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Commonwealth: Zimbabwe

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 12 January 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to work with other Commonwealth nations to block Zimbabwe’s readmission into the Commonwealth until it is compliant with the principles of the Commonwealth’s 1991 Harare Declaration.

My Lords, I have initiated this debate to emphasise the severe damage that I believe would be done to the reputation of the Commonwealth, to the Zimbabwe people’s struggle for democratic and human rights and to the upholding of such rights throughout the Commonwealth, if Zimbabwe were to be readmitted while its Government remain in flagrant violation of the Commonwealth charter and of the Commonwealth’s 1991 Harare Declaration. Yet this is what we are told may happen following the visit of a Commonwealth delegation to Zimbabwe in November—possibly even ahead of Zimbabwe’s elections due later this year.

Members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, on which I declare an interest as co-chair, have all written to the Secretary-General on this matter and I thank them for that. We understand that the UK Government are not minded to oppose readmission, because they do not want to be seen as isolated on the issue. I understand the Government’s sensitivity given the UK’s deeply troubled history in Zimbabwe. However, ignoring the oppression faced by the people of Zimbabwe today does not atone for past oppression inflicted under colonial rule. On the contrary, it compounds it. I hope that, rather than bowing to the pressure of others, our Government will work with fellow member states to ensure that the core principles of the Commonwealth are not fundamentally undermined by Zimbabwe’s readmission, while being clear that, if necessary, the UK will stand in defence of those principles, even if it has to do so alone.

At the conclusion of the Commonwealth visit, the secretariat issued the following statement:

“Zimbabwe has made significant progress in its journey to re-join the Commonwealth family … This mission by the Commonwealth forms part of the broader membership process and we look forward to advancing this further.”

It is not clear what progress the secretariat had in mind, as little further detail was provided to support this assertion, but all the evidence from independent observers points to the opposite conclusion.

The Commonwealth statement was particularly puzzling as the Harare Declaration is unambiguous in asserting the Commonwealth’s belief in

“the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives”.

Zimbabwe’s paramilitary regime believes in none of those things, and is currently in breach of every single one of the principles of the Commonwealth charter that relate to them. Far from making progress towards these principles, levels of repression are ramping up as elections approach.

Just 13 days after the conclusion of the Commonwealth visit, a joint meeting of the APPG on Zimbabwe and the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group heard in-person testimony from a young Zimbabwean activist, Netsai Marova, who was arrested in May 2020 for taking part in a protest, along with fellow opposition activist Cecilia Chimbiri and opposition Member of Parliament Joana Mamombe. They were taken to Harare Central police station, from which they were abducted and subjected to torture and sexual assault—an ordeal that lasted over 36 hours. I defy anyone to hear Netsai Marova’s harrowing testimony and to continue to argue for Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth while such abuses take place.

While recovering in hospital, Netsai and her colleagues were charged with taking part in an illegal protest and later with faking their own abduction and making false allegations of sexual assault and torture. On 10 June 2020, five special procedures experts of the UN Human Rights Council issued a statement calling on the Zimbabwe authorities to

“urgently prosecute and punish the perpetrators of this outrageous crime, and to immediately enforce a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ for abductions and torture throughout the country”

to ensure the effective protection of women against sexual violence and to bring those responsible to account. They also expressed grave alarm over concerns that this was not an isolated instance, reporting that, in 2019 alone, 49 cases of abductions and torture were reported in Zimbabwe, without investigations that would lead to the perpetrators being held to account.

Two years on, Joana Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri continue to be harassed through the courts on these charges, despite their evident lack of merit. Netsai Marova managed to escape from Zimbabwe and was granted a scholarship by the Norwegian Government under their students at risk programme. Her life and those of her colleagues have been upended by the actions of the Zimbabwe state and they remain severely traumatised.

On 1 December last year, another youth activist and former leader of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, Makomborero Haruzivishe, spoke at an event at South Africa House hosted by Action for Southern Africa, formerly the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He laid out the gross abuse of human and political rights being perpetrated by the Zimbabwe regime and the need for the world to speak out against it. Mr Haruzivishe, who I hope will be with us later—unfortunately, his train has been delayed—has been arrested 37 times over the past decade and was detained without trial for nearly 11 months in Chikurubi maximum security prison.

In March last year, parliamentary by-elections saw widespread violence unleashed against opposition campaigners across Zimbabwe. Open incitement to violence in a speech by Vice-President Chiwenga at a rally in Kwekwe led to an attack the next day by ZANU-PF thugs on an opposition rally in the same city, leaving one opposition supporter dead and many more injured.

