Southern Africa

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 7th March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Liberal Democrat 6:24 pm, 7th March 2001

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, for initiating this debate. However, I feel that he needs to be slightly rebuked for making the debate so inclusive and so wide-ranging that it will be difficult for the Minister to answer comprehensively.

Many issues have been discussed this evening, including floods, AIDS and Zimbabwe. However, an issue that was not perhaps touched upon was the refugee situation in Guinea. As I did not write my speech with the knowledge that I would be covering areas that had already been mentioned, I should like to begin with a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker of Wallasey, which reflects some of the views expressed in a debate in this place five years ago on the Great Lakes, when we considered the abyss into which Zaire, after its collapse, was about to plunge. I raise the issue because I do not believe that anyone at that time even contemplated the disastrous effect that the civil war would have in actually sucking in other countries. I do not suppose that anyone in this Chamber would have believed that troops from Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe would be engaged in that conflict. Having worked with soldiers in Zimbabwe when I lived there, I find it difficult to believe that they would be happy with that situation.

The peace process as regards the Lusaka Accord is not an issue that can be ignored. I believe that the international community will have to act in this respect. I very much support the view put forward by the noble Baroness that, until the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is addressed, the humanitarian crisis that affects the whole region will carry on. This is a very strange civil war because the enormous resources in the Congo mean that this is a conflict that is actually self-sustaining. People are benefiting from the continued conflict. I was particularly made aware of this by a recent article that highlighted not only the humanitarian crisis but also the fact that participants from all sides have started occupying areas that did not previously have human inhabitants--for example, some of the national parks--so that the very existence of the lowland guerrillas is now in question. Indeed, they could become extinct due to this crisis.

Mention has also been made of Mozambique. While discussing the floods in the area, perhaps I may welcome the prompt action taken by the DfID. Many questions were asked last year as to why the DfID did not act sooner; indeed, there was that rather unfortunate debate over who should fund the helicopters that were to be sent to the region. The fact that two Puma helicopters have been rented--which makes logistical sense--from the South African Government and are already in operation, soon to be followed by a further six helicopters, will make a considerable difference. However, I do not believe that the scale of the catastrophe can be overlooked. A hundred people have already lost their lives, with over half a million being affected. I believe that riot police and troops have been used to move people out of the area. Having working in Mozambique, I can understand the need for troops, because we are dealing with people who have lost everything. Indeed, when they return to rebuild their lives, even the most basic necessities, such as a sheet of tin, are seen as very valuable commodities.

There is one further issue that should be raised as regards the floods in Mozambique. Although we are talking about a national disaster, the majority of the rainfall has not fallen within the borders of Mozambique; it has actually fallen in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The overflow of the Kariba dam is a real issue because it flows into the Cabora Bassa. This could force the flood gates to be opened on Cabora Bassa and thus add to the problem.

The issue of AIDS has been mentioned. Indeed, 35 million people in Africa now suffer from AIDS. Four million--an extremely high figure--of those sufferers are to be found in South Africa. When I worked in South Africa back in 1991, there was little mention of AIDS. It was seen as a problem that did not affect South Africa, so not a great deal of work was carried out in that respect. Indeed, it was rife in the township, but due to the political system it was overlooked. Obviously this is no longer the case. The legacy of that inaction is that one in five of the young people in South Africa will not live to attain the age of 15 years. Indeed, the workforce will shrink by 17 per cent. AIDS in the whole of Africa has a disproportionate effect on the educated and those with skills. That is devastating for economies that need such people.

The issue of generic drugs has been raised. I believe that the pharmaceutical companies have discussed discounts, but discounted drugs will not meet the need due to the fact that they are too expensive for the budgets of many of the developing countries in Africa. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol has already said that debt relief is crippling the economies of those countries. I believe that future generations will feel a degree of anger that more money is being spent on debt relief than on health budgets. Perhaps it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in the future many involved with these matters will be labelled with the term "genocide" as millions of people are being denied the means to fight this terrible infection.

I find it particularly galling that the pharmaceutical industry has retained every single patent lawyer who works in South Africa to fight its case against the South African Government on generic drugs. Given that a case should be based on the body of evidence produced by experts on each side, it is perhaps worrying that all those who have knowledge of this difficult area of law are being retained by the side with the most money. Will the British Government consider sending lawyers with expertise in patent law to balance the arguments?

The issue that has been mentioned most often this evening is that of Zimbabwe. We on these Benches support the measured, calm and constructive approach of the Government on that matter. As a member of the Opposition, I do not believe that the Zimbabwean Government can claim that the sentiments I express are those of the Government. I mention that because of the rather strange incident that occurred in Brussels the other day when Mr Peter Tatchell attempted a citizen's arrest on Mr Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean Government claimed that Mr Tatchell was a member of the British secret services. I ask the Minister whether Mr Peter Tatchell is a member of the secret services. If he is, I believe that we need to consider the way in which they operate.

Sanctions against Zimbabwe have been called for. I do not believe that that is an option. The DfID's work, which accounts for the majority of the £6 million aid budget we give to Zimbabwe, is very focused on AIDS and humanitarian relief. To cut that budget would hurt the people of Zimbabwe.

I have seen at first hand the repression meted out in that country. It is not a new problem in Zimbabwe. I assume I am the only person in this Chamber who has attended a ZANU-PF political rally. I did not do so through choice. That occurred back in 1991, when Nelson Mandela, having been released from prison, made a speech in Zimbabwe. Halfway through his speech most of the audience got up and--