Zimbabwe — [Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:17 pm on 30th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 3:17 pm, 30th January 2019

I am grateful for the opportunity to begin the summing up in this debate, Mrs Main. I commend Kate Hoey for securing the debate and thank her for a very informative summary of where Zimbabwe has been in the recent past. She put into context what has been happening there in the past few weeks. The hon. Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have contributed their own knowledge, highlighting the underlying problems that have to be addressed before Zimbabwe can be returned to its people. Truly fundamental in the governance of any country is that the people should be allowed to govern themselves. The country should be governed in the interests of the people and not only in the interests of those who govern.

In any debate about alleged human rights abuses in another country there are two principles that we have to observe. First, we have to recognise the rights of nations to govern themselves. We have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country in normal circumstances. What is happening in Zimbabwe now cannot be allowed to become normal circumstances, because the sovereignty of individual nations has to be tempered by the fact that there are standards of behaviour and fundamental human rights that transcend all national borders. Where there is evidence that the power of the state is being abused to deny fundamental human rights, the international community, countries individually and collectively, have not only a right but a duty to intervene to set things right, initially through political and diplomatic efforts, but if necessary by the use of economic influence as well. I certainly take on board the caution advised by the hon. Member for Vauxhall about using economic sanctions, because too often the sanctions punish the victims without having any impact on the perpetrators.

There are obvious difficulties in knowing what exactly has been happening in Zimbabwe, but some things are clear and unambiguous, giving grounds for serious concern among the international community. I think they add up to overwhelming evidence that the international community has got to intervene.

There were large-scale protests after massive price increases left millions of Zimbabweans unable to afford the basic essentials of life. There were people with jobs who could not get to work because the bus fare was more than they would be paid. The police and army intervened in the protests and there has been significant loss of life, and significant numbers of people have been injured. Reliable reports are that at least 12 people have been killed, and 78 others were treated for gunshot wounds. A significant number were treated for other injuries. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, a body appointed by the Zimbabwean Government, has identified at least 240 cases of assault and torture. We should commend the commission for having the courage to speak out. Many institutions in Zimbabwe, even if they are not put under the cosh by the Government, sometimes think that they are there to do the Government’s bidding. It is all the more remarkable that the human rights commission is publishing such specific, utterly damning indictments of the country’s Government.

More than 700 people have been arrested. Often, as James Duddridge said, there are wholesale arrests, when anyone who happens to be in a house close to an alleged incident is arrested, usually with extreme violence. People are often viciously beaten before being dragged away. Boys as young as 11 have been seen being beaten by gangs of uniformed police officers in the street. There has also been clear targeting of anyone seen as a political opponent of the Government. In one case, a councillor—not even an MP or shadow Minister—was dragged from his house, beaten almost to death and arrested, in front of his three-year-old daughter. Remarkably, that wee girl was able, despite the trauma she experienced, to give a detailed account of what happened. Hopefully one day soon her evidence will help to make sure that those responsible are brought to justice.

There have been numerous allegations—and numbers are increasing—of women being gang-raped by uniformed soldiers. It is all very well for Ministers in the Zimbabwean Government to say, “If this has happened to you, come forward and make a complaint, and we will deal with it.” It is difficult in western European democracies for women to have the confidence to come forward and report that they have been raped or sexually abused. It must be difficult to the point of impossibility for a woman in Zimbabwe to report such a vicious assault to the authorities whose very people are responsible in the first place.

The changing response from the authorities is notable and revealing. Initially, as always happens in such cases, they tried to deny anything had happened. They denied that there had been violence and said that such violence as there was had somehow been the responsibility of the protestors. Then they admitted that the police and army had used force, but claimed that it had been proportionate. A Government spokesman told the BBC,

“When things get out of hand, a bit of firmness is needed”.

It was only when there was incontrovertible video evidence that could not be claimed to be fake, making it clear that police and army officers were involved in assaults, that the authorities finally accepted it had been happening. Chillingly, the President’s own spokesperson said the crackdown was

“just a foretaste of things to come”.

We have to wonder whether the few police and army officers who have been arrested are being used as examples. Their cases seem to be the ones where the evidence is so overwhelming that no one can deny what happened. We must wonder whether a cynical attempt is being made by Mnangagwa and his colleagues to look as if they are on the side of justice, when all the evidence points to their being at least complacent about, and possibly actively complicit in, the brutality.

