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Zimbabwe - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:57 pm on 31st January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 2:57 pm, 31st January 2019

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Goschen for tabling what is in every sense a timely debate. Perhaps it has been made even timelier since earlier today I had the great honour to attend, along with several noble Lords, a service at Westminster Abbey for the late Lord Carrington. His role in Zimbabwe’s independence and bringing about the negotiations that took place is a poignant reminder of the hope and ambition that existed.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Recent developments, as several noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lady Redfern, have said, are of significant concern. The response of Zimbabwean security forces to recent protests has been not just disproportionate but reminiscent, as my noble friend said, of the darkest days of the Mugabe regime. They have used live ammunition, carried out widespread and indiscriminate arrests and unleashed brutal assaults on civilians, with clear disregard for the due process of law. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, and he was right to cite that at least 470 cases of assault, included 80 that are gunshot-related, have been reported. He raised the important issue of the recent arrests of trade union officials. Because the situation is so fluid, I will write to the noble Lord to furnish him with specific details about this, but I assure him that we are watching these cases very closely.

My noble friend Lord Hayward paid tribute—a tribute shared by all of us—to the journalists who have shown great courage and whose reports have conveyed the footage of young men and even children being beaten up by soldiers in broad daylight. We have received accounts of atrocities committed by security forces during the violent crackdown, including raping of civilians. There have been indications of at least nine reported rapes, some of which appear to be politically motivated.

As was reported, President Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe a full 10 days into the crisis. He committed to hold security forces to account for human rights violations and spoke on the urgent need for national dialogue and reconciliation. We welcome these words. The President must also—as my honourable friend Harriett Baldwin, the Minister for Africa, who was quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said—act to stop the abuses and make good on these commitments. We are particularly concerned by the targeting of the opposition and civil society in the wake of the protests, another point ably made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. President Mnangagwa’s Administration must now act. They must learn lessons from these events and the tragic violence that followed the election last year, which was witnessed directly by my noble friend Lord Hayward.

The President must also, as he promised, implement the recommendations of the commission of inquiry into the 1 August violence. In particular, he must address the finding that the use of force by the security services was unjustified and disproportionate. As several noble Lords mentioned, the Government’s internet shutdown was a disturbing curtailing of freedom of expression and the media. Her Majesty’s Government intervened directly through my honourable friend and our ambassador, and I am pleased that the High Court of Zimbabwe ruled the shutdown unconstitutional on 22 January.

Several noble Lords drew attention to the UK’s response. My noble friend Lord Goschen asked about the outcome of the EU-AU meeting and about SADC. During the debate, my honourable friend’s visit to the region was mentioned. She is in South Africa today and I can assure noble Lords that this is a subject of specific discussion. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, mentioned this meeting and I assure him that all these issues are being looked at very seriously. I agree with noble Lords that South Africa has a key role to play in this. I also assure noble Lords that FCO and DfID officials have raised Zimbabwe directly with the Commonwealth Secretariat; I will come to the Commonwealth in a moment. The British ambassador in Harare has also met her counterpart from South Africa, so we are working very closely on this.

The noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Collins, asked about the specific outcome of the meeting with the African Union commissioner. Mrs Baldwin met him on 22 January and highlighted the UK’s concern about the situation in Zimbabwe. The African Union has emphasised the need for the security forces to respond proportionately and respect human rights standards. We will continue to work very closely with it. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, also rightly raised the issue of the economy. We all recognise the importance of debt relief for Zimbabwe. I assure him that the UK and others have been clear that any support for arrears clearance or debt relief will depend on seeing real progress with economic and political reforms. A number of those reforms were highlighted by my noble friend Lord Hayward in the report after the elections last year.

Minister Baldwin told the ambassador that we expect Zimbabwe’s security forces to stop using disproportionate force, and that the Government should reinstate full internet access. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary repeated this message publicly to President Mnangagwa on 21 January. Yesterday, Minister Baldwin spoke to Foreign Affairs Minister Moyo to reiterate our concern and call for an end to ongoing human right abuses. As I said, she is in South Africa today. In addition, Melanie Robinson, our ambassador on the ground, met the Home Affairs Minister on 23 January and had a substantive meeting with Minister Moyo on 25 January. The ambassador also met the opposition leader Nelson Chamisa on 16 January.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the important issue of civil society groups. I assure him and all noble Lords that we continue to engage directly with civil society groups to ensure that we not only record the violence that has taken place but bring perpetrators to account with the authorities. Noble Lords are right to point out that the UK provides extensive financial and technical assistance to civil society organisations in Zimbabwe which support Zimbabwean citizens in holding the state to account. As I am sure all noble Lords will appreciate, we do not publicise our partners to avoid putting them directly at risk—a very poignant point in the current circumstances.

On the humanitarian situation, the fact that the recent unrest was sparked by a rise in fuel prices illustrates the desperate economic situation in which many millions of Zimbabweans find themselves. Our international development programme continues to support the people of Zimbabwe through the economic crisis; we are giving £86 million in aid this year. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked where we are channelling that money. In the last five years alone, we have provided ongoing access to clean water for 2.3 million people, given nutrition support to 1.3 million people, including adolescent girls in education and children aged under 5, and helped 96,000 children to gain a decent education.

On re-engagement, the UK stands ready in friendship; the noble Lord, Lord St John, made this point. We are friends of the people of Zimbabwe and want to see a change in Zimbabwe not just for the sake of the country and its neighbours but for its standing in the wider world. We will work together with national partners in pursuit of that objective. I assure my noble friend Lord Goschen and others that we are working with international partners, particularly SADC and the EU, and will continue to do so. As several noble Lords noted, Minister Baldwin attended the EU-AU ministerial meeting in Brussels last week. During that time, as I have already reported, she met with the Commissioner for Peace and Security to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe.

A question was raised about Zimbabwe’s application to rejoin the Commonwealth. As Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, I can confirm that, after the elections last year, we were supportive of Zimbabwe’s potential return to the Commonwealth. Indeed, a meeting was held on the margins of the Heads of Government meeting. However, as all noble Lords will know, it is not just for the UK to decide whether Zimbabwe can rejoin the Commonwealth; the final decision lies with all members. I assure all noble Lords that the UK will support readmission only if Zimbabwe meets the admission requirements by complying with the values and principles set out in the Commonwealth charter. The disproportionate use of force by security forces, the detainment we have seen and the abuse of human rights suggest very clearly that this position is not yet attainable.

We have been clear with the Government of Zimbabwe that if they wish to rejoin the Commonwealth, this can only be based on genuine and sustained political and economic reform, points well made by my noble friends Lord Goschen and Lord Hayward. The events of the past two weeks demonstrate, however, that they have a long way to go.