Obituary: Arnold Smith
Thursday 10 February 1994
I HAD the special privilege of working with Arnold Smith for a decade in which his vision and leadership gave a secure foundation to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the wider family of the Commonwealth which it serves, a decade which saw the association pass through some of its most testing experiences, not least in relation to the protracted crisis in what was then Rhodesia.
Arnold Smith's contributions to the Commonwealth during his two terms of office as Secretary-General from 1965 to 1975 were so multi-faceted as to defy easy definition. He stood in a tradition of committed internationalism and brought incomparable gifts of intelligence and insight, gifts which immediately impressed all who met and worked with him, as well as a special quality to the office of Secretary-General which he did so much to endow with character and develop with distinction.
Smith was an indefatigable and far-sighted diplomat in complete tune with the three worlds of his time - the world of the superpowers still locked into the Cold War, the industrialised world to which as a Canadian he belonged, and the developing world of the Group of 77. It was this uncommon attribute which marked him out for success in the efforts to modernise the Commonwealth and launch it on the path to becoming a modern international organisation with the formal establishment of the Commonwealth secretariat in 1965.
To many of his friends, it was clear that Smith had imbibed appreciably from a background rich in diversity and vision. He was born of a Canadian father who had emigrated to Canada from Grenada in the West Indies; came to Britain as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the twilight of Empire; and served in the Canadian Diplomatic Service at the height of Canada's internationalist philosophy, with the Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, as his often acknowledged mentor.
A measure of Smith's success as the first Commonwealth Secretary- General can be seen in how successfully he contributed to piloting the association through the many crises with which it had to cope so soon after the establishment of the Secretariat. Among them were the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of November 1965, in reaction to which the Organisation of African Unity decided that all its members should break diplomatic relations with Britain; a war between two of the association's members, India and Pakistan; and the initial controversy engendered by that war over the admission of Bangladesh into Commonwealth membership.
As his memoir Stitches in Time (1981) so graphically reveals, Smith's first few months in office were a baptism of fire. Soon after assuming office as Secretary-General in 1965, the crisis in what was then Rhodesia took on an ominous significance with the UDI by the Ian Smith regime, an act of defiance that challenged at the very root the animating principle of the Commonwealth, the concept of multiracial partnership. UDI generated serious tensions in the Commonwealth and it is a measure of Smith's steadfast leadership that he was able to navigate the Commonwealth through a period when so sustained a challenge threatened the cohesion of the association, and the fabric of daily co-operation nurtured over many years. Smith's skilled diplomacy helped to play a significant role in the decision to hold an emergency Commonwealth summit in Lagos in January 1966, to discuss the Rhodesian crisis and agree a shared Commonwealth approach to its resolution. Significantly, this was the first Commonwealth summit to be held outside Britain and it underscored Smith's vision of a Commonwealth that has no centre and no periphery.
The decisions taken at the Lagos summit to apply pressure progressively through sanctions, yet to encourage dialogue, the commitment to work for the establishment of the democratic principle in a resolution of the Rhodesian crisis ('No independence before majority rule' - Nibmar), laid the foundations for a sustained Commonwealth contribution that came to fruition four years after Smith left office. The agreement reached at the Lusaka Heads of Government Meeting in 1979 established the principles for a lasting settlement that led to the independence of Zimbabwe.
Arnold Smith's passion for the Commonwealth and its immense potential for service to humanity was infectious and happily infected those of us who worked closely with him. I recall how keenly in response to a message from President Bhutto he set out with no more than a few hours' notice on a mission to Islamabad in January 1972 in a bid to persuade Bhutto that Pakistan should not leave the Commonwealth in protest against its members' recognition of the new state of Bangladesh. I accompanied him on that trip and will long remember his intense but well-managed anger in Islamabad where President Bhutto and his cabinet took the decision only three hours before he was due to meet Smith. It is one of the happy twists of history that Pakistan returned to the Commonwealth 17 years later under the premiership of President Bhutto's daughter, Benazir.
Perhaps one of the most telling signs of the breadth of Arnold Smith's faith in the Commonwealth was the comment made towards the end of his second term as Secretary- General: 'In 100 years' time, historians may well judge that one of Britain's greatest gifts to humanity was the Commonwealth.'
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