Question for Short Debate
My Lords, this House and another place have taken a close interest in Zimbabwe over many years, reflecting the close ties and shared history which exists between our two nations. There is a great deal of support and good will here towards Zimbabwe and its people, and a universal wish to see peace and prosperity return to that great land.
After the intense period of strife which led in 2017 to the removal from office of Robert Mugabe, there was real optimism that a turning point had come for the economy and for the lot of the ordinary citizen. That is why we have all been so alarmed to see the situation in Zimbabwe get worse and not better since that time. The simple facts are that the agricultural sector was decimated by the farm invasions, and what was once a highly productive farming operation now lies largely fallow. The result is that Zimbabwe, which was once a net exporter of staples including maize, wheat and soya, and of cash-crops such as tobacco and flowers, now has to import almost everything and has little foreign currency with which to do so. What money there is has been largely lost to corruption.
The net result has been rampant inflation and chronic food shortages, including of staples such as bread. I understand that, at this very moment, because of the low level of domestic production of wheat and a lack of foreign currency, bread is now hard to find on the streets of Harare. The Government have introduced a synthetic currency in the form of bond notes and have attempted to control some prices but, because of shortages, the black market is prevalent in every commodity from cooking oil to basic medicines. Everything is difficult to get hold of and everything is very expensive, particularly for the ordinary citizen.
As we know, the Government recently doubled fuel prices through duty increases, which caused panic on the streets among the ordinary people, who have endured great suffering and who knew from bitter experience that the inevitable consequence of fuel price increases would be a knock-on effect on the availability of the very basics of life. Fuel is needed to transport people to work and to bring foodstuffs into the city. In an economy absolutely on the edge, that tips people over.
The protests seen on the streets of Harare were not politically motivated or organised but were driven by fear, desperation and ordinary people’s concern that they are not able to feed themselves and their families. But any protest whatever has been treated as an act of aggression against the state and has been met with violence. There have undoubtedly been credible, well-publicised, desperately troubling reports of the state using the army and the other security forces against its own citizens and of murder, rape, torture, beatings and intimidation. This has particularly taken place in the townships at night. People have been lifted from their homes. People have resorted to sleeping in trees and in the bush to try to keep themselves safe. This is being done well away from the eyes of foreign journalists and diplomats.
The rule of law, which survived for such a long time under extreme pressure, appears very largely to have broken down. There are many reports of magistrates sending people to jail without trial, and many people have been severely injured. In the important debate yesterday in another place, Harriett Baldwin, the Minister for Africa, referred to a report of more than 1,000 arrests having been made. In a particularly sinister development, the internet was shut down during the height of the disturbances, meaning that people could not communicate domestically or internationally, and many areas of business came to a standstill.
The real tragedy of this situation is that it is entirely a man-made crisis. This has been brought about not by natural disaster but by greed and corruption. Where there is corruption, repression invariably follows to protect entrenched interests, and where there is repression, the economy and the ordinary citizen suffer, as they have done in Zimbabwe for decades.
I draw a comparison with Zambia, where I lived and worked for a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In those days, Zambia’s economy was in a pretty poor state, despite relative political stability. Essential commodities were scarce and the basic infrastructure was very fragile. People were poor. However, all the commodities and goods one needed were available for sale in Zimbabwe, the roads were well maintained, the policemen smart and well disciplined, and tourism was thriving, and all this despite the legacy of the civil war. There was an extraordinary period after Mr Mugabe came into office where the country exceeded expectations, before the rot set in.
I shall continue the comparison with the country I know much better, Zambia. It had a peaceful transition of power at the ballot box in 1991, when Kenneth Kaunda was defeated by Frederick Chiluba in the general election, and democracy has prevailed since then. Very shortly before I left Zambia, I remember driving on the roads and seeing people joyfully holding up their fingers as a sign of the hands of a clock. They were saying “the hour has come”. Democracy came, and since then there have been democratic elections. The result has been the liberalisation of the economy and the attraction of investment, including in the retail and hotel sectors. Many farmers were welcomed into Zambia from Zimbabwe and encouraged to set up new production.
