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Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy towards Zimbabwe.

My Lords, we are cautious about the workability of the recent power-sharing agreement, but this is the solution that has been agreed by the Zimbabwean parties. Our hope is that the parties can make it work. Our formal engagement, including the provision of donor support, will depend on the new Government’s ability to demonstrate, through their actions, a sustained commitment to reform.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that the House shares with many in Zimbabwe the hope that today marks the opening of a happier chapter in the history of that country. Can the Minister assure us that the United Kingdom response will be that, as good friends of the people of Zimbabwe, we will seek to guard their future well-being by measuring the progress of the new Administration against the specific European Union benchmark set for Zimbabwe in 2006 in accordance with the Cotonou agreement before releasing aid for anything other than emergency humanitarian purposes?

My Lords, the noble Lord is of course very knowledgeable about that country and its developments. I assure him, as he will have deduced from my initial reply, that the Government will cautiously analyse the progress of Zimbabwe towards more normal political operations and constitution. We recognise the challenges before the parties in this shared Administration, and of course we wish the people of Zimbabwe well and therefore want to see power-sharing work. However, the noble Lord will understand that at this stage the Government are in the position of monitoring rather than reaching any definitive conclusion.

My Lords, on Tuesday, 600 women from a highly respected and internationally well known human rights group demonstrated peacefully in Zimbabwe, handing out roses and early Valentine cards. Apparently the riot police broke up the demonstration, assaulting and arresting members and even throwing one elderly woman into a moving truck. Meanwhile, South Africa and other SADC states are clamouring for the EU sanctions against the ZANU-PF elite to be lifted. Will the Minister make representations to SADC countries asking that they be equally vociferous in their request for the release of human rights activists and political detainees?

My Lords, the Government certainly would regard the early release of human rights workers such as Justina Mukoko and other political prisoners as an indication of an important change in the regime of the Government of Zimbabwe. Of course international pressure is important, but the British Government have been persistent and consistent on this issue. We regard it as an important benchmark in the progress towards normality in the government of Zimbabwe.

My Lords, during my many visits to Zimbabwe over a 10-year period in the late 1990s and the early part of this century as director of a church mission and aid agency and subsequently as a bishop, I witnessed at first hand, even then, the reality of hunger and starvation among the poorest of its citizens. Clearly a catastrophe was then in the making. Given that today the increased use of torture and calculated starvation has reached crisis proportions, in what ways are Her Majesty’s Government encouraging and supporting intervention on humanitarian grounds by the international community?

My Lords, that is a significant priority for the Government. The right reverend Prelate will be all too well aware that one of the conditioning factors that will best improve the situation is if we can get movement towards greater normality in Zimbabwe. This means an immediate end to political violence, intimidation and repressive legislation. It also means a reinvigoration of a disastrous economy within which people are suffering greatly. We will keep on all the pressure that we can. Britain is the second largest donor to Zimbabwe and we will keep faith with its people, but we want significant change at the top in terms of the decisions taken by the now shared Government.

My Lords, while it is reasonable to be cautious about the future of the agreement, would it not be a tragedy if we erred on the side of pessimism and failed to do everything that we possibly can to make the agreement work for the people of Zimbabwe? Given that Mr Tsvangirai is today to be sworn in as the Prime Minister, would it not be a good message to the people of Zimbabwe to say that we will support them as far we reasonably can?

My Lords, my noble friend has a long record of interest in equality, justice and good government in southern Africa. He speaks with great authority on these matters and I am glad that he has introduced this important element. We must live in hope that the power-sharing position will work and we will do all that we can to support it in the interests of the people of Zimbabwe. However, at this early stage, the Government are bound to enter in a note of caution, as he will recognise.

My Lords, it will indeed be a momentous day for Zimbabwe but do the Government have confidence in the ability of the MDC Ministers to act independently of Mugabe—for example, if Mr Tendai Biti, who has been appointed Minister of Finance, should want to dismiss Gideon Gono, the egregious governor of the central bank? Will we also press for the indictment and prosecution of those who have perpetrated the most inhumane tortures on 30 of the detainees, including 72 year-old Mr Fidelis Chiramba, who had scalding water poured on his genitals?

On the second point, my Lords, I should have thought the Government were right to put our emphasis more on the immediate release of political prisoners and the restoration of human rights in Zimbabwe rather than to emphasise those who might be subject to some legal sanction. We must work constructively at this stage and support the development of normality in Zimbabwe. The noble Lord himself indicated that there is a considerably rocky road to traverse, and the Government cannot pretend at this stage that they have total confidence in every step of the way.