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Severed British–Ugandan ties: The British Interests Section in Kampala, 1976/7

Published on 27 June 2023
Updated on 08 December 2023

This post was adapted from Prof. G. R. Berridge’s article The British Interests Section in Kampala, 1976-7

What is an interests section?

States which have broken off direct bilateral ties are now commonly represented by an ‘interests section’ of an embassy belonging to a third country that has agreed to serve as a protecting power and is recognised by both states. These sections are usually staffed by diplomats of the protected state. In 1976/7 in Uganda, the British had an interests section at the Embassy of France.

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Emeritus Professor of International Politics at the University of Leicester, G. R. Berridge, wrote about interests sections in several publications, including Embassies in Armed Conflict, Talking to the Enemy: How States Without ‘Diplomatic Relations’ Communicate, and Diplomacy: Theory and Practice.

At the end of June 1976, pro-Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France jet carrying many Jewish passengers and diverted it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Believing that the brutal and unpredictable Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was complicit with the hijackers, on 4 July 1976, Israel conducted a successful raid to rescue the Jewish hostages (non-Jewish passengers had previously been released). 

Entebbe hostages come home on 4 July 1976 (IDF archives).
Entebbe hostages come home on 4 July 1976 (IDF archives).

Furious at his humiliation and vowing revenge, Amin at first directed his ire against Israel and those states which he claimed had colluded with it. Britain sought to keep a low profile in the ensuing furore because it was still keen to get compensation for assets seized by Amin from the thousands of Asians holding British passports expelled by him in 1972, and the British companies expropriated by his government in the same period. It was also conscious of the vulnerability of the substantial body of UK citizens still resident in Uganda. 

President of Uganda Idi Amin Dada with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
President of Uganda Idi Amin Dada with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Murder of a British-Israeli woman

Unfortunately for AngloUgandan relations, an elderly Jewish passenger with dual British-Israeli citizenship, Mrs Dora Bloch, had been hospitalised prior to the raid and was overlooked by the rescuers. Subsequently, she was dragged from her hospital bed and murdered by Ugandan army officers. 

Irritated by British demands for an explanation of this ugly incident and the renewed hostility of the British press, in mid-July, Amin expelled two members of the British high commission, harassed a third and broadcast serious threats against the rest of the British community.

For the British government, this was the last straw. The chances of negotiating compensation for the lost assets seemed remote, the British community in the country was dwindling rapidly, and now the high commission was being neutered.

Accordingly, on 28 July 1976, Britain severed diplomatic relations with Uganda.

Uneasiness at breaking diplomatic relations

As a trading state, Britain was traditionally averse to breaking diplomatic relations and had never initiated a break with a Commonwealth country. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also believed that it was precisely when things were bad that diplomatic relations were most needed. Nevertheless, the foreign secretary came down on the side of those favouring a break, although it was not to be announced for a fortnight in order to avoid provoking Amin while allowing more time for the remaining Britons so disposed to get out of Uganda and make other arrangements to cope with the break.

What BIS was allowed: Two members and consular work

France agreed to be the protecting power for Britain in Uganda and to welcome a British-staffed British Interests Section (BIS) in its embassy in Kampala. 

The BIS was to have a diplomatic staff of two, which was fairly typical for an interests section, and was not a radical drop because in November 1974 Amin had ordered that the high commission should be reduced from its previous usual level of over 20 diplomatic staff to only 5. The section’s proposed members were to be a first secretary (consular), Ian Glasby, and a third secretary (administration), Rob Wyper.

Under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 (VCDR), the French needed the agreement of Uganda for them to act as protecting power, but not its consent to the appointment of the individual diplomats slotted for the interests section, whether British or French.

However, the view of the experienced and skilful French ambassador, Pierre-Henri Renard, was that it would be prudent to seek Amin’s formal agreement to the appointment of the British diplomats, and hoped to secure this by intimating that this had become normal practice and that, in any case, they would be restricted to consular functions. By means of diplomatic finesse, he had pulled this off by late August.

Reciprocity: Ugandan Interests Section (UIS) in London

The Ugandans, however, had added conditions to a further agreement that the two British diplomats could move back to the three-storey former high commission building: first, that they could only occupy the ground floor, and second, that the two Ugandan diplomats who had remained in London to staff their own interests section under Saudi protection should be permitted to occupy the premises of the Uganda Coffee Marketing Board, as well as the whole of Uganda House in Trafalgar Square. These requestsprovided a good basis on which to negotiate for more space for the BIS in the Kampala premises.

French oversight of the BIS

The two British diplomats had both received ID cards accrediting them to the French embassy, and French CD plates had been fixed to all of their cars, and the surveillance to which they had been subjected also appeared to have ceased. Glasby and Wyper seem to have been able to conduct business directly with Ugandan officials, even in ministries other than the MFA – at least until the MFA once more tried to stop all missions doing this in December.

Allconfidential work, notably the drafting of telegrams, still had to be done in the French embassy, and any paper of security interest used by the BIS on its own premises had to be shredded immediately after reading. Above all, all BIS/FCO telegraphic traffic was read by the French, which was regarded by the FCO as perfectly fine for 99% of it: the French were giving wholehearted support and it was important to keep them in the picture. But the other 1% had to wait on letters via the confidential bag, which was only monthly, or the infrequent visits of Glasby and Wyper to Nairobi.

What was the BIS allowed to do?

Pursuing compensation for seized assets was a political dead end and BIS had little more hope of promoting British exports in Uganda, despite the high commercial priority in British diplomacy at the time.