There is absolutely no reason why, with the right political will, Zimbabwe could not again be a prosperous, thriving economy. It has significant natural resources, a benign climate, huge agricultural potential, wonderful tourism opportunities and great people. The international community is standing by to help Zimbabwe rebuild itself, and the UK and the broader international community could give tremendous support in the rebuilding of critical state functions and capability—what is known as nation-building. Whoever leads the country out of this terrible state has the opportunity to make their mark in history: the history of Zimbabwe and that of post-colonial Africa. However, this can come only with a profound commitment to reform of the rule of law, economic management and democratic liberty.
So what can be done? The answer undoubtedly lies in a firm, multilateral response from the Commonwealth, the United Nations, SADC, the African Union, South Africa and indeed the European Union. However, it remains the case that on the world stage many countries look to the UK to take a leading role, given the depth of our understanding of the country and the closeness of our contacts. It is clear that the Government of Zimbabwe want to rejoin the Commonwealth, and it is equally clear that there is no question of them doing so without significant reform. Will the Minister set out the agreed position of the Commonwealth towards Zimbabwe potentially rejoining in due course? What discussions has he had with his counterpart Commonwealth Ministers? What discussions have Her Majesty’s Government had with the South African Government and with other members of SADC? Does the Minister agree that the credibility of neighbouring countries, in particular South Africa, will be judged by their response to this crisis? For too long other leaders have decided to look the other way, but that is to be complicit, and as long as this situation prevails, the reputation of the region will continue to suffer. Will the Minister tell the House the result of the EU-African Union bilateral to which he referred in answer to the Private Notice Question asked by my noble friend Lord Hayward last week?
Some might ask why we should care, as surely this is someone else’s problem. We should care very much because we can help, because the humanitarian situation is so bad and because we can play a significant role in coalescing international opinion to try to deliver change in that wonderful country where the footprints of the United Kingdom are still to be seen in the sand of that land. I thank all noble Lords who are going to speak in this debate.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, on securing this debate at such an appropriate time. He referred to neighbouring countries that I, too, know fairly well, including not just Zambia but Botswana. There is a hub of countries which we can compare with Zimbabwe.
Reading a blog from an expatriate Zimbabwean returning to his country from Cape Town reminded me of the times when my organisation had thriving design offices in burgeoning Bulawayo and Harare. I shall quote the anonymous blogger:
“Once upon a time, my country was one of the most developed in Africa, with an envied infrastructure and education system. It was … blessed with abundant mineral resources, well-educated people, and regarded as Africa’s bread basket”.
The city streets were well maintained and people took pride as they walked around the centres of Bulawayo and Harare, which were free from hustlers and street vendors. He went on to write that,
“things started changing ... The roads are rutted … and full of potholes. The struggle is real as people’s stories tell of hardship, deepening poverty and unemployment. The youths standing on street corners … drug use. Communities are falling apart … Life has become survival of the fittest ... I thought a new dawn had come … Robert Mugabe resigned … The once-proud people are now reduced to hawkers and black market hustlers, yearning to just earn enough for a meal”.
Christina Lamb, foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times, reported that just the other afternoon in Pumula in the Bulawayo suburbs, two girls—one aged 11 and the other 12—were playing between each other’s homes. They made the mistake of peeping through the wall of the police station to see what had happened to their neighbours, who had been locked up. They were spotted by the soldiers, dragged inside the compound and raped in the courtyard.
Rapes, beatings, floggings, shootings and murders, handed out by the army, have become commonplace as a reign of terror spreads across Zimbabwe. In this regard, we must congratulate the DfID personnel and the whole UK FCO team in Zimbabwe on the outstanding support they are giving to the victims. The abuses are the worst seen in Zimbabwe for at least a decade, dashing any remaining hopes that the departure of Mugabe would lead to political reform. Leading human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa states that there can be no question but that Zimbabwe is under military rule—the army is in control.
