Zimbabwe

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 5th April 2005.

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Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde 12:31 pm, 5th April 2005

What assessment his Department has made of the fairness of the Zimbabwe general election.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

When he next expects to meet his EU counterparts to discuss the recent election campaign in Zimbabwe.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Opposition Whip (Commons)

If he will make a statement on the recent election in Zimbabwe.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

As the House is aware, elections were held in Zimbabwe last Thursday, 31 March. The declared results give ZANU-PF 78 seats, the Movement for Democratic Change 41, and Independent one. With 30 further seats being by appointment, the gift of the president, the declared result will give ZANU-PF the two-thirds majority required for amending the Zimbabwe constitution.

Those are the official published results, but there is strong evidence that they do not reflect the free democratic will of the Zimbabwean people. There was, it is true, less violence than in 2000 and 2002 but, overall, the election process was seriously flawed. Thousands were turned away from the polling booths. There are serious unexplained discrepancies between the votes tallied and the official number announced, and other abuse was rife. That included the misuse of food aid, ghost voters, a lack of equal access to the media, the use of draconian security legislation, and an election commission packed with ZANU-PF supporters.

If Mr. Mugabe had had nothing to hide over the conduct of these elections, he would have allowed full access by the international media and experienced external election observers. Yet the BBC and others were banned, Commonwealth and EU monitors were refused access and, most revealing of all, even observers from the experienced and respected Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum were banned—presumably to punish them for their critical report in 2002.

The recent official report by the Commission for Africa rightly set out the need for stronger action by the international community to address Africa's problems. However, the commission also made it crystal clear how much bad governance has "blighted"—its word, not mine—parts of Africa, and frustrated people's hopes of building for themselves a better and more prosperous future. There is, tragically, no more powerful example of that than the situation in Zimbabwe.

Given all of that, I am surprised and saddened that Zimbabwe's neighbours have chosen to ignore the obvious and serious flaws in these elections, and have declared them fair. However, many in southern Africa have spoken out about the reality of the situation in Zimbabwe. Just two months ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Zimbabwe was a

"huge blot on the record" of the world's poorest continent. Moreover, the deputy president of the Confederation of South African Trades Unions. Mr. Joe Nkosi, complained that free and fair elections could not occur "under current legislation". Confederation delegations have been banned from Zimbabwe for their stand.

The UK will continue to work with its international partners for a return to accountable, democratic government that respects the rule of law and the human rights of Zimbabweans.

The EU's common position on Zimbabwe is the strongest on any country in Africa, and includes targeted sanctions against the Government of Zimbabwe and an arms embargo. Meanwhile, the UK is committed to doing all that it can to help to meet the humanitarian needs of the Zimbabwean population. The UK has made a major contribution to ensuring that Zimbabwe's food shortages do not lead to a famine by donating over £71 million in food aid since September 2001. We have also contributed £26.5 million to efforts by non-governmental organisations to tackle the AIDS epidemic now affecting one in four Zimbabweans.

A strong statement about the elections was issued last night by the EU presidency. That statement concluded that the elections could not be judged free or fair, and called on Zimbabwe to restore democracy. International measures taken show the widespread condemnation of President Mugabe's ruinous policies. Until Mr. Mugabe and his regime respond, that regime will continue to be isolated internationally.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that comprehensive statement, which shows what a falsehood the elections were. What steps can be taken to stop the President of South Africa, in particular, seemingly being in denial of the fact that the elections were totally unfair? On humanitarian aid, what further steps can be taken to stop people in Zimbabwe being exploited by a sudden rise in the cost of just about everything they need for their everyday lives?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

On the position of the South African Government, they must make their own decisions. South Africa is a neighbour and the largest and most significant country in the whole of southern Africa. It, like Botswana and all the other adjoining countries, has suffered grievously as a result of the ruinous policies practised by President Mugabe, including the flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Zimbabwe, particularly to the countries in the south. We have a different view and a different analysis of what has happened in Zimbabwe from that taken by the South African Government. I regret that we have a different view, but I happen to believe that our view is based on the best evidence available.

As to aid, we have throughout the period of difficulty following the policies of President Mugabe made it crystal clear that we will continue to stand by the people of Zimbabwe, who have been the victims of President Mugabe's ruinous policies. We have already put in very large amounts of aid, and we shall continue to do so.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

The election was a total insult to democracy. In some districts, dead people were on the electoral roll, whereas thousands of people who wanted to register could not do so. Furthermore, in some of the seats in which the MDC is now challenging the result, more votes were counted than were cast. The Foreign Secretary mentions South Africa. Cannot pressure be put on South Africa by the EU and the US to take a much stronger stance?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about flaws. I understand that even those who were allowed to observe the elections because they were thought to be more sympathetic to Mugabe have commented that at least 10 per cent. of those who tried to cast a vote were prevented from doing so. Independent observers suggest that 30 per cent. of people who tried to cast a vote were prevented from doing so. Meanwhile, there was much stuffing of the ballot boxes, use of the votes of ghost voters and so on.

