There was disturbing news in the cables from the Canadian diplomats in Harare. High-level sources had revealed to the Canadians that Robert Mugabe’s soldiers were slaughtering thousands of dissidents in western Zimbabwe. The Canadian high commissioner called it a “reign of terror.”

But the response from Ottawa was muted. A few days later, the high commissioner admitted to colleagues that his instructions from Pierre Trudeau’s government were “very broad and soft.”

When the government finally began to voice its concerns to Mr. Mugabe’s officials, the tone was “amicable,” a Canadian cable said. It politely described the massacres as mere “civil strife” – and it even agreed with Mr. Mugabe’s complaint that the dissidents were a “problem.”

The killing of an estimated 20,000 civilians in 1983 and 1984 by a Zimbabwean military unit trained by North Korea remains the most horrific atrocity of Mr. Mugabe’s long rule – a crucial moment in his shift to dictatorship. But the Canadian reaction was so mild that the Trudeau government even invited Mr. Mugabe to visit Canada just a few months after the massacres began.

The previously confidential Canadian and U.S. cables, obtained by The Globe and Mail from scholars researching Zimbabwe, reveal new details of Canada’s response to the killings.

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