In response to the strikes in protest at the doubling of fuel prices and the crackdown by troops using systematic and brutal torture, government spokesmen reportedly said that the people had to learn to behave “correctly”. Hundreds have suffered gunshot wounds and more than 800 citizens—possibly over 1,000—have been arrested, often without reason or charge, since the “stay away” protests were called by the unions. The monitoring report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission on the “stay away” and the subsequent disturbances resulting from the deteriorating economic and security situation highlighted that on 16 January the commission’s monitoring teams were denied access to, or any interaction with, those detained in police stations across Harare and Bulawayo provinces. Efforts to monitor detainees proved futile.
Nevertheless, the commission has produced an extensive monitoring report on the actions of the police and on the military crackdown and arrests. It reports on the losses of life through gunshots—at least 12—and the targeting of members of the opposition and civil society organisations. It reports on the beatings and arrests late at night, the denial of bail, the excessive use of force and police brutality, and countless examples of breaches of citizens’ rights under the constitution.
There are chilling parallels with Zimbabwe’s history under the Mugabe regime, perpetrated in the past by Manangagwa, reinforced by the demands for personal enrichment by those leading the Government and the armed forces by directing the country’s precious resources into their own pockets.
Over the last 12 months, the UK has given financial support to election monitoring initiatives and has set up a $100 million investment facility for growing businesses in Zimbabwe—the first such initiative for 20-odd years. Can the Minister say whether this initiative is now under review? In April last year, the Government strongly supported Zimbabwe’s application to rejoin the Commonwealth. Are they now reviewing their support for that application, given the fresh outbreak of atrocities?
According to Stevens Mokgalapa writing in the Zimbabwe Situation, lifting sanctions would serve only as a reward to the Zimbabwean Government. President Ramaphosa and the Minister of International Relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, have failed to grasp the repercussions of economic and political instability in Zimbabwe on the neighbouring country of South Africa. They must not reward brutal regimes that gun down their own people in the streets. They should use their influence to defend the victims, not to protect the aggressors. Does the Minister agree?
Finally, the Democratic Alliance in South Africa notes that, given the failure to manage border security, the only option is to stop the problem in the first place. South Africa’s standing in Africa, as well as its position on the UN Security Council, are platforms from which to draw attention to the crisis in Zimbabwe. Does the Minister agree? In that context, can he enlighten us on the outcome of the Minister for Africa Harriett Baldwin’s meeting with the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security and the outcome that she hopes to achieve during her visit to the region?
My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Goschen on obtaining this debate and I thank him for his kind comments in relation to my PNQ last week.
I would like to touch on just two subjects. One is my experience of having been an electoral observer in Zimbabwe last year, and the second is the role of South Africa, which the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, also referred to. However, before I do so, I pay credit to Christina Lamb, who has been referred to previously; to Kate Hoey in the other place for her constant pursuance of assistance and democracy in Zimbabwe; to DfID for the efforts and money that it put in in relation to funding work at the election last year; to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its very quick action over the last few weeks, to which I paid credit in the Private Notice Question last week; and to the Commonwealth observers, with whom I shared the honour of being an election observer last year, and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who unfortunately cannot be here today. I believe that, although limited, our role in the election helped and, along with the other observers, it enables us to comment on what happened.
As far as I am concerned, the election in Zimbabwe last year fell into three categories. The first was the unfair period in the run-up to election day. Communication through the media, funding and assistance were dominated by ZANU-PF. There is absolutely no question but that nobody else got a look in. The chiefs played a major role. I lived in the country many decades ago and was struck by how unchanged that influence has been in an apparently modernising country. The development of the country in that period was most depressing. As I and my colleague Sabrina Grover from Canada headed out to Matabeleland North, we were driven by an individual who commented on the lack of development in Harare over the last few decades. The significance was that he was a qualified architect, but he had had no work for the whole of his adult career because there had been no development in the country. In that first period, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission failed to take any action on the dominance of the media and the bias that I have referred to.
