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Zimbabwe

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2007

The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. We are playing a major role with others in the international community in helping to try to protect the Zimbabwean people from some of the worst effects of President Mugabe’s reckless mismanagement.

In spite of what the Secretary of State has just told the House, he is aware that the terrible humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe has forced thousands of people to flee to neighbouring countries. Will he tell us precisely what his Department is doing to help protect and support those people?

The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge that there is now a regional dimension to the national crisis that Mugabe has inflicted on his own country. Not only do we see refugee camps being established and people being absorbed into neighbouring countries such as South Africa, but we have seen a draining of much of the best talent in Zimbabwean society, whether teachers, doctors or health workers, who could assist the development needs of that community. This is a matter that we continue to discuss not just with the partner organisations which we are providing with humanitarian assistance—£40 million this year—but with neighbouring countries, not least South Africa, including at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, where our Prime Minister had discussions with President Mbeki.

The Secretary of State is surely right to say that the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating, owing to the outrageous behaviour of the Mugabe regime, so will he condemn with me the fact that Zimbabwe will not be on the agenda of the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon this month? Does the Secretary of State agree that we will resolve the problems in Zimbabwe, particularly the humanitarian situation, only with the help of Zimbabwe’s neighbours?

I think that there is common accord between us in recognising the need for political reform; otherwise the need for humanitarian assistance will continue. The Government’s position in relation to the African Union-EU summit in Lisbon has been made clear. Our Prime Minister has recognised that Mugabe’s attendance will be a distraction from the vital work that the summit needs to take forward. One of the conditions of the travel visa that Mugabe has secured to attend the summit is that the issue of human rights will be discussed, which I hope is at least some consolation to the right hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to recognise that there is a regional dimension. We continue to look to the Southern African Development Community process, to President Mbeki and to other members of SADC—I myself spoke with President Kikwete of Tanzania about the issue last week—to recognise that the regional players, alongside Zimbabwe, have a key role to play in ensuring the kind of political changes that I am sure all of us in the House wish to see.

The Secretary of State is aware that all the aid that we give—it is very welcome indeed—will tackle only the symptoms of what is happening in Zimbabwe. Does he share my frustration that the European Union has gone ahead with this weekend’s conference, where Mugabe will be strutting the stage despite being responsible for all the suffering in Zimbabwe? Will my right hon. Friend also look at how we can get South Africa to adopt a much stronger position? Should we also not be looking at stopping aid to—

I agree with my hon. Friend to the extent that we all wish to see a summit taking place without the distraction of Mugabe’s attendance. We have made that position clear. Technically, the invitation to Robert Mugabe was extended by the African Union, which is in charge of who attends the summit. In relation to South Africa, President Mbeki held cordial and constructive discussions with our Prime Minister in Kampala at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Our bilateral relations continue to be strong: I spoke last week to Trevor Manuel, the Finance Minister. I assure my hon. Friend that South Africa is very clear about the position being adopted by the British Government.

All that being said, I am keen to avoid offering from this Dispatch Box any comfort or opportunity for Mugabe to distort what I wish to see—a genuinely united international effort against the actions of his regime—and to caricature and characterise it as simply the concerns of the United Kingdom. It is vital that we continue to work with others to find a way forward.

The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on declining to take part in any meeting with President Mugabe. As the Secretary of State acknowledges, South Africa is the key to this. What further arguments can be deployed to try to persuade the South African Government to take a more robust line on Zimbabwe?

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the key role that South Africa has to play, although of course the whole of SADC has a responsibility. When I met President Kikwete in Tanzania last week, I took the opportunity to emphasise to him the importance of SADC setting out the democratic norms and standards expected of the election prior to its taking place. It would be a tragedy were the SADC process seen in retrospect as somehow having legitimised an election that was not deemed free and fair. We are therefore strongly urging South Africa, Tanzania and other members of the SADC process to be very clear in advance about the standards and norms expected of a free and fair election.

The Secretary of State will know that starvation and brutal oppression get worse day by day in Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings take place—they come and go—as do those with our European partners. When will the Government and the world take action to deal with the brutality and horrors in Zimbabwe, for which we are in part responsible?

I recognise and commend the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing interest in Zimbabwe and concern for the humanitarian crisis in that country. There is common accord between us in recognising the scale of that crisis today. The economy has halved in size in less than 10 years. As he describes, 4 million people—a third of the population—are now reliant on food aid. I part company with him, however, in that I recognise we are taking urgent action on the humanitarian issue: we committed £40 million this year to the humanitarian effort. Through the good offices of the President of South Africa and other African leaders, along with our work in the European Union, we are one of the leading countries in urging international action against the Zimbabwean regime.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the aid being given is getting to the people who deserve and need it, and is not being diverted by Mugabe to feed his troops who keep the ordinary people down?

Obviously I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and that is why we ensure that aid is provided not to the Government of Zimbabwe but through humanitarian providers. As for the recent publicity on food aid, we have ensured that the problem does not apply to the processes put in place for the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

Although it is highly regrettable that President Mugabe has chosen to attend the EU-AU summit, when combined with toughened US sanctions will it not provide an opportunity for the world to focus on a country that has the lowest life expectancy on the planet, and far too high a level of Government torture? Is it not high time that the EU followed the United States example, in order to provide the best prospects of the international community acting in concert, with neighbouring states, to provide a long-term, lasting solution to alleviate some of the worst suffering in the world?

I do not sense that there is disagreement across the House on that matter. Of course I welcome the recent steps taken by the American Administration. In many ways, Europe has led on this issue, but if further action can be taken at the European level, we should give urgent consideration to that task. I do not think, however, that this is the sole responsibility of either the European Union or the United States. That is why we have encouraged Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, to look at the prospect of sending a UN special envoy to Zimbabwe; why we are keen for the Security Council to take a more active role in respect of the Zimbabwe situation; and why we continue to urge South Africa and its SADC partners to take a lead on this issue. Frankly, there are severe problems in Zimbabwe, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, but there is a role for a whole range of multilateral bodies.

I am sure my right hon. Friend is well aware that women and children living on the streets of Zimbabwe are being abused and raped and that there is no help or support going to people suffering from HIV. The time has come when only the Church is providing the last bastion of support for the Zimbabwean people, but the Church is now under threat from Mugabe’s thugs. What can we do to support the people there?

My hon. Friend identifies one of the many challenges afflicting that troubled land at the moment. One in five Zimbabweans now has HIV, and AIDS is killing more than 2,500 people a week in that country. That is why part of the money we provide is being channelled towards HIV treatment; we are providing HIV assistance to 30,000 people this year. At the same time as we are dealing with the symptoms of the problem, we also need to support international efforts to deal with its cause, which is the chronic misrule of Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe and his team.