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Zimbabwe: Non-governmental Organisations

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they propose to take with the African Union to ensure that immediate representations are made to President Mugabe to reverse his decree banning non-governmental organisations from Zimbabwe.

My Lords, there have been conflicting reports on the current situation for NGOs in Zimbabwe. Our understanding is that the reported new procedures for the registration of NGOs do not appear to require established and registered NGOs to re-register. The impact on new NGOs is less clear. Our embassy is in constant touch with the NGO community in Zimbabwe, which provides essential support for millions of ordinary Zimbabweans, and we will monitor the situation closely. The increased uncertainty for NGOs is part of a wider picture of intimidation, violence and harassment of civil society in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008. It runs contrary to the NePAD and SADC principles.

My Lords, it is certainly the belief in Zimbabwe that Mugabe deregistered all NGOs two weeks ago. They certainly fear that that is what is happening to them. It is damaging civil society, giving Mugabe political control over food distribution just before an election, and the NGOs are intimidated. They must fear that their overseas funds are going to dry up. They and the people see this action as one more assertion of ruthless power.

I am glad that the Minister has said that this is contrary to NePAD. Should not the AU be asked whether it condones this treatment of NGOs? This is the second time that they have been threatened in this way over the past two years. The AU also has NGOs. Does it want them to be treated in this way? Or does it want NGOs abroad to think that they would be treated in this way if they went to any country in Africa? It is a serious issue. There is general intimidation and fear. That fear runs right through civil society. I am sure that the Minister will agree that if intimidation and fear exist to that degree there is a real danger that Mugabe intends to annihilate the NGOs.

My Lords, if I were involved in an NGO in Zimbabwe I would share all of those apprehensions. In the run-up to the elections in 2005 we saw those organisations under terrible pressure, particularly those that promoted human or political rights. I would not rule out, whatever our knowledge of the apparent position today, that that may very well happen in the future. I am happy to give the House the assurance—I suspect “happy” is not the right word in the circumstances, but I am most willing to give the assurance—that those matters will be raised with the African Union, SADC and the regional bodies. They are of very great importance.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the guarantees that can be given to NGOs and civil society is the presence of a free press and free media in a country such as Zimbabwe? Does he not agree that the capricious licensing system used to stifle the freedoms of the press in Zimbabwe is not a good augury for what might happen to the NGOs? What does he make of the decision of the South African Broadcasting Corporation a few days ago to open an office in Zimbabwe, having instructed the network’s news editors not to broadcast the views of Moeletsi Mbeki, Archbishop Pius Ncube and Eleanor Sisulu—all prominent opponents of the Mugabe regime?

My Lords, an energetic and free press is a precondition for a healthy civil society, just as the work of the NGOs is. I agree with that proposition wholeheartedly. I do not expect Robert Mugabe suddenly to embrace the concept of a free press any more than anybody else in your Lordships’ House does. The South Africans take their own decisions. We will continue to argue that they could take a more forward-leaning position.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the current chaos in Zimbabwe is being presented as a struggle against British colonialism? It has also been said that it is a struggle against land redistribution. What plans exist, if any, to assist the resettlement of Zimbabwean citizens who may well be displaced—as we helped the Ugandan citizens to resettle—when Mugabe’s vile regime collapses, as it will do?

My Lords, I am aware of how the Zimbabwean Government describe the interest that all of us show in that country. I assert that we show that interest for humanitarian reasons. It is nothing to do with the history. This generation in politics does not share that history. In the kind of package that we have all agreed and on which we worked with Kofi Annan when he was intending in the last days of his secretary-generalship to visit Zimbabwe, we envisaged a raft of economic measures that would also help to deal with some of those land resettlement questions. There has been no desire on the part of successive United Kingdom Governments to avoid doing so. What I think everyone has avoided is parcelling up money and giving it to Robert Mugabe to distribute as he chooses.

My Lords, regarding the wider picture of intimidation that the noble Lord mentioned in his first Answer, would he consider asking the presidency of the European Union to raise with President Mbeki the recommendation made by Human Rights Watch in its report published today? It describes,

“systematic abuses against opposition members and civil society activists, as well as the increasingly violent repression of ordinary Zimbabweans in Harare’s densely populated suburbs”.

Could not the EU presidency ensure that a copy of this report, and of the resolution which is likely to be passed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union at its meeting this week on the violation of the rights of parliamentarians in Zimbabwe, be placed on the desk of every AU president and Foreign Minister?

My Lords, I have had the advantage of being briefed on the report that has just been published by Human Rights Watch, and I have little doubt that the German presidency will want to raise it. In all the meetings between the EU and the Government of South Africa that I have attended, these issues have been on the agenda, and so they should be.