The second period—election day itself—was remarkably fair and peaceful. Here, I pay credit to all the employees who carried out the election and to the thousands of observers across the country. Before election day, they all slept for several nights on the floors of unlit, unheated and, in many cases, seriously degraded schools to protect the ballot boxes. Overwhelmingly, the election day went smoothly.
The post-election day—the third category—was another matter. We saw the murders of demonstrators in the centre of Harare only eight blocks from where we were staying in our hotel. We saw the looting of the MDC offices and the arrest of a number of MDC candidates and employees. The significance of that looting was that the MDC lists of supporters are now in the hands of the Government. Therefore, although what we have seen in these last few weeks has been random in many cases, as has already been identified, there is the potential that those who worked so hard and so peacefully will be persecuted, arrested and attacked. Is it not ironic that the person leading those arrests and attacks himself only fled Zimbabwe under an illegally obtained evacuation order smuggled into his house last October? He had to burst his way through Forbes border post with the support of his family, blocking the guns of the Zimbabwean military—that is, President Mnangagwa. So twice in his life he has faced persecution, yet he seems willing to do the same to his own population now.
I could comment much more in relation to the election but I shall pick on one particular occasion. On the night of the actual election, Sabrina Grover, the Irish ambassador from Pretoria, a DfID representative from the British embassy and I were standing outside a polling station in a rural area in Matabeleland North. We were approached in the darkness by a man who wanted to protest about a random arrest that had happened at his polling station earlier in the day. That is the sort of thing that can and does happen and there were many other instances. But overwhelmingly, election day went well.
As has been identified, the key to this is South Africa, which has the power, influence and capacity to help, aid and intervene in Zimbabwe if it so wishes. One of the most striking things in relation to the election was that, before election day, we were given the figures for registration in Zimbabwe. The number of women massively outnumbered the number of registered male voters. Why? Large numbers of men have gone to South Africa because that is the only place they might get work. We do not know the numbers involved—perhaps 1 million or 2 million—but the situation was shown up by this imbalance.
The South African Government can intervene, and not only to the benefit of the Zimbabwean population; in doing so, they can ease the problems of unemployment and depression in South Africa as well. I wholeheartedly welcome this debate and I hope the Government, along with many other Governments in the world, can make progress with President Mnangagwa and his Government.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, for introducing this very topical short debate. I, like many, had great hopes and expectations that the end of the Mugabe regime and the election of President Emmerson Mnangagwa would herald a new dawn of rebuilding political and economic stability in Zimbabwe.
Sadly, my high expectations and those of many others have been severely dashed. Many believe that the political and economic situation has deteriorated even more, leaving citizens grossly underwhelmed. While the recent street protests were triggered by the doubling of the fuel prices, this was just one of the multiple dimensions of the current Zimbabwe crisis.
There are, in essence, four key aspects to the current malaise, the first being the political crisis stemming from the contested legitimacy and leadership of the President, with clear divisions between him and his deputy, Constantino Chiwenga. The political crisis also has a constitutional dimension in that the traditional structure of checks and balances between the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary are just not there: the state is now captured by the military and more compromised. Secondly, there is the economic crisis, which has been manifested by a crippling debt trap, huge unemployment and a debilitating currency crisis. Thirdly, and most importantly, the human rights crisis has resulted in a suspension of fundamental freedoms, unlawful killings by the state, systematic torture and mass rape of women and children as extra- judicial instruments of punishment. The final aspect is international isolation, which has seen the President seeking assistance from Russia.
After the recent atrocities by the military, where live ammunition was used to kill innocent civilians and opponents to the regime were hunted down, much of the population of Zimbabwe has lost all faith, in both the military and political leadership, and people fear that their voices are not being heard by the international community. The move by the state to shut down the internet and social media was another flagrant abuse of human rights and associated with authoritarianism.
