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Zimbabwe: Human Rights Abuses

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made (1) to the African Union, and (2) to the government of South Africa, about reports of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

My Lords, we remain concerned by the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, particularly the continued targeted arrests of, violence against and abductions of journalists, civil society activists and opposition politicians. We engage regularly with the African Union and South Africa on Zimbabwe, including on human rights issues. The Foreign Secretary discussed Zimbabwe with the South African Foreign Minister in November 2020, and the Minister for Africa discussed our approach with the former African Union Peace and Security Commissioner, Smaïl Chergui, in July 2020.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. The human rights abuses and the breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe over the past few years have been devastating for the people of Zimbabwe, but also for the neighbouring countries. It has very negative economic and social consequences for them. With the very welcome focus of Her Majesty’s Government on getting value for money from overseas development aid, what is the FCDO doing to ensure that development aid, along with diplomatic engagement, encourages all members of the Southern African Development Community—SADC—to take action themselves, which would bring respect for human rights and the possibility of free and fair elections in the wonderful country of Zimbabwe?

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work on supporting democracy for the Zimbabwean people, and I recognise that she has not only been present in Zimbabwe during previous elections but has a deep love for that country. We remain extremely concerned about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. We provide significant ODA support, but not directly via the Zimbabwean Government. Our efforts are geared towards empowering people through education and via conservation, which provides significant opportunities for tourism and jobs. As we look towards elections in 2023, much needs to be done to ensure a fair playing field. That is what we will continue to push for; it is what the Zimbabwean people deserve.

My Lords, as an official Commonwealth observer at the last election in Zimbabwe, I was warned particularly about the threats posed by the new Government to women’s rights. Reports of abuses have greatly accelerated recently. Just last week, I was contacted by women’s organisers, asking for help to press for the release of three prominent women being held for political activity. What representations are being made about these types of cases and about women’s rights in general?

Of course, we are very concerned by the failure to address the allegations of abduction and abuse of three MDC Alliance members: Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova. We continue to call for investigations into those allegations. The Minister for Africa reiterated this message when he spoke to Zimbabwe’s late Foreign Minister, Sibusiso Moyo, on 8 June 2020. We have raised our concerns about the arrests and rearrests of Joana Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri, who were recently denied bail, and we will continue to follow their cases closely.

Does the Minister recognise that if we are to have any influence on the appalling human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, we must also engage consistently with countries in the region to advance regional prosperity, underpinned by respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic norms? When will the Government develop an overall strategy for the region that has some chance of successfully moving these issues forward?

My Lords, we engage with the African Union on all reports of human rights abuses in instances where the African Union has leverage and political will. We are not convinced that that is the case in Zimbabwe. However, when the African Union has taken proactive steps to address concerns about the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe, the UK has been supportive. We support the special envoys appointed by Cyril Ramaphosa, but they have also struggled due to the lack of engagement from the Government of Zimbabwe. We will work with all partners where it makes most sense for the UK.

My Lords, Zimbabwe and, indeed, the world should have been a better place now that the evil Mugabe is thankfully out of it, but does my noble friend agree that Mnangagwa seems to be no better? The murders, rapes and torture continue, with any government critics beaten to death or simply disappeared. South Africa, regrettably, seems to be heading the same way, first under Zuma and now under Ramaphosa. Knowing the Government’s limited powers, what can and will they actually do to save the starving and beaten people of Zimbabwe?

My Lords, we have repeatedly made clear our disappointment at the lack of political and economic progress of the Zimbabwean Government. On 1 February, we announced sanctions to hold to account those individuals responsible for human rights violations. We support the Zimbabwean people through numerous aid programmes, focusing on poverty reduction, humanitarian assistance, standing up for human rights and supporting Zimbabwe’s recovery from the Covid pandemic. On South Africa, we strongly support President Ramaphosa’s efforts to tackle corruption and promote accountability, as well as efforts to address those crimes perpetrated under President Zuma.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that neither the African Union nor the South African Government have publicly commented on the recent forced and unconstitutional displacement by the Government of Zimbabwe of more than 13,000 villagers in Chilonga, where a recent De Beers report has shown a large deposit of diamonds?

My Lords, I was not aware that neither South Africa nor the African Union has commented on the large-scale displacement that the noble Lord has described. The UK has a long-standing partnership with South Africa; we speak often and candidly on a broad range of issues, including, of course, Zimbabwe. I am sure my colleague, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, and the Minister for Africa will raise this issue in their next conversation.

My Lords, there is evidence that President Mnangagwa is using Covid-19 restrictions as a cover for a crackdown on opposition and criticism. It is also clear that stakeholders, including trade unions and businesses, are being sidelined in discussions relating to recovery plans. What are the UK Government doing to engage with Zimbabwean civil society, including trade unions, to address their human rights concerns, including with the ITUC?

My Lords, this year, we are providing £81 million in bilateral development assistance to Zimbabwe. When our support through multilateral systems is included, that increases to £139 million. As I said earlier, we do not give aid directly to the Government of Zimbabwe; those funds are designed specifically to empower civil society, partly through education, partly via multilateral organisations, notably UN agencies, international NGOs and, of course, the private sector.

My Lords, apparently a high-level ANC delegation from South Africa met officials from Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party to address the escalating economic and political crisis last September. Its priorities should have been the deteriorating human rights situation. Unidentified assailants have abducted and tortured more than 70 government critics. Arbitrary arrests, violent assaults, abductions and police crackdowns on anti-corruption protests abound unchecked. What specific actions is the UK taking to persuade South Africa that the key message to ZANU-PF should be that Zimbabwe’s economic and political crisis cannot be resolved by repressing the people of Zimbabwe?

My Lords, I am afraid I did not catch the whole question; the reception was poor. However, the UK engages often and regularly with South Africa on Zimbabwe, including on human rights. For example, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Pandor in November about Zimbabwe, including its impact on its neighbours. The UK recognises the important roles of the African Union and South Africa in relation to Zimbabwe, and we will continue to engage with both, given that we share a desire to see a prosperous Zimbabwe that respects human lives.

My Lords, with elections due in two years’ time, the people of Zimbabwe need real hope of lasting change. May I join other noble Lords in asking the Minister what more the Government can do, alongside our partners, to bring real pressure to bear on neighbours in the region to put effective pressure on the Government of Zimbabwe to end the current appalling state of human rights in that country?

The UK stands ready in friendship to support a Zimbabwe that fully embraces the rule of law, human rights and reform. The ball is in the court of the Zimbabwean Government. The UK is on the side of the Zimbabwean people; we always have been and we will continue to work alongside the international community to support good governance, respect for human rights and genuine political and economic reform in Zimbabwe, to help secure a brighter and better future for all Zimbabweans.