Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:33 pm on 5th March 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 8:33 pm, 5th March 2003

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for introducing today's debate on Zimbabwe. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, mentioned that I have just returned from Guinea. I have in fact been in Guinea, Angola and Cameroon. I leave noble Lords to speculate about the reasons for my visits to those three countries.

I start by setting out the Government's policy on Zimbabwe. Our policy objectives focus on the importance of securing the restoration of a stable and prosperous Zimbabwe underpinned by democracy and good governance, including respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Today's debate has focused on three key areas. They are Zimbabwe's economic decline, the political situation, including the increase in human rights abuses and harassment and intimidation of the opposition MDC, and the humanitarian crisis, including the disastrous fast-track land reform programme.

I turn to the economy. Zimbabwe's economy has continued to decline and is now in crisis. It contracted by 12 per cent in 2002, according to the estimates of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. It is now the fastest shrinking economy in the world. Inflation is over 200 per cent, unemployment is over 70 per cent and its currency has continued to plummet in value. There is little food, fuel or foreign exchange. That decline is largely due to poor economic policies, which have undermined macroeconomic stability and destroyed business confidence.

Despite advice from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, ZANU-PF has stuck to a policy of price controls, refusing to raise interest rates to combat inflation. The recent move effectively to devalue the Zimbabwean currency by 93 per cent for those changing foreign currency is too little, too late and is unlikely to make much impact on foreign exchange availability. But it is at least some recognition that the problem is of their own making.

As the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, made clear, the economic crisis in Zimbabwe is having an impact on neighbouring economies. Negative perceptions have deterred foreign investment and tourism to the region, which has contributed to currency volatility. Countries such as Zambia have suffered damage to local production and customs revenues from the influx of cheap Zimbabwean goods, mounting bad Zimbabwean debts, and an increase in largely unskilled Zimbabwean migrants, when their own unemployment levels are high.

I turn to the political situation. The country remains polarised. There seems little immediate prospect of dialogue between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, despite the efforts of South Africa and Nigeria last year. As has been mentioned, the MDC President, Morgan Tsvangirai, is on trial for treason, along with the party's general secretary and shadow agriculture minister. The very fact of the trial is hardly conducive to political reconciliation.

Political life in Zimbabwe continues to be marred by violence. Much of that is perpetrated by the ruling party and directed against the opposition and civil society. This year alone has seen the arrest of eight MPs and four senior officials, including the MDC Mayor of Harare. Some of those arrested have been tortured while in police custody—including the MDC MP, Job Sikhala; an allegation substantiated by government doctors. There has been a wave of police arrests in Harare and Bulawayo in the last few days.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester mentioned that those arrested included clergymen from all denominations. MDC activists and cricket spectators who dared to unfurl anti-Mugabe posters at Zimbabwe's recent match with the Netherlands in Bulawayo were also arrested. The right reverend Prelate is right; they deserve our support. I agree with him that the role of non-governmental organisations is crucial.

Attacks on the judiciary have also continued unabated. On 17th February a sitting high court judge was arrested in his chambers and charged with corruption and obstructing the course of justice.

I turn to the humanitarian situation. About 7.2 million Zimbabweans—more than half the population—require food aid; and 35 per cent of the adult population is infected with the HIV virus. My noble friend Lord Acton focused on food shortages and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke of what he called the "food insecure". The food shortages that we now witness are primarily the result not of bad weather but of bad governance and bad economic policy. Kofi Annan made that clear in his New Year statement on 14th January, when he said that the tragic situation in Zimbabwe has been caused,

"partly by the forces of nature, and partly by mismanagement".

We are well aware that ZANU-PF has been manipulating food distribution. There have been numerous reports of the Grain Marketing Board, the state monopoly, withholding food from those who do not support the ruling party. There were food riots in Harare and Bulawayo in early January. Those were led not by the opposition MDC but by "war veterans" enraged at the Grain Marketing Board's policies.

We have condemned ZANU-PF for its manipulation of food for political advantage. Unfortunately, we have no control over the food that it buys itself. However, I reassure noble Lords, as I have done many times, about UK food aid. That is distributed through the United Nations World Food Programme very differently. The World Food Programme is careful to ensure that international food aid is distributed only through independent NGOs outside the control of the Government of Zimbabwe. The process is carefully monitored to avoid abuse. I assure the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that we are in touch with the World Food Programme about all allegations of diversion of food aid.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, mentioned the land reform process. There is no doubt that the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by ZANU-PF's "fast track" programme of land redistribution as much of the requisitioned land lies fallow. James Morris, the head of the World Food Programme and the UN Secretary-General's special envoy on the humanitarian crisis, said after his visit to Zimbabwe in January:

"Zimbabwe is almost beyond comprehension. This scheme (land reform), along with restrictions on private sector food marketing and a monopoly on food imports . . . is turning a drought that might have been managed into a humanitarian nightmare".