In his inaugural speech when he took office, the President undertook to promote economic stability by respecting property rights, repealing the indigenisation Act and tackling the multi-layered currency crisis. He also undertook to have an independent and respected judiciary, which applies the law, and an independent and respected police force, which enforces the law. Sadly, Zimbabwe has descended into a lawless state where none of the four pillars of democracy is functioning effectively, and which is being subverted by a kleptocratic elite. Moreover, there have been strong rumours that Vice-President Chiwenga has been attempting to unseat the President but has not managed to garner sufficient military support.
There are, however, a number of encouraging developments. The recent move to allow companies and individuals to transfer dollars electronically is to be welcomed. There have been calls for financial assistance by South Africa to alleviate the humanitarian crisis— I hope that this will be made conditional by South Africa on political reforms in Zimbabwe. The economic reforms introduced by the Minister of Finance, Mthuli Ncube, have been slowly starting to take effect, but the move to double the fuel price overnight was deeply irresponsible and reckless.
The nature of the political crisis requires a negotiated political solution, but the relatively low level of trust between the key players, Mnangagwa, Chiwenga and opposition leader Chamisa, means that this is highly unlikely. Ideally, to attempt to restore the public’s trust, there should be a Government of national unity, with a negotiated transition. International calls for the demilitarisation of Zimbabwe, I fear, are a long way away. The military and political leaders appear determined to keep hold of the levers of power rather than relinquish them for the promise of what they see as an uncertain longer-term upside of support by the international community.
DfID and the CDC have played an important role in trying to reduce poverty and promote economic recovery. I believe that efforts should be focused more on the private rather than the public sector in Zimbabwe. Any aid to the public sector in Zimbabwe should be conditional on political reforms.
My allotted time is up. There is currently no clear fix or solution to the current crisis. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, I hope that, in time, Zimbabwe will rejoin the Commonwealth but this will require a rigorous set of preconditions to be met.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, for initiating this short debate today, following the Oral Question last week by my noble friend Lord Hayward, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take part.
A full week has passed, and still we hear and read about the continuing, disproportionate use of force to retain order. The situation originated from the announcement of steep increases in fuel prices earlier this month. We are told that the price rises were meant to tackle fuel shortages, but they mean that Zimbabwe now has the most expensive fuel in the world—and the people are poor. All this is happening in a country which has lots of economic minerals such as platinum, gold, diamonds, chrome, coal, nickel and many others, which should have been used to help develop this lovely country. Even basic commodities such as food are affected. Not many years ago, there was a vibrant agricultural sector, but now the country relies on imports. Food costs three times the average person’s salary; fuel and medicine remain scarce and are increasingly expensive; and all this is coupled with large-scale unemployment, making further protests likely.
Many crimes committed by the security forces have gone unreported to the police because victims are often fearful of detention or further violence. With women allegedly being raped by the security forces during these night raids, they too live in fear. With so much distrust, they dare not report against police or soldiers. There are further reports, too, of security forces entering houses at night and making men and even boys as young as 11 lie on the ground, where they are beaten. We read that over 600 people have been arrested, with 60 people being treated in hospital for gunshot wounds. It was reported a few days ago that a 22 year-old man on his way home from work was stopped by soldiers and beaten with iron rods, which was followed by a government spokesman saying:
“When things get out of hand, a bit of firmness is needed”.
And courts are struggling to process the huge number of detainees.
Seeing the end of Mugabe’s rule prompted widespread optimism that the repression of previous decades was over, but, regrettably, it seems even worse. We have seen this level of violence in Zimbabwe for at least a decade now, and it seems to stall any remaining hopes that the end of those 37 years of Mugabe’s reign would lead to major reforms of that beautiful country. Since then, the military have become even more of a significant player in social, political and economic affairs, with retired officers being appointed to key Cabinet roles and overseeing, as we heard earlier, the shutdown of the internet.
