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Zimbabwe: Human Rights

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 28 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their latest assessment of the political situation in Zimbabwe as regards human rights.

My Lords, we remain concerned by the current situation in Zimbabwe, particularly human rights violations. We have been clear that the Government of Zimbabwe must meet their international and domestic obligations by respecting the rule of law, safeguarding human rights and committing to genuine political and economic reform for the benefit of all Zimbabweans. On 1 February, the UK announced sanctions to hold to account individuals responsible for the most egregious human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

My Lords, in the light of the deepening economic and political crisis, which has had direct impact on local communities throughout Zimbabwe, will the Minister go a little further and outline in clear, concrete terms what recent assessment the UK Government have made of the treatment of political prisoners and critics of the Government in Zimbabwe, and what action the Government will take, working with the international community, to address the problems in that country?

My Lords, we remain seriously concerned by the harsh tactics of the Government of Zimbabwe and their treatment of their critics. The Minister for Africa and our embassy in Harare regularly call out the Government and urge them to live up to their own constitution and uphold basic human rights. We also continue to work with our international partners, including South Africa, to examine what more can be done to put pressure on the regime.

My Lords, Zimbabwe has recently been reported as pursuing its application to rejoin the Commonwealth. Given that belonging to the Commonwealth involves a commitment to free and fair elections, protection of human rights, freedom of expression and equality of opportunity, is it not the case that the recent arrest and treatment of women activists seem to fall far short of Commonwealth standards?

The decision on whether Zimbabwe can rejoin the Commonwealth is one for all Commonwealth members. However, we are absolutely clear that the UK would support Zimbabwe’s readmission only if it met the admission requirements and complied with the values and principles set out in the Commonwealth charter. Zimbabwe’s recent actions, including those that the noble Baroness mentioned, do not live up to those standards.

My Lords, my diocese has a close and long-standing friendship with the diocese of Harare. When I asked friends there about this subject, they spoke of those human rights activists and others who allege mistreatment when taken into custody, and then nothing is done to address their allegations. Is the Minister able to suggest how we might better underline and, indeed, demonstrate that allowing dissent is good for the health of a society, to be encouraged rather than met with suppression or even violence? This is something that, of course, has a wider application than just to Zimbabwe.

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely to make the point about lawful dissent in a democracy. We are aware of reports of mistreatment of activists in Zimbabwe. On 29 March, my honourable friend the Minister for Africa publicly called on the Zimbabwean Government to end the harassment of political opponents, and we have been clear that Zimbabwe should guarantee the right to freedom of speech which is enshrined in its own constitution.

My Lords, alongside justifiable concerns about its human rights record, bearing in mind some recent disturbing reports of forced labour in Zimbabwe in the Marange diamond fields, does my noble friend think that the Government should follow the lead of the United States of America in prohibiting any imports from Zimbabwe where evidence of forced labour has been established?

We are aware of the reports of forced labour in diamond mines and the tobacco industry and continue to follow closely concerns over the involvement of children, particularly in mining. We currently support efforts by Zimbabwean civil society organisations to try to ensure that communities benefit from, and are not harmed by, mining activities.

My Lords, there are disturbing reports from Zimbabwe that food aid intended for the poor and needy is commandeered by government agents, while individuals subject to the UK sanctions which the Minister mentioned are unaffected by these measures. Opposition to the Government, from the MDC and others, continues to be violently suppressed; party offices have been broken into and membership records stolen, allowing homes to be visited at night and members and their families severely beaten. Beyond the sanctions programme, what progress have the Government made in discussions with neighbouring Commonwealth countries, including South Africa, to avoid Zimbabwe falling back into the worst traits of the Mugabe regime?

We provide aid to Zimbabwe to support the people of that country. We stand by them and our sanctions send a powerful message that we will not shy away from holding to account those who commit human rights abuses. Sanctions are just one part of our approach which, working with our international partners, as the noble Lord said, is aimed at encouraging the Government of Zimbabwe to fulfil its own commitments to fundamental political and economic reform.

My Lords, what representations have the Government made to the Government of Zimbabwe on the detention and treatment of female parliamentarians, specifically in relation to the reports of sexual violence against them in custody? What specific work are we doing in relation to sexual violence in conflict, which is something that the UK leads on, as my noble friend is aware?

As I said, we are concerned by the unacceptable pattern of arrests and intimidation of opposition and civil society figures, particularly women. The recent cases of MDC activists and an MP, Joanah Mamombe, are particularly pertinent in that regard. On 29 March, my noble friend the Minister for Africa publicly called on the Zimbabwean Government to end the harassment of political opponents—so we are taking action, as my noble friend suggested.

My Lords, the proposed patriotic Bill being initiated by the Zimbabwe Government would effectively make it illegal to criticise President Mnangagwa and forbid any member of the opposition from speaking to any foreign body or politician. With Zimbabwe currently applying to rejoin the Commonwealth, what measures can we, and other members of the Commonwealth, take to resist this draconian measure?

We are aware of the proposed Bill that the noble Lord mentioned and have been clear with the Zimbabwean Government that any legislation which restricts democratic principles or freedom of speech is not in line with Zimbabwe’s own constitution, nor with the promises of political reform which President Mnangagwa made when he came to power. As I have said, readmission to the Commonwealth is a matter for all Commonwealth member states, but we have been clear that Zimbabwe’s actions do not live up to the standards set out in the charter.

My Lords, I return to the women activists, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, drew particular attention. My late and respected noble friend Lord Judd put down a Written Question on the case of Joanah Mamombe, which the Minister mentioned. My noble friend Lord Hain also wrote to the Foreign Secretary about this case yesterday. She has now been charged with faking her own abduction. She is being treated appallingly in prison and she has a severe medical condition. The Minister mentioned specific sanctions; can he assure the House that these will be extended and will involve all the people who are committing these terrible human rights abuses, so that we hold them properly to account?

As I said, we remain concerned about the failure to address the allegations of abduction and abuse made by the three MDC Alliance members which the noble Lord raised. We continue to call for investigations into these allegations and we have regularly raised our concerns about them with the Government of Zimbabwe. I am sure that the noble Lord will understand that I cannot speculate on future sanctions, as doing so would reduce the impact of potential designations.

Does the Minister agree that the continued detention of MDC MP Joanah Mamombe and activist Cecilia Chimbiri, whose bail hearing judgment was deferred in Harare just this morning until Friday, is just a further example of the politicisation of the courts, the violation of human rights and the closing down of free expression in Zimbabwe? This includes the patriotic Bill. Will the Government summon the Zimbabwe ambassador and impress on him that, until freedom of expression, the rule of law and upholding of human rights are restored, there is no prospect of the normalisation of relations between our two countries?

I know that the noble Lord takes a keen interest in Zimbabwe, as co-chairman of the All-Party Group for Zimbabwe, and that he has written to my honourable friend on this case. As I said, we are concerned at the failure to address these concerning allegations and we continue to call for an investigation into them. We continue to raise our concerns directly with the Government of Zimbabwe and in public, as my honourable friend the Minister for Africa has done.