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I have distributed

with the Secretary-General a statement which records the conclusions of the heads of

government. The essence ladies and gentlemen is that heads of government have

agreed that we await the election in Zimbabwe, we get the report of the Observer

Group and if that report is adverse then full authority has been given to myself as the

new chairman in office, the former chairman in office — that is, the President of

South Africa, Thabo Mbeki — and the future chairman in office, the President of

Nigeria, General Obasanjo, the authority has been given to us to determine on behalf

of the Commonwealth a response to that adverse report. In determining that response,

we will be instructed entirely by the Harare principles and also the Millbrook

Commonwealth Action Program, which, as you know, ranges from collective

disapproval to suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth.

This has not been an easy issue. There is a range of views. Strong feelings are held.

But what the Commonwealth has decided upon is not something that pushes it off to

PRIME MINISTER

2

the never-never if in fact there is an adverse report, it provides a mechanism. That

mechanism is that a report will be received by the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General will, of course, consult closely with the three of us. Then a decision will be

taken in accordance with the principles laid down in the Harare agreement and the

Millbrook Action Plan.

There certainly was lengthy discussion. We received and discussed the report of the

Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. During the discussion there was a great

deal of analysis of the history of the various forces at work in Zimbabwe and a very

clear consensus emerged from the meeting that, whatever may be the varying

thoughts on the CMAG agreement, because the election is in six days time, we should

of course appeal to everybody within Zimbabwe for a fair and open election and for

those involving themselves in violence to desist. But, having done that, we should lay

down a plan of action that would resolve the issue of Zimbabwe’s status in relation to

the Commonwealth on the merits.

That device is to hand it over for resolution on behalf of the Commonwealth to the

three heads of government: the President of Nigeria, the President of South Africa and

the Prime Minister of Australia, on the strength of our positions as the current, past

and future chairmen in office. It having been decided, in case you were wondering,

that Nigeria will host the 2003 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. South

Africa hosted the last one, we are hosting this one and Nigeria is hosting the next one.

And as will become apparent from the communique which will be released tomorrow,

we have adopted the recommendation from the High Level Review Group that does

give a slightly expanded role to the Secretary-General and to the chairman in office,

the description used for the person who, in my position, chairs this meeting and then

continues in that role until the next meeting, which will be at the end of next year.

I believe that this is a bona fide effective way of providing a mechanism that will

enable a judgement to be made on the strength of the observers' report. Because what

the Commonwealth heads have done, as this statement indicates, is to mandate, and

that is a very strong word, a very well-understood word, in political circles. It has

given us authority to make a judgment. But that judgment must be made obviously in

accordance with the Harare Declaration and the Millbrook declaration or action

3

program. There was no dissent in the meeting from the view that those principles

should be upheld.

I think it is a very good outcome. It provides a sure mechanism, a quick mechanism,

for dealing with the issue, but a fair mechanism and one that is very dependent upon

the nature and the quality of the report that comes from the Observer Group. It clearly

gives authority to the three heads of government to take that decision in the light of

that report and based on the application of the Harare and Millbrook programs.

SECRETARY GENERAL:

I want to say something by way of slight background here. Those of you who have

followed this whole issue will be aware that since the Millbrook plan of action was

put in place in Auckland six and a half years ago there has always been a wide

interpretation and a lot of argument about the interpretation of the role and breadth,

capability and capacity of CMAG. That now comes to an end as we put in place a

whole new mandate for dealing with difficult issues within Commonwealth countries,

which will take effect when this meeting concludes. So we are moving from one

modus operandi for dealing with states that are perceived to be in violation to another.

It is quite appropriate in the circumstances to take Zimbabwe out of this crossing-the-bridge issue and deal with it quite separately, virtually by an appellate court of the

CMAG ministers. The CMAG ministers, as of next week, are under a slightly

different mandate, where the definitions of their roles are much clearer.

JOURNALIST:

Do the powers that yourself and the other two members of the committee have extend

to imposing sanctions?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is the full range of what is in the Millbrook agreement.

QUESTION: [inaudible]…consult the other leaders..

4

PRIME MINISTER:

No. We have been mandated. We will obviously discharge that mandate responsibly,

carefully and deliberately. But we will be guided by what is in the Millbrook and

Harare principles and that was the clear intention of the meeting.

JOURNALIST:

How soon after the election do you expect to get this report and how quickly after that

could you act if need be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Don might be able to help me on precise days and weeks. But in both cases, quickly,

quickly.

SECRETARY GENERAL:

The elections are on 9 and 10 March next week. The observers invariably give an

interim report after the polls have closed and before the results are announced. Their

final report is usually written in a couple of days after that. It would come to me two

or three to four days after the election.

JOURNALIST:

Will the observers be allowed to stay on, or has the Commonwealth recommended

that observers stay on in Zimbabwe after the elections, as the opposition has

requested?

SECRETARY GENERAL:

The observers have been put there to stay there until they have concluded their report.

I know people say to keep your observers there. All our observers are volunteers.

5

They are there for about four weeks, invariably until they feel it is time to go home.