As assumed from the beginning, the section’stop concern was consular work. This was a consequence of Amin’s renewed threats to British subjects in Uganda after the Bloch affair, the extent of unpaid pensions and gratuities to those who had already left, and Renard’s anxiety that the BIS (and the French embassy) would be imperilled if it did not keep the lowest profile possible and therefore do nothing but consular work. 

This work included issuing entry certificates to the UK to Ugandan citizens, despite the fact that the high commission itself had felt it needed to abandon this task following its enforced slimming down in 1974. The great bulk of the consular work was looking after the persons and property of the British community in Uganda who had failed to heed the warning to leave the country before the break and trying to clear up the problems left behind by those who had departed. This meant assisting individuals detained by Amin’s security forces, dealing with income tax problems and the foreign exchange side of the proceeds from the sale of British properties, locating the birth certificates of Asians driven from the country, trying to give assistance to departed civil servants whose pensions or gratuities from the Ugandan government had ceased to arrive, and so on.

No more public threats to UK citizens in Uganda were made in the last months of 1976, but the general reign of terror continued and it was well known that Amin had come to regard them all as spies or propagandists – or both. 

When the murder of the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda (plus two of Amin’s own cabinet ministers) early in the following year produced the inevitable outcry in Britain, the explicit threats were renewed. As a result, consular protection remained vital throughout the short life of the BIS. It was also difficult, not least because the British community was dispersed and its members had not been obliged to register with the high commission or report their movements.

Archbishop Janani Luwum and Idi Amin.
Archbishop Janani Luwum and Idi Amin.

Denying Amin entry to the UK

In late May and early June 1977, political reporting briefly rivalled the urgency of consular work. This was because the section was badly needed to help answer the question as to whether Amin would be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting due to start in London on 8 June. This was a prospect which the British government could not stomach and thought might well wreck the whole conference. 

Amin had not attended the last two Commonwealth conferences, but his self-importance had recently been magnified by his chairmanship of the Organization of African Unity, and he had repeatedly announced his intention to be present at the June meeting. 

At the beginning of May, he had added a second Boeing 707 to his national airline to carry him to London, accompanied by a party of about 250, up to 40 of whom it was later believed could be armed bodyguards. There were also some Commonwealth states, notably Nigeria, which felt that banning him would establish a worrying precedent.

A campaign of intra-Commonwealth diplomacy, heavy public hints that he should not attend the meeting, and even a direct warning via a Saudi emissary that he would be denied entry to the UK, failed to shift Amin, and on 6 June 1977 Uganda Radio reported that he was leaving for the Commonwealth meeting by special plane on the following day. On 8 June, as the gathering opened, official statements from Uganda still insisted that Amin was on his way. It was against this background that, chiefly thanks to its local contacts, the BIS was able to send reassuring daily reports to London, although it appears to have been not until the evening of 9 June that the British government could be truly confident that he would not turn up.

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HM Queen Elizabeth II with Commonwealth Heads of Government at Buckingham Palace 1977.

Closing down the BIS

The fate of the BIS in Kampala was sealed by the British government’s refusal to admit Amin to the Commonwealth meeting. It did not help, either, that in its final communiqué, his regime was roundly condemned for disregarding the sanctity of life and its massive violations of human rights in general.

Already at a cabinet meeting on 17 March 1977, the British prime minister, James Callaghan, had said that contingency plans would have to be made against the possibility of retaliation. And it was not long after this that the BIS was making its own plans for its possible expulsion or withdrawal at short notice

In late May, Amin had begun to ratchet up the pressure. Uganda Radio warned that all Britons convicted of crimes in Uganda would be imprisoned for 20 years before being deported. A few days later, it reported him making more attacks on Britain and issuing further vague threats to the British community. On 8 June, a ban was announced on all Britons leaving Uganda. And on the following day, to the accompaniment of a statement that a Briton just arrested for spying would be shot if found guilty, Amin indirectly retaliated against the BIS itself by warning the French that it was being used for subversive purposes and that they should give up their protecting role.

On instructions, Renard had rejected the Ugandan charges and insisted on his right to continue protecting British interests, although the French soon changed their minds, coming to the unavoidable conclusion that with Uganda’s agreement to their role withdrawn, they would have to give it up. Unwilling to play Amin’s game and faced with unattractive alternatives, foreign secretary David Owen soon decided that the only thing to do was to close the BIS and with it the Ugandan Interests Section in London.

To assist its departure from Kampala. the French ambassador had made dummy bookings for the British party on a more innocuous flight, and been careful to tell the Ugandan foreign ministry that no decision had yet been taken to expel the UIS. He also warned the Air France crew on the evening flight to Nairobi to look out for the late arrival of five ‘special passengers’.

What did the BIS reveal about interests sections?

The short life of the British interests section in Kampala reveals some interesting points about the evolution of diplomatic practice in this area. It confirms, for example, that express consent by the receiving state is not necessary for the establishment of a protecting power because the French embassy was functioning in this role for over three weeks before this was given. It also shows that a protecting power, especially in peacetime, might be strikingly generous in the assistance it gives to a protected state, despite the risks which this runs of courting the animosity of the receiving state. 

As to the interests section itself, the formation of the BIS strengthened the emerging norm that agrément is needed for each protected state diplomat appointed to it, while also showing that the choice of staff for an interests section operating in a hostile environment needs particular care. It also illustrates the practical advantages to a protected state of being able to house its interests section in its own premises despite the probable drawbacks of this from a security point of view, and demonstrates that even an interests section nominally restricted to consular work will be likely to engage in political reporting as well. The BIS case also showed that experienced and conscientious ambassadors such as Renard will be uneasy at permitting a foreign-staffed interests section to have independent communications since they are responsible for their actions.

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