That is leaving aside the impact on the 350,000 farm workers who have now been displaced, with a knock-on impact to their families. We are talking about some 1 million people.

Even within ZANU-PF there has been considerable criticism of how land distribution has been carried out, as shown, for example, in speeches at the party's conference last December. More recently, press reports here and in South Africa state that an audit prepared by members of the Zimbabwe Government alleged that key figures in the leadership have been involved in land seizures that break the regime's limits on the size of farms and its "one man, one farm" policy.

So what action have we taken? I have listened carefully to noble Lords in this and the many other debates on the issue in this House. The issues that they raised and the action that they suggested we take related to work already in hand. We clearly share the same analysis. I share the frustration that I feel around the House by noble Lords that our policies are not delivering a difference more quickly. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, spoke of the process taking a long time to yield results. That is true. Zimbabwe is a sovereign nation. There is a limit to what we can do with a regime that is determined to ruin its own country and its own people.

We have worked with our colleagues in the European Union, the Commonwealth, the US and elsewhere to focus the attention of the world community on what is happening in Zimbabwe. That has resulted in a rollover of EU sanctions—the travel ban, the assets freeze and the arms embargo. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, asked me how much had so far been frozen. The amount now stands at just over £500,000, which is what I think I reported to the House towards the end of last year. Any future waiver of the EU travel ban will need to be agreed by a qualified majority of EU member states. That is a strengthening, not a weakening as stated by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. I agree with noble Lords that France's invitation to Zimbabwe to attend the France/Africa Summit in Paris was deeply disappointing. It is not clear to me from the readouts that I have had from the meeting that a clear message was given to Mugabe about the ruinous policies followed by ZANU-PF.

The noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth and Lord Blaker, the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and other noble Lords raised the question of the Commonwealth and the work that we are doing through it. I remind noble Lords that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was at the forefront of calls for Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last year. I remind noble Lords that it was not an easy thing to achieve. The action that we have taken and the work that we have undertaken over many months to secure international agreement to what we wanted to do with respect to Zimbabwe have delivered some results. We will continue to work closely with our Commonwealth partners on Zimbabwe. The Commonwealth Secretary-General is reviewing developments since Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth's councils on 18th March last year. His report is due to be issued shortly.

By every measure—political, humanitarian and economic—the situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated this year. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, that the Harare principles apply to all members of the Commonwealth. We see no grounds for lifting Zimbabwe's suspension from the councils. The noble Lord asked me to confirm that, if no agreement were reached by the troika, the suspension would continue. I cannot confirm that; we must wait for the report from the Commonwealth Secretary-General and for the troika to deliver a verdict. My personal view is that it should.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker of Wallasey, that we must share information. It is clear that our colleagues not only in Africa but in other parts of the Commonwealth have little understanding of what goes on in Zimbabwe. On a superficial level, things appear to work and to be much better in Zimbabwe than in some other parts of the world, where the roads are not as good or the telephones do not work. However, such things give a false impression of what goes on. We have shared information on land reform, and we worked with the Commonwealth to share the UN panel report, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. We will continue to share information.

We are in ongoing dialogue with countries in Africa, particularly in southern Africa, about the problems facing Zimbabwe and the region. We have stressed that failure to address Zimbabwe's problems has the potential to undermine NePAD and that it is a brake on much-needed investment in the region. I thank my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside not only for his kind remarks but particularly for his recognition of the need to support our diplomatic and other efforts.

Our political dialogue continues. The Prime Minister met South Africa's President Mbeki at Chequers on 1st February. Zimbabwe was high on their agenda, and the Prime Minister shared our understanding of the considerable problems facing the country. I met Angola's President dos Santos on 27th February. Angola is the current chair of SADC. We had a useful exchange of ideas on Zimbabwe.

The noble Lord, Lord Blaker, asked whether there was peer pressure behind the scenes. My response is "Yes". Some of our African colleagues are as frustrated as we are, because that pressure is not delivering results.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, mentioned the need to bring the UN on board. We work with the UN in several ways. We work with the World Food Programme, and noble Lords will recall that we worked with the United Nations Development Programme on land reform. It was the UNDP that said last year that the land reform process was unsustainable. Last year, the UK Government took a resolution on Zimbabwe to the Commission on Human Rights. The noble Baroness also referred to the speech made by the UN Secretary-General, from which I quoted. We will continue to work through the UN machinery.