Nevertheless, as long as they have seen the election through, seen the results come

out, written their report, we do not see a need to keep them there in the total number

that they are.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, my question is about India and Pakistan tension with the disputed

region of Kashmir. Have the leaders discussed how to help resolve the Kashmir

dispute?

PRIME MINISTER:

That matter has not been discussed. There would be a couple of reasons perhaps why

that is so. One of them, of course, is that Pakistan is currently suspended from the

councils of the Commonwealth. It is also traditional, as I understand it, that disputes

between member states of the Commonwealth are not normally discussed at

Commonwealth meetings without the express agreement of both of them. I should say

that the Indian Prime Minister, unfortunately, could not come at the last moment. He

spoke to me last Thursday night. We talked about this issue briefly. I extended to him

my appreciation for the efforts that have been made by him to lower the temperature

of that dispute. It remains a very difficult issue. But both the Prime Minister of India

and General Musharraf deserve credit for the steps they have taken more recently to

lower some of the temperature of that dispute.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you have said that your response and the response of the three

chairmen will be guided within the framework of the Harare Declaration and the

Millbrook Convention. Is not that a point of contention? We have already heard

Zimbabwe argue that both those documents stop action for anything less than a coup,

and that has not happened.

PRIME MINISTER:

6

That is not a view I accept and it is not a view the majority of people accept. If you

look at Millbrook, it uses the word ‘particularly’ but not ‘exclusively’ or ‘only’ in

relation to the coup. So that is not an argument I would accept. I don’t think it is an

argument that had any real currency in the meeting.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you have said this is a fair and sure mechanism. Surely it does not

guarantee that your view will prevail, that there will be suspension, if it is felt

necessary, because two of the three leaders have held out very strongly against action

against Zimbabwe in the past.

PRIME MINISTER:

You are making assumptions about my view that you ought not make. My view will

be guided by what is contained in the observers report. My mandate, and the only

mandate I will have, is to act in accordance with what is in the report and be guided

by the principles of Harare and Millbrook. The other observation I would make is that

I think the question also implies that the other two colleagues will bring a lack of bona

fides to their assessment of the merits of the issue. I do not believe that will be the

case.

JOURNALIST:

There are many people in Britain and Australia who will see this statement as very

weak. I assume ‘concern’ is a deliberately chosen but rather muted word.

PRIME MINISTER:

Are you making a speech on television or asking me a question?

JOURNALIST:

7

There are two questions. You also call on all parties to refrain from violence. You do

not single out Robert Mugabe. How do you defend yourself against the accusation

that you have pulled your punch here on Mr Mugabe? And secondly, that if

Zimbabwe is a test of the relevance of the Commonwealth, that you have failed that

test?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would reject both those claims. You notice that ‘parties’ is with a small ‘p’, not a

capital ‘P’. It is a generic exhortation to everybody who might be involved in violence

to desist. At the end of the day you have to find a mechanism that accommodates the

range of views in the Commonwealth on this issue but also delivers a fair and sure

outcome. That is what we have done. I think your accusation would have been valid if

what we had done was to say that we will get the observers report, we will get the

three heads of government to look at it and then make a recommendation to the next

meeting of the Commonwealth. I think you would have had a valid point then. I think

that would have been a very valid criticism. It would have been weak. But you have a

situation now that provides a series of quite definite steps. Those steps are that you get

the report and that will be quickly, and three people have been identified. None of us

can hide behind the fog of a collective. We cannot. We have all got to be accountable

for the decisions we take on the merits of the report. Therefore, I do not regard it as

weak at all; I do not think it has failed the test. I do not accept the accusation

contained in your question.

JOURNALIST:

In view of the number of heads of government absent from this meeting, there have

been comments that the Commonwealth has been losing its relevance. What do you

make of that comment?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that it has been a very good turn up considering it was postponed. Bear in mind

that there were a couple of heads of government, particularly from India and Sri

8

Lanka, who pulled out at the last moment because of very difficult domestic positions.

There were some very distressing events in India and the leader of Sri Lanka has the

responsibility of making work this very welcome cease-fire agreement that has been

concluded between groups who have been fighting each other in Sri Lanka for a long

period of time. I think we have had a great roll-up. Everybody seems to have enjoyed

themselves. There is still a bit to go as well.

JOURNALIST:

What assistance have you promised to Zimbabwe, and how soon will it come into

effect after the finding of a free and fair election?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have not gone into the detail of that. There are different ways of providing

assistance. We are going to do with that in cooperation with other international

agencies.

SECRETARY GENERAL:

We have already done work with Zimbabwe in terms of offering to provide assistance

to the electoral commission. It was turned down. We are currently working with

UNDP on the land reform program. Hopefully, that can be reactivated after the

elections. We will also be involved in that.

JOURNALIST:

I have three quick technical points. Is there any appeal on the decision of the three

heads of government? If you cannot reach unanimity, will a majority vote suffice? At

what stage is the observers report made public?

