Motives behind UK’s wilful complicity in Zim atrocities

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THIS is the sixth and final in a series of articles of a detailed research paper by British academic Hazel Cameron on the state-sponsored killings of civilians by Zimbabwean security forces between 1982 and 1987 under the pretext of suppressing dissidents in the atrocities now widely referred to as the Gukurahundi massacres.

Hazel Cameron – British academic

Air Marshal Perrence Shiri was commander of the Fifth Brigade during Gukurahundi

Air Marshal Perrence Shiri was commander of the Fifth Brigade during Gukurahundi

Despite this wealth of “incontrovertible evidence” being available to the British, in a lunch hosted by Zimbabwean Foreign Secretary of State Witness Mangwende, in honour of British High Commissioner in Harare Robin Byatt as he left his post, Byatt gave a speech in which noted that “he was sad to be leaving Zimbabwe after three fruitful and enjoyable years”.

He said he was concerned “about the unsettled parts of Matabeleland and the banditry and dissident activity”. He also went on to state “we are concerned and deeply regret the suffering caused by these (dissident) attacks and the measures which had to be taken which led to further loss of life”.

In this speech, Byatt clearly framed Gukurahundi as a regrettable but necessary reaction to alleged dissident activity. This was the consistent official British approach to the Matabeleland Massacres. A few months later, Martin Ewans, successor to Byatt, learned of the admiration of the Zimbabwean government in relation to the stance taken by the British during Gukurahundi. Ewans informed the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Geoffrey Howe that the Zimbabwean Minister of Finance, Bernard Chidzero, had commented approvingly that “at the time of the Matabeleland crisis, how very favourably (Prime Minister Robert) Mugabe had commented on our demeanour, on the lines of ‘you have to hand it to the British, they know how to behave in this kind of situation’”.

Byatt, who was undoubtedly charmed by Mugabe, was keen to ensure that the good relations both he and his wife Jilly enjoyed with Robert and Sally Mugabe continued, irrespective of the mounting evidence of state-sponsored violence, including massacres, torture and rape.

As an aside, Byatt’s relationship with Mugabe continued after his appointment as High Commissioner came to an end. On a visit to Zimbabwe some years after leaving the country, Byatt asked the then High Commissioner Kieran Pendergast to request a meeting with Mugabe.

“Mugabe’s reaction was ‘(t)he Byatts are coming? Yes, of course, I’d like to see them’ and lent (them) a large house.”

The unique multi-source dataset detailed above highlights how, during the initial and most violent period of Gukurahundi, Byatt, and other High Commission staff, as well as senior British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT) officers, were consistent in their efforts to minimise the magnitude of Fifth Brigade atrocities in their communications with London. This was in contrast to the assessments and analysis of the United States diplomatic staff in Harare and the US Department of State, Washington. Furthermore, the available data indicates that Byatt was reticent to acknowledge in communications to London, the political and ethnic dimensions driving Gukurahundi, or that the brutalities being perpetrated against the Ndebele were state-sanctioned despite the mounting evidence.

When Byatt did inform London of increased violence and instability in Matabeleland North and Midlands, it was generally to highlight insecurity and danger for the white community in Matabeleland “as a result of increased dissident activity” as opposed to highlighting insecurity and danger for the black Ndebele community.

In contrast, the data analysed above confirms that despite their policies being driven by realpolitik, the US government adopted a significantly more balanced and victim-centred approach towards the persistent and relentless human rights abuses of Gukurahundi, placing a greater focus on the development of strategies and policies designed to challenge the state-sponsored violence, than did the British government.

The rationale for Britain’s inertia in Zimbabwe when faced with grave violations of human rights is expressed clearly in numerous communications between Harare and London. This includes Britain’s determination to maintain good diplomatic relations with Mugabe so as to protect their significant British economic and strategic interests in Southern Africa. Britain recognised the critical role Zimbabwe played in Southern Africa during this Cold War era.

Furthermore, Britain had invested substantially in Zimbabwe and enjoyed good trade relations, which they sought to maintain.

The dataset also identifies that it was of great importance to Mugabe that the economically viable whites stay in Zimbabwe, while it was equally important to the Margaret Thatcher government to take measures to prevent the possibility of “a major exodus” of Zimbabweans to the UK.

Systematic policy of wilful blindness

What is apparent from the documentary material is that the overarching motivation to maintain a BMATT in the country at the behest of Mugabe, and safeguarding positive relationships with his government, was for London’s own political, economic and strategic interests. Harare was pivotal to Britain’s regional strategy; British overarching concern was the political risk that negative public and parliamentary opinion might cause to their vested interests, and not the security and protection of the victims of Gukurahundi. This policy was upheld throughout the British establishment. Thus, despite visiting Zimbabwe in November of 1983, when Gukurahundi was still on-going, Malcolm Rifkind, then Minister of State for Europe, when presenting his report on his visit to the House of Commons, made no mention whatsoever of the atrocities.

Later, in March 1984, Prince Charles embarked on an official visit to Zimbabwe. On his return to Britain, the prince lunched with Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian and Donald Trelford, editor of the Observer (who had himself published his own eyewitness account of the atrocities in Matabeleland). As Trelford relates: “In general conversation over lunch, because it was soon after I had been to Matabeleland and obviously it was a subject to talk about, the subject came up. He (Prince Charles) said, ‘Ah yes, those massacres in Matabeleland, the Foreign Office told me that it was all exaggerated’”.

It is in fact emblematic that so indifferent were the British to the state-sponsored atrocities of Gukurahundi that Mugabe was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1984 for his services to education after much lobbying by Lord Carrington, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1979–1982.

Incredibly, Colonel Perence Shiri, the commander of the Fifth Brigade throughout the period of Gukurahundi, was invited to take a place at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London in 1986.

Bystanders and accountability

In a more general sense, it is quite clear from the documentary material presented here that, apart from the immediate perpetrators, external bystanders have to be held accountable at least to some extent for the unbridled human rights abuses that took place in Zimbabwe in early 1983.

The study of Britain’s policy towards Zimbabwe throughout early 1983 evidences a series of deliberate acts in the furtherance of the political interests of a dominant state. The minimisation of Gukurahundi by key British figures in Zimbabwe facilitated the advancement of economic and geo-strategic interests in a key area of Sub-Saharan Africa.

One child survivor of Gukurahundi succinctly summarises the unethical role played by Britain in Zimbabwe through its consistent lack of intervention: “There was this conspiracy of silence that took place in the 1980s.”

When Lord Carrington was asked by journalist Heidi Holland whether he thought that “Mugabe learned from the fact that he got away with the massacre of thousands of people in Matabeleland in the early 80s” and “if Mugabe got a sense of his own invincibility from Britain’s failure to condemn the outrage convincingly”, Carrington replied: “Did we sweep it under the carpet? … I suspect we did, didn’t we? … I expect we wished it would all go away, didn’t we? So I suppose Mugabe did get away with it, and perhaps that did make him feel he could get away with anything.”
Holland put to Lord Carrington: “It’s a pathetic answer, isn’t it?” to which he responded, laughing, “Terrible … I think it’s terrible but it’s probably the answer. But other than the killing of the Ndebele, it went terribly well under Mugabe at first, didn’t it?”

Dr Cameron teaches International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Britain. Her main research interests include state crime; external institutional bystanders and international criminal law; state and corporate complicity in genocide, war crime and crimes against humanity; intersection of criminality and the extractive industries in the DRC; and Rwandan state violence. She has written a monograph of her doctoral research titled Britain’s Hidden Role in the Rwandan Genocide.