It is in the gift of countries such as the UK to protest, monitor and challenge human rights issues in Zimbabwe, as well as continuing to voice UK concerns regarding corruption. As we are all well aware, corruption places in danger any economic growth. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, for initiating this timely debate. As he rightly said, there was great hope that the departure of Robert Mugabe would usher in a new era for Zimbabwe. However, any optimism has now evaporated. Since the presidential elections, we have seen the killing of protesters, the arbitrary detention of opposition activists and further curbs on the freedom of the press.
As Harriett Baldwin said in the Westminster Hall debate yesterday, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission has recorded a wide range of human rights violations since the fuel protests and general strike that began on 14 January. She said that at least eight deaths and many injuries were reported. There are credible reports that arrests may exceed 1,000, and many are still detained. She expressed particular concern at the targeting of opposition and civil society in the wake of the protests. Has the UK specifically raised with the Zimbabwean authorities the violent repression and targeting of trade unionists by the police and security services which has resulted in the general secretary and president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions being arrested and charged with subverting a constitutionally elected Government? They are on remand until 8 February, with bail hearings this week.
On his return to Zimbabwe, President Mnangagwa committed to holding his security forces to account for human rights violations and spoke of the urgent need for a national dialogue and reconciliation. However, as Harriett Baldwin said yesterday, words need to be followed by deeds. I hope the Minister will urge the Government of Zimbabwe to immediately release the trade union leadership so that they can engage in good-faith negotiations with them on a peaceful and constructive way out of the economic crisis, with full respect for human rights and workers’ rights.
The Minister assured the House last week, during the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, that the UK was working very closely with international partners such as the SADC and the African Union and in particular with South Africa to urge the Government of Zimbabwe to stop their disproportionate use of force. We know that Harriett Baldwin, the Minister for Africa, attended the EU/AU ministerial meeting in Brussels on 21 January to discuss Zimbabwe in particular. Yesterday, she reported that she met the African Union commissioner for peace and security to raise the UK’s concerns. The African Union is an imperfect but important organisation for influencing change and exerting pressure on Governments to adhere to the provisions in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As we have heard, Harriett Baldwin is travelling to the region this week to urge a co-ordinated international approach to the crisis. Can the Minister set out how the Government intend to work with the African Union on ensuring that the human rights, protections and freedoms of the people of Zimbabwe are upheld?
As Harriett Baldwin also reported yesterday, and as we have heard mentioned in today’s debate, targeted EU sanctions remain in place, including on Vice-President Chiwenga. Can the Minister indicate whether our discussions with allies there involve any plans to extend those sanctions, or indeed introduce new ones, to put more pressure on the Government of Zimbabwe?
On development aid, I acknowledge DfID’s long-standing decision not to channel funds directly, which, as we heard from the noble Viscount during the debate, flows from concerns about the role of the ruling party, ZANU-PF. Taking it sector by sector, 50% of DfID spending in 2018-19 will be on human development, with economic development the second biggest sector on 24%, while 18% will be spent on governance and security. I understand that there are currently 19 active UK aid projects. What assessment has been made of the governance and security projects? Can the Minister assure the House that no funds are ending up in the hands of the Zimbabwean Government or their agents?
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Goschen for tabling what is in every sense a timely debate. Perhaps it has been made even timelier since earlier today I had the great honour to attend, along with several noble Lords, a service at Westminster Abbey for the late Lord Carrington. His role in Zimbabwe’s independence and in bringing about the negotiations that took place is a poignant reminder of the hope and ambition that existed.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Recent developments, as several noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lady Redfern, have said, are of significant concern. The response of Zimbabwean security forces to recent protests has been not just disproportionate but reminiscent, as my noble friend said, of the darkest days of the Mugabe regime. They have used live ammunition, carried out widespread and indiscriminate arrests and unleashed brutal assaults on civilians, with clear disregard for the due process of law. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, and he was right to cite that at least 470 cases of assault, including 80 that were gunshot-related, have been reported. He raised the important issue of the recent arrests of trade union officials. Because the situation is so fluid, I will write to the noble Lord to furnish him with specific details about this, but I assure him that we are watching these cases very closely.