It is clear that the vast majority of Zimbabwean citizens have no confidence in the Government’s ability or even willingness to enforce the rule of law on its own law enforcers. The Government may blame rogue elements in the security forces, but they have a responsibility to control the behaviour of everyone they put into uniform in those forces, and the international community must take steps to ensure that they carry out that responsibility. If President Mnangagwa wants to be accepted as President he has to start accepting his responsibilities as President. Being the President, Prime Minister or monarch of any country is not a way for someone to enrich themselves and their pals at everyone else’s expense.

I want briefly to share the experiences of two of my constituents who were forced to flee from Zimbabwe during the regime of Robert Mugabe. Although in some ways their experiences may not seem directly relevant to what has happened recently, they illustrate many of the fundamental problems continuing to affect the country, which make it more difficult now for justice to be done, and be seen to be done. Paul and Brenda-Lee Westwood ran a successful business in Zimbabwe in partnership with a local businessman. Their share of the business was seized by someone who at that time was an MP in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. The seizure was illegal even under the so-called indigenisation policies of the Government of the day. Those responsible were put on trial for a fraud valued at more than $1 million but the case collapsed in circumstances that remain unclear. After Mr Westwood lodged an appeal the prosecutor died in mysterious circumstances and several of the accused and key witnesses disappeared and, as far as I know, have never been seen again.

The Westwoods then experienced months of intense intimidation with increasingly violent and explicit threats against them and their children. Eventually in 2012 after enduring that for several years, they abandoned the life they had built together and fled the country. Since then they have been trying to have their case heard in the Zimbabwean courts but, like the victims of the recent brutality, they can see nothing to make them believe that the new Government will make their chance of a fair hearing any greater. I know that the Minister and some of her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been working on my constituents’ behalf, and I thank them.

The new Government in Zimbabwe is keen to rejoin the Commonwealth. I can understand why at one point a number of people and the UK Government would have been keen on that happening. I would support the UK Government in helping Zimbabwe to become fit to rejoin the Commonwealth, but it would be a disastrous mistake to encourage or support an application when, clearly, it is not fit for membership of that honourable organisation. We need to make it clear that it cannot rejoin the Commonwealth until it can demonstrate beyond doubt that it has fully re-established the rule of law and the principle of respect for the human rights of all its people, regardless of creed, colour, race, gender or political views. I have a duty to represent my constituents, and I argue that people such as the Westwoods, and others who have suffered similar ordeals at the hands of the Zimbabwean Government, must receive a fair hearing. If an impartial court so rules, they should be given proper compensation for their loss.

There must at best be severe doubt about whether the investigation of recent atrocities and the holding to account of those who committed the crimes, gave the orders, or stood by and watched can be left to the Zimbabwean Government. I do not think it can. The rule of law has become so unreliable that those incidents can be properly investigated only with outside help. That is what must happen, because what has happened in Zimbabwe is too serious to be ignored as an isolated, localised problem.

For generations—perhaps centuries—the people of Zimbabwe seem to have been misruled and mismanaged by almost everyone. That has lasted from the absurdity of their country, and often their lives, being seen as the possessions of a Government thousands of miles away, to the appalling racialism of the Smith regime and, more recently, the combination of disastrous economic incompetence and rampant corruption under Mugabe. That has meant that in a country whose natural resources are sufficient to give all its people a very decent standard of living the majority of the population are reduced to absolute poverty. I want the Government, in co-operation with other Governments and through bodies such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations, to help the people of Zimbabwe to see how to take their country back from the despots and dictators who have held sway over them for far too long.

What is sometimes called soft power, or soft influence, is often important. Exchange visits would enable elected politicians and others involved in civic society in Zimbabwe to come to the United Kingdom or other countries to see how things are and how they operate, in what looks like a reasonable democratic society. They could then see that it is possible for differences to be resolved without guns, tear gas and violence. We have to ask ourselves, just now, whether the way politics is being done in the United Kingdom is all that good an example for Zimbabwe or anyone else. Do some of the scenes that we have witnessed in the House of Commons Chamber in the past couple of days look like—