It is a matter of fact and of great regret to everybody in the House that, as I said, we take a different view from the South African Government. The EU shares our view. The way forward is to continue to maintain a close dialogue with the Government of South Africa. I am certain of one thing. I cannot say how long President Mugabe will stay, but I know for certain that he lacks any effective consent of the people. Beneath an apparently strong veneer, his Government are weak and fragile and will collapse sooner rather than later. The responsibility for rebuilding the Government of Zimbabwe will fall on everybody in the international community, not least South Africa.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Opposition Whip (Commons)

Sadly, as in so much else, the Government are all talk and no action when it comes to Zimbabwe. Is that not well illustrated by the fact that they signally failed to get Zimbabwe on to the agenda of the recent EU summit?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The reason that Zimbabwe was not on the agenda of the EU summit was that it had been on the agenda of the Foreign Ministers who met a week before, and we had unanimously agreed a position which was followed through last night, after the elections. The hon. Gentleman wishes to mix it. His party's policy is detachment from the European Union. Mr. Ancram, the deputy Leader of the Conservative party and shadow Foreign Secretary, is unaccountably absent today. He is apparently in the west of England, scared to death about the Liberal Democrat challenge, even in Devizes. He has made it clear that he does not want a common foreign and security policy and has said that it is absurd. Without the common foreign and security policy and our engagement inside the European Union there would have been no common policy on Zimbabwe, no sanctions against it and no arms embargo—[Interruption.] Somebody said from a sedentary position, "What is the difference?" The difference is that we would have been on our own and would have played into Mugabe's hands. He has long suggested that the dispute is a bilateral one between us and Zimbabwe. It is not. It is an international scandal for which he is responsible.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that domestic and international observers are the key to democratic elections? What discussions has he had with the Home Secretary to ensure a change in the law that prohibits international and domestic observers at British elections? Will he allow international observers to come to this country with freedom of access to all polling stations? Perhaps he would consider sending them to the midlands where they would be greatly appreciated.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my noble and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. However, as far as I am aware, anyone can come to this country and observe elections. I have no evidence whatever to suggest that we would not welcome observers, and they are present in any event.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Europe)

I can understand why the Foreign Secretary chose to deal with Zimbabwe in that way rather than with a full statement. If one issue highlights the total failure of the Government's foreign policy, it is Zimbabwe. The electoral fraud did not spring up suddenly. Mugabe has been preparing the way for years. He has put in place the Public Order and Security Act and the infamous Non-governmental Organisations Bill under the gaze of the international community which stood by and watched. Is not Mugabe's victory proof that the EU's sanctions were too weak?

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House where that fraud leaves the Prime Minister's Commission for Africa? Good governance is a prerequisite for progress. With so many African countries endorsing the electoral process as free and fair, has the commission not fallen at the first hurdle?

Is not the Foreign Secretary ashamed that the Government have failed to give effective leadership to the international community in Zimbabwe? After eight years of talk, is it not time for a Government who will act to restore freedom and security to the people of Zimbabwe?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

It is a great shame that the hon. Gentleman was unable to see the grimaces of wiser and more experienced colleagues behind him. The House knows that it is absurd to try to imply that any party in this House is responsible for Mugabe's outrages.

I understand the frustration felt by everyone in the House and around the world about President Mugabe, but in the absence of military action—neither we nor the Conservatives have ever countenanced that and it has never been on the agenda—there are understandable limits to the action that can be taken. The hon. Gentleman invites us to look into the crystal ball to see what might happen to policy on Zimbabwe if the Conservatives came to power, but we might as well examine the book to see what happened when they were last in power. Far from standing up against Robert Mugabe, who was then and still is in power, and calling for international sanctions, they did two things; they closed their eyes to appalling atrocities in Matabeleland and gave Robert Mugabe a knighthood.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

Many of us who are utterly revolted at the way in which Mugabe has engineered the election and damaged Zimbabwe and its people consider that, in view of the cynical way in which he sought to exploit Britain's former colonial status during the election, our Government have been wise to seek to work in concert with the international community, including Zimbabwe's neighbours. Will we continue to encourage those neighbours to put far more pressure on Mugabe?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend because I know that that was probably one of his last interventions in the House, at least for the time being, and we wish him well.