PRIME MINISTER:

9

In relation to the first question, no. In relation to the second question, my view is that,

if the report is adverse, I think everybody will have the same view. I can only express

a view in relation to that. At what time will the report be made public, we have not

addressed that. I will have to talk about it with the Secretary-General.

SECRETARY GENERAL:

Usually after it has been received by Commonwealth governments.

JOURNALIST:

Could you just make clear, if you are willing, as to whose idea of the three heads this

was? It was suggested that it came from General Obasanjo rather than the Australian

government. Do you think this deal restores the battered credibility of the

Commonwealth because it has failed and failed again to take action on Zimbabwe

over a period of two years?

PRIME MINISTER:

In relation to the second question, I think it does provide a very credible response. But

you can make a judgment, if you want to suspend judgment on that, which I guess you

will, you can wait until after we have received the report and responded. But I can tell

you that as far as I am concerned I am going to apply myself in a bona fide way to

this. I am perfectly satisfied from my discussions with General Obasanjo and

President Mbeki that they will do the same. As to whose idea it was, well let me say

this, I appreciated the contributions of many people to the discussion, including

General Obasanjo. I found him a very pleasant and positive person with whom to

work. I had not met him until he — I met him very briefly in Durban - but he paid a

short bilateral visit to Australia an we worked together very effectively. He brings a

different perspective on something like that from me. I regard him as a very

honourable person who was genuinely trying to find a solution that supported the

credibility of the Commonwealth but also accommodated the range of views on this

issue. I think you can suspend your judgment, as I say you will, until after the process

has worked its way through. But I think it is a credible outcome for the

10

Commonwealth. I do not know that I have much to say about what has happened over

the last couple of years. I think it is a very credible outcome. It does reflect a lot of

credit on all the heads of government.

As I say, I particularly appreciated the contribution of General Obasanjo but also the

President of South Africa, the British Prime Minister and I tried to hit a few

boundaries too.

SECRETARY GENERAL:

If in fact the Commonwealth had suspended Zimbabwe two years ago, we would not

have election observers there now. We would not even be engaged now. We would

not have had the ministers from the Abuja process there. We have remained engaged.

It has been extraordinarily difficult. We have not been that successful but we do have

60 election observers on the ground now, which is what the people of Zimbabwe

want.

JOURNALIST:

Is the Commonwealth going to take any initiative to help the countries like

Bangladesh to face the challenges of globalisation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Your question, which is for understandable reasons, is asked at gatherings of this

nature, makes the assumption, I think, if I understood the question correctly — please

correct me if I am wrong — makes the assumption that globalisation has

automatically negative effects. I do not share that view. One of the things that came

through very strongly during our discussion was the widespread recognition of the

need for more open trading practices around the world. It was a point to which I

adverted in my welcoming address. It remains my very strong view that the best thing

that developed countries could do for countries like Bangladesh would be to reduce

and preferably eliminate their trade barriers. That is certainly a view that was

11

expressed very strongly, especially but not only by those member states of the

Commonwealth that are agricultural exporters.

JOURNALIST:

In the event of an adverse report, would you expect the three leaders to meet face to

face? If so, would that meeting take place in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

The answer to the first question is we might. The answer to the second question is that

it might or it might not. I have not really considered that. What will happen is that the

report will go to the Secretary-General and then he will consult us. He will obviously

be heavily involved in the process and we will be talking to him. As to whether we

need to meet face to face, we can make a decision about that depending on what is in

the report. Whatever is necessary in terms of process will be undertaken in order to

respond quickly and effectively and honestly to the recommendations.

We might have to make it….I have to go back to this retreat. We still have other

matters to deal with.

JOURNALIST:

You described the discussions as lengthy. Can you say how difficult and divisive they

were, even though you now have an agreement?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it was an intense discussion. But at no stage did it become acrimonious. I can

honestly say that. At no stage did it become nasty or unpleasant. But it is a discussion

that naturally traversed the history of Zimbabwe and what had gone before

Zimbabwe. There were a whole range of views expressed. But everybody who

contributed to it did so in a very conscientious manner. I should add that the

Zimbabwean Foreign Minister was given ample time to put a point of view, which

12

was appropriate. I am not going to say what that point of view was because I am not

meant to disclose any detail. But the Secretary-General would agree with me that it

was an intense, committed, involved discussion, but at no stage did it become spiteful

or acrimonious.

I believe that the mood of the meeting was extremely positive at the end because

people do see this as a genuinely effective way of dealing with a difficult problem that

does provide a bona fide mechanism which will produce an outcome that will be

based on the merits of the situation and not individual views. I will take one more

question and then we must go.

JOURNALIST:

So much is riding on the observer report. Are you confident that the observers now in

Zimbabwe will be in a position to produce a definitive report? If it is not definitive

and conclusive, what happens next?

SECRETARY GENERAL:

They produced a report on the June 2000 elections. It was critical at the time. We

have the same leader of the observer mission, General Abubakar from Nigeria. Some

of the same observers are there this time that were there last time. They did manage to

get a report out, yes it was critical. I have full confidence that they will put an equally

good report out.

[Ends]