The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, spoke about the initiative taken by the Archbishop of Cape Town. The archbishop has seen President Mugabe and is considering an initiative under Church auspices. He is undertaking wider consultations with other stakeholders in civil society in Zimbabwe. Our understanding is that he will begin such consultations when he returns to Zimbabwe on 12th March. It is important that all stakeholder views are considered, as well as the broad scope of the problem, including the humanitarian, political and economic aspects. Of course, there are also the broad problems of governance, not just land. I repeat that they have implications not just for Zimbabwe but for its regional neighbours.

I turn now to human rights. The European Union issued a declaration on Zimbabwe on 19th February. It expressed the EU's concern at the increasing incidence of arrest, inhuman treatment and torture of members of the opposition and of civil society. It called on the Government of Zimbabwe to respect human rights and to end their harassment and violence. Despite the international support for our resolution to the Commission on Human Rights last year, the commission was unable to vote on it due to a blocking campaign by some African states. We think that the deteriorating human rights situation deserves the continued attention of the Commission on Human Rights.

The UK Government have led the international response to the humanitarian crisis. We started feeding programmes in September 2001. That was even before the government of Zimbabwe acknowledged that there was a problem. We are the largest European bilateral aid donor, the second overall after the United States. We have contributed £51 million to the humanitarian programmes in Zimbabwe since September 2001. We also have a direct bilateral feeding programme which is providing a meal a day for 1.5 million Zimbabweans. These are mainly children, pregnant mothers, the elderly, unemployed farm workers and their families.

Moreover, the two countries which ZANU-PF consistently single out for criticism—the US and the UK—are leading the way in providing help for the people of Zimbabwe, and in feeding hungry Zimbabweans. The UK has also helped with essential health care and treatment for malnutrition in infants. DfID maintains a substantial programme to tackle HIV/AIDS, an issue raised by some noble Lords. We are spending £26 million on HIV/AIDS prevention programmes over five years.

Perhaps I may now speak briefly about the G8 and NePAD. I believe that there is a fundamental misunderstanding in this House of the nature of the Government's policy with respect to the G8 Africa action plan. The Government have not accepted that the situation in Zimbabwe is an African issue to be settled by Africans. In that, I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Park, although I agree with much of what she said. We have made absolutely clear that this is an issue for the whole international community. I say that also to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. That is why the European Union, the Commonwealth, the United States and others are engaged and that is why we are talking to leaders in Africa—not just through the NePAD process, but also through our bilateral contacts and through regional institutions, such as SADC.

In respect of NePAD, I repeat what I have said many times in this House. G8 countries were interested in forging a partnership with those African leaders with a commitment to reform. At the heart of the G8 Africa action plan is the notion of enhanced partnership. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, our aid is clearly linked to reform. What African leaders agreed last year was an inclusive process. They hope to persuade countries that are not interested in reform of the benefits through joining NePAD. G8 said that we are interested in working in enhanced partnership with the reformers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, also mentioned the NePAD peer review mechanism. It is due to start in April; 14 countries have volunteered; and it will cover economic and political governance. The papers that I have seen are extremely comprehensive.

My time is up, but if your Lordships will forgive me, I should like to refer to three further issues raised in debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, mentioned financial support for those coming to the United Kingdom. UK citizens returning to this country may be eligible for certain benefits, subject to normal conditions of entitlement. Personal circumstances can be taken into consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, raised asylum. On 15th January 2001, the Home Secretary suspended removals of failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe after the March presidential election. Removals are still on hold. We shall continue to keep the policy under review.

I really must take issue with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the comparisons he made between Iraq and Zimbabwe. The noble Earl is ill-informed. Saddam Hussein invaded a neighbouring country. He has used chemical and biological weapons on his own people. For more than 12 years he has flouted the will of the UN and of the UN Security Council. We are all agreed that there are human rights violations in Zimbabwe, but if we are to make a comparison, we need to do so where we are comparing like with like; otherwise the comparisons are meaningless.

I also take issue with the noble Earl's comment that I have failed to answer his questions. I have answered his questions in this Chamber and I have answered Questions for Written Answer. I have also done the noble Earl the courtesy of listening to his concerns about these issues. The noble Earl may not have liked my answers, but I have certainly given them.

In conclusion, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, says, the situation in Zimbabwe is deeply depressing. We will continue to work for a Zimbabwe which is stable, prosperous and democratic—