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Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2008

2. What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. (244086)

6. What assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. (244090)

The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. Thousands have been hit by cholera and hundreds have died. Basic services have collapsed, and the health services can respond only because of the help that we and others are giving. Five million people need food aid, and more disease outbreaks could be on the way.

Contrary to the delusional statements of Robert Mugabe, there is a real and ferocious cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe which is killing children and entire families at this moment. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that genuinely independent non-governmental organisations receive additional resources so that they can provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance? Will he also ensure that no British taxpayers’ money goes into Robert Mugabe’s corrupt central bank? Contrary to assurances given at the last International Development questions, United Kingdom taxpayers are supporting the Zimbabwean Government via the global fund.

There is unanimity throughout the House about the scale of the outbreak. There are about 20,000 suspected cases of cholera, and there have been about 1,000 deaths. I have announced a package of support worth up to £10 million specifically to deal with cholera. We predicted that, tragically, this was a likely consequence of Mugabe’s grotesque misrule of the country, and we had therefore already worked with other international agencies to stockpile the necessary resources on the borders of Zimbabwe. We continue to work with the United Nations and UN organisations including the World Food Programme, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those efforts to address the great humanitarian need are unstinting.

The Secretary of State will know that extreme hunger and malnutrition are gripping that country. Save the Children estimates that it is feeding 700,000 people, and as the Secretary of State has said, 5 million people are starving. Cholera is spreading, democracy is dead and violence is now endemic in that country. Will the Secretary of State seek to persuade the Leader of the House to provide a debate in Government time on this crisis, so that Members on both sides of the House can express their views and say what action they believe the United Kingdom must take?

I am always happy to pass on Members’ concerns to the Leader of the House, and I will do so on this occasion. Of course, we recently had a foreign affairs debate in the Chamber, in which I understand that a number of Members raised the very real concerns felt in all parts of the House on Zimbabwe. The hon. Gentleman is right in recognising the scale of the hunger crisis now afflicting Zimbabwe. The estimate is that by the end of this month about 5.1 million people will be reliant on external food aid—this is in a country that has historically been seen as the bread basket of Africa. That figure alone should challenge not only the international community to continue its humanitarian efforts, but those within Zimbabwe who regard the current position as sustainable. We have been at the forefront of international efforts in calling for the will of the Zimbabwean people to be reflected in their Government, and we continue to make that case.

How much of the humanitarian assistance being offered by the UK Government is available through partnership working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

I can assure the House that we are working very closely with both our diplomatic representatives in Zimbabwe and with colleagues in government. In recent days, I have chaired a Cabinet Sub-Committee, which both the noble Lord Malloch-Brown and the Foreign Secretary attended. Lord Malloch-Brown was in South Africa on Friday, holding talks with the President of the Republic of South Africa; the Foreign Secretary was in New York on Monday, engaged in further discussions at the Security Council; and I can assure the House that there is constant daily contact between the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, as together we do what we can to address what is a dreadful situation in Zimbabwe.

What Christmas message can my right hon. Friend send to the people of Zimbabwe who are starving and dying of cholera?

The message is that the British Government will continue to provide food, drugs and any assistance we can to address the crisis afflicting their country, but that we also recognise that humanitarian support is not enough. Whether in the councils of the European Union, the Security Council or our discussions with regional partners, we will continue to make the case that the people of Zimbabwe need and deserve a Government who represent their will.

Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that so many of the leaders and so much of the media in southern Africa seem to regard the collapse of Zimbabwe and the outbreak of cholera as some kind of European plot, even though the situation is spilling over into their own economies? What can he do to ensure that they understand that resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe is essential not only for the people of Zimbabwe, but for the development of the entire region of southern Africa?

As is so often the case, the right hon. Gentleman brings great authority to his observation on the regional consequences of the crisis that is contemporary Zimbabwe. It is the case that Robert Mugabe has repeatedly sought to portray this as some kind of conspiracy of neo-colonialism, when nothing could be further from the truth. The responsibility for the grotesque misrule of Zimbabwe rests squarely at the door of Robert Mugabe and those in his Government. We in the international community are clear that the strongest voices that can be raised for change are those of the people of Zimbabwe in alliance with regional partners. The cholera outbreak alone gives credence to the claim that if this issue is not addressed the regional consequences will be dire, and that is why we have been working so closely to encourage South Africa to speak up, as well as other regional partners, such as Botswana and other neighbours of Zimbabwe. We will continue to make that case to regional partners.

Sadly, it seems clear that any end of the counterfeit President’s rule in Zimbabwe will not come about through a negotiated process, and that it will probably come about through a sudden and dramatic event leading to chaos. Is the Secretary of State reassured that if that happens, contingency aid is ready to go to Zimbabwe immediately, because the people of that country will need help and support within hours, not days or weeks?

First, it is, of course, a matter for the Movement for Democratic Change, which bravely stood up against the intimidation and thuggery that it faced in the elections on 29 March, to judge what is the best strategy to take forward. The possibility of a negotiated way forward was established in September, but tragically it appears once again as if ZANU-PF and Mugabe have rejected that way forward for their country. We continue to talk to regional partners and those within Zimbabwe who have the best interests of the people of Zimbabwe at heart, but we also have contingency plans in place so that if there is a credible prospect of recovery, we and other members of the international community will assist in that endeavour.

The recent cholera outbreak is only the latest humanitarian tragedy to strike Zimbabwe and its people. Does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest single positive action that would bring the greatest benefit to Zimbabwe would be for the curtain finally to be brought down on the years of the Mugabe regime and on its systematic rape of its own country and impoverishment of its own people?

The British Government have been forthright in their view of the unwillingness of Robert Mugabe to allow the will of the people of Zimbabwe to be expressed in government. If I appear circumspect, it is for the reason that I gave earlier: that nothing would suit Robert Mugabe more than to be able to ignore the voices of his own people and others within Africa and somehow suggest that this was a British plot. That is frankly not the case; the people of Zimbabwe have spoken, including in the elections earlier this year. It is now for Robert Mugabe to recognise the clear voice that was raised for change within Zimbabwe.

What hope does the Secretary of State have that help in dealing with cholera can get to those communities, both urban and rural, that are regarded by the Mugabe regime as most hostile to it? Would not the President’s insistence that there is no cholera rank in most countries as a basis on which he should be removed from office and probably certified?

First, on the scale of the cholera outbreak, it is affecting almost every part of Zimbabwe now. Tragically, there is no distinction between urban or rural communities; they are all increasingly affected. We are working closely with the World Health Organisation, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the international community is doing the best it can to ensure that the response is being dictated by the epidemiology and the needs of responding to the disease, rather than by any political partiality of the regime in power at the moment.