My noble friend Lord Hayward paid tribute—a tribute shared by all of us—to the journalists who have shown great courage and whose reports have conveyed the footage of young men and even children being beaten up by soldiers in broad daylight. We have received accounts of atrocities committed by security forces during the violent crackdown, including raping of civilians. There have been indications of at least nine reported rapes, some of which appear to be politically motivated.
As was reported, President Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe a full 10 days into the crisis. He committed to hold security forces to account for human rights violations and spoke of the urgent need for national dialogue and reconciliation. We welcome these words. The President must also—as my honourable friend Harriett Baldwin, the Minister for Africa, who was quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said—act to stop the abuses and make good on these commitments. We are particularly concerned by the targeting of the opposition and civil society in the wake of the protests, another point ably made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. President Mnangagwa’s Administration must now act. They must learn lessons from these events and the tragic violence that followed the election last year, which was witnessed directly by my noble friend Lord Hayward.
The President must also, as he promised, implement the recommendations of the commission of inquiry into the 1 August violence. In particular, he must address the finding that the use of force by the security services was unjustified and disproportionate. As several noble Lords mentioned, the Government’s internet shutdown was a disturbing curtailing of freedom of expression and the media. Her Majesty’s Government intervened directly through my honourable friend and our ambassador, and I am pleased that the High Court of Zimbabwe ruled the shutdown unconstitutional on 22 January.
Several noble Lords drew attention to the UK’s response. My noble friend Lord Goschen asked about the outcome of the EU-AU meeting and about SADC. During the debate, my honourable friend’s visit to the region was mentioned. She is in South Africa today and I can assure noble Lords that this is a subject of specific discussion. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, mentioned this meeting and I assure him that all these issues are being looked at very seriously. I agree with noble Lords that South Africa has a key role to play in this. I also assure noble Lords that FCO and DfID officials have raised Zimbabwe directly with the Commonwealth Secretariat; I will come to the Commonwealth in a moment. The British ambassador in Harare has also met her counterpart from South Africa, so we are working very closely on this.
The noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Collins, asked about the specific outcome of the meeting with the African Union commissioner. Mrs Baldwin met him on 22 January and highlighted the UK’s concern about the situation in Zimbabwe. The African Union has emphasised the need for the security forces to respond proportionately and respect human rights standards. We will continue to work very closely with it. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, also rightly raised the issue of the economy. We all recognise the importance of debt relief for Zimbabwe. I assure him that the UK and others have been clear that any support for arrears clearance or debt relief will depend on seeing real progress with economic and political reforms. A number of those reforms were highlighted by my noble friend Lord Hayward in the report after the elections last year.
Minister Baldwin told the ambassador that we expect Zimbabwe’s security forces to stop using disproportionate force, and that the Government should reinstate full internet access. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary repeated this message publicly to President Mnangagwa on 21 January. Yesterday, Minister Baldwin spoke to Foreign Affairs Minister Moyo to reiterate our concern and call for an end to ongoing human right abuses. As I said, she is in South Africa today. In addition, Melanie Robinson, our ambassador on the ground, met the Home Affairs Minister on 23 January and had a substantive meeting with Minister Moyo on 25 January. The ambassador also met the opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, on 16 January.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the important issue of civil society groups. I assure him and all noble Lords that we continue to engage directly with civil society groups to ensure that we not only record the violence that has taken place but bring perpetrators to account with the authorities. Noble Lords are right to point out that the UK provides extensive financial and technical assistance to civil society organisations in Zimbabwe which support Zimbabwean citizens in holding the state to account. As I am sure all noble Lords will appreciate, we do not publicise our partners to avoid putting them directly at risk—a very poignant point in the current circumstances.