Yes, we will continue to apply all the pressure we can and to engage in dialogue with our friends in southern Africa about why it is in their interests as well as ours for them to take a tougher line on Zimbabwe. In respect of the future of the Africa Commission, the current situation in Zimbabwe shows not that the commission's report is stillborn, but the urgency of implementing its recommendations.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I do not think that a single Member of the House of Commons does not believe that Mr. Mugabe is destroying one of the most prosperous countries in central southern Africa. May I make a plea that the House remains united in its opposition to Mr. Mugabe so that we and other international bodies can bring about his downfall and a change towards a democratic African system in that wonderful country? Can we pray for the people in their hour of need and hope that Pius Ncube will not be forced to repeat his request to people to go out on to the streets, which may be one way to bring Mr. Mugabe down?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent and courageous in his position on Zimbabwe. I entirely agree about the need for an all-party consensus, which I believe exists. I hope that his Front-Bench team accept the reproach to their attitude that he has just administered.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his robust statement, which the whole House will genuinely welcome. Does he share my concern that one member of the Africa Commission, the President of Tanzania, recently said:

"I don't see Zimbabwe as illustrating bad governance. I don't buy it."

That strikes me as worrying.

Does the Foreign Secretary further agree that the key to the future will be South Africa and the role of President Mbeki? Will he ensure, when this country chairs the G8 and African leaders, including President Mbeki, come to Gleneagles, that Zimbabwe is made an issue of principle? We must begin to accept that President Mbeki is not a Mandela.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend, like Sir Nicholas Winterton, has been consistent in her approach on Zimbabwe, and I commend her for that. As I have explained, and as the House is well aware, it is a fact that the Government of South Africa take a different position from that of the whole European Union, the United States and many others in the international community. It is currently taking a different stand from that of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who yesterday said, in very measured terms, that he was

"concerned that the electoral process had not countered the sense of disadvantage felt by the opposition political parties who consider the conditions were unfair."

He went on in a similar vein.

We have good relations with South Africa. If there is ever to be any solution to the issue of Zimbabwe, we have to maintain and build those relations so that we can strengthen dialogue, which is what the Prime Minister, myself, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and many others are doing all the time. In the end, I believe that those countries that neighbour Zimbabwe will be forced by the pressure of events to recognise the reality going on underneath their noses.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Bearing it in mind that there is truly a consensus in this House and that South Africa has such a crucial role to play, will the Foreign Secretary invite the admirable and much-admired South African high commissioner to see him later today and tell her just how strongly people in all parts of the House feel about the appalling tyranny in Zimbabwe?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

If that is the will of the House, I shall certainly invite the high commissioner in. It may not be this afternoon, but it will be before Parliament dissolves.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Europe)

He is going off to Blackburn.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for explaining the absence of Mr. Ancram. I have given careful consideration to that information, and I think that, on balance, he would have been better off here, but only just.

In a country with 50 per cent. unemployment, with 120 per cent. inflation and with 25 per cent. of its population affected by HIV/AIDS, just how revealing does the Foreign Secretary think it was when Mr. Mugabe thanked the people of Zimbabwe for having voted, in his words, "correctly"?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

That one adverb spoke volumes, because there was huge intimidation of voters. It is true that there was less violence than in 2000 or 2002, but let us be clear that the state-controlled media, everybody in ZANU-PF and that apparatus, the police and the army—all the security forces—were all saying that if people voted for the Movement for Democratic Change, they were both cowards and traitors. Being a traitor in Zimbabwe is not just being damned in words; it means losing one's livelihood and, often, being locked up. The level of intimidation was intense, in addition to, as we now know, there being high levels of fraud.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The Foreign Secretary will appreciate that I am no fan of colonial or neo-colonial policies anywhere. Does he agree that the European Union has an essential role to play here? What enhanced measures is the EU considering? After all, that would help to combat false accusations from Zimbabwe that international concerns come only from past colonial masters.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, may I just say that, these days, nobody in this House has any interest in neo-colonialism? Our past is our past, and Africa's past is its past. No one here is directly responsible for that, and we have to deal with that aspect of the past. What we have shown in respect of every other country that is a former British colony is our ability to develop good relations with those countries—across Africa, across Asia and across the whole Indian subcontinent—building on the best of our shared experience and disposing of the worst. It is tragic that in Zimbabwe President Mugabe has repeatedly used as an excuse for his own ruination of a once fine and wonderfully prosperous country his suggestion that the reason for everything that he has done, in an independent, sovereign state, is our neo-colonial aspirations. It is nonsense; it remains nonsense, and we will continue, with our European partners, to work on ways to increase the pressure on Mugabe.