On the humanitarian situation, the fact that the recent unrest was sparked by a rise in fuel prices illustrates the desperate economic situation in which many millions of Zimbabweans find themselves. Our international development programme continues to support the people of Zimbabwe through the economic crisis; we are giving £86 million in aid this year. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked where we are channelling that money. In the last five years alone, we have provided ongoing access to clean water for 2.3 million people, given nutrition support to 1.3 million people, including adolescent girls in education and children aged under five, and helped 96,000 children to gain a decent education.
On re-engagement, the UK stands ready in friendship; the noble Lord, Lord St John, made this point. We are friends of the people of Zimbabwe and want to see a change in Zimbabwe not just for the sake of the country and its neighbours but for its standing in the wider world. We will work together with national partners in pursuit of that objective. I assure my noble friend Lord Goschen and others that we are working with international partners, particularly SADC and the EU, and will continue to do so. As several noble Lords noted, Minister Baldwin attended the EU-AU ministerial meeting in Brussels last week. During that time, as I have already reported, she met with the Commissioner for Peace and Security to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe.
A question was raised about Zimbabwe’s application to rejoin the Commonwealth. As Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, I can confirm that, after the elections last year, we were supportive of Zimbabwe’s potential return to the Commonwealth. Indeed, a meeting was held on the margins of the Heads of Government meeting. However, as all noble Lords will know, it is not just for the UK to decide whether Zimbabwe can rejoin the Commonwealth; the final decision lies with all members. I assure all noble Lords that the UK will support readmission only if Zimbabwe meets the admission requirements by complying with the values and principles set out in the Commonwealth charter. The disproportionate use of force by security forces, the detainment we have seen and the abuse of human rights suggest very clearly that this position is not yet attainable.
We have been clear with the Government of Zimbabwe that if they wish to rejoin the Commonwealth, this can only be based on genuine and sustained political and economic reform, points well made by my noble friends Lord Goschen and Lord Hayward. The events of the past two weeks demonstrate, however, that they have a long way to go.
If my noble friend would forgive me, I have not spoken in the debate but have attended it throughout and it has been excellent. Is it not worth bearing in mind that not only is he an excellent Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth but we are the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth at this moment? Is it not possible to be more proactive? Zimbabwe used to be a great member of the Commonwealth, but of course it left and there is now a disaster. Its plight and the impact of this on the whole of Africa and surrounding Commonwealth countries is very serious. Is it not possible to organise a stronger voice through the 53 Commonwealth members, including the great powers of Asia, in determinedly discouraging the Zimbabwean authorities from pursuing this hideous course? It is wrecking its chances and its prosperity.
My noble friend makes a very pertinent point. I assure him that, as Chair-in-Office, we take our role very seriously. This will be a subject of formal and informal discussion among Commonwealth countries. I assure him that we are using all channels, but most notably we are working with our key Commonwealth partner, South Africa. It has a major influence on the future relations throughout Africa, and particularly on developments in Zimbabwe. I will certainly take particular note of his suggestion, but it is clear that the Commonwealth stands united if these reforms cannot be met. As recent events have shown, words alone are not enough; we need to see action on political reform.
In the interests of time, I will write specifically to the noble Lord on sanctions policy, but the existing sanctions policy remains in place. I assure him that we are continually reviewing sanctions and their most effective use, along with EU partners.
It is vital that Zimbabwe’s political leaders focus on doing what is best for its people, with all parties rejecting violence, upholding the rule of law and putting the best interests of the country first. As the Foreign Secretary said in the House of Commons, President Mnangagwa must not turn the clock back. He must move rapidly from words to action on the political and economic reforms that he has set out to work with all Zimbabweans to build a pathway to a better future. I assure all noble friends, including my noble friend Lord Goschen in particular, that Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to doing the right thing to ensure and to install the hope of the Lancaster House agreement almost 40 years ago. As our departed noble friend Lord Carrington aptly said, in doing so, we will always put the best interests of the Zimbabwean people first.