Every day, democratic space is closed down further. On 23 December, the regime gazetted the so-called Patriotic Bill, which grants extraordinarily repressive powers under the guise of “defence of sovereignty” and imposes sentences of 10 years on those who expose the nature of the regime to international audiences, while stripping them of their rights to vote or stand for election. The same month, the draconian Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill, representing an all-out assault on civil society in direct contravention of Article 16 of the Commonwealth charter, passed in the lower House of Parliament. The new law allows the regime to designate NGOs as high risk, thereby allowing them to revoke their registration and remove or replace their leadership.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission continues to be packed with ZANU-PF supporters, including—extraordinarily—the daughter of former Vice-President Kembo Mohadi. The ZEC continues to refuse to provide access to the full voters’ roll, while opposition rallies are regularly banned and political repression increases. Only this weekend, footage emerged of the brutal beating of elderly people in villages for having attended opposition meetings.

As we participate in this debate, the opposition’s deputy chairperson, Job Sikhala MP, languishes in Chikurubi maximum security prison, where he has been held without trial since his arrest in June. At the time, Mr Sikhala was acting as the lawyer for the family of a murdered opposition activist, Moreblessing Ali. Her brother, Washington, to whom we offer our sincere condolences, will also join us here later. In response to Mr Sikhala’s detention, the Inter-Parliamentary Union stated on 22 October last year that it

“fails to understand how his detention in a maximum security prison could possibly be justified and is alarmed by allegations that Mr Sikhala is being held in inhumane conditions”.

It also said that it

“fails to understand the factual basis for the arrest of Mr. Sikhala”.

It is now clear beyond doubt that the Zimbabwe Government are intent on using violence, intimidation and the full power of the state to crush all opposition ahead of this year’s scheduled general elections. I therefore urge our Government and all Commonwealth member states to make it clear that Zimbabwe will be readmitted to the Commonwealth only when all political prisoners are released; when prosecutorial harassment of the opposition ceases; and when the rule of law, the constitution of Zimbabwe and the principles of the Commonwealth charter and the Harare Declaration are upheld.

In a powerful letter written to his fellow Zimbabweans from prison this month, Mr Sikhala said this:

“I understand you might be outside, and I am inside, but our suffering and pain is the same. We are all under attack … If I am killed … I am prepared to meet the fate in defense of values and principles I hold dearly; values of a free and open democratic society, exuding happiness, free of impunity and fear.”

He also said:

“What I know is that the world will not allow you to perish on your own dearest Zimbabweans … all outposts of democracy shall speak out in defense of our people under siege.”

That is Mr Sikhala’s hope and his faith. It remains to be seen whether our Government and those of other Commonwealth member states will live up to it. If we do not, a clear signal will be sent to the vicious Zimbabwe regime that it can continue to violate the democratic and human rights of their citizens with impunity. In such circumstances, the responsibility for subsequent events will lie heavily upon our shoulders and those of every member state that chose to stand aside, rather than stand up for the principles of the Commonwealth and the rights of its citizens.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests in my capacity as deputy chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for introducing this topic. He paints a fairly bleak picture of what is going on in Zimbabwe and raises some astonishingly serious points. I suggest that they are slightly at odds with the finding from the most recent visit of the Assistant Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Professor Luis Franceschi, in November 2022 and the subsequent statements from the Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, who said that Zimbabwe is

“putting a great deal of energy and commitment to be readmitted back into the Commonwealth”,

and likewise the statement by the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who said:

“The UK stands ready in friendship to support a Zimbabwe that fully embraces the rule of law, human rights and economic reform.”

I am delighted to say that, as part and parcel of the eventual rehabilitation of Zimbabwe into the international community, the Zimbabwe national trade and investment arm, ZimTrade, joined the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council in November 2022 and participated before CHOGM in the business forum that we ran in Rwanda in June, indicating that it was open to discussion and I think is seeking rehabilitation.

Clearly, there are some underlying problems that sit uncomfortably at odds with almost everything the Commonwealth purports to stand for. Given our long and not uncomplicated history with Zimbabwe—it is amazing to think that the Lancaster House conference was in 1979 and that Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth 20 years ago, although it started the process of reapplying in 2018—I ask the Minister about the amount of aid, if any, that we currently give to Zimbabwe. How much of it is hypothecated towards alleviating pensioner poverty, which has been debated in both Houses for many years and is admirably advanced by organisations such as ZANE, for those who worked in what was Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe who either have seen the value of their pensions greatly diminish by inflation or do not have pensions at all? I would like to know that, if possible.

When I talked to the Zimbabweans in Rwanda, we discussed farming. It is absolutely shocking that what was once described as the grain basket of Africa is today a net importer of foodstuffs, having exported wheat, tobacco and corn all over Africa and the wider world at its height. This is at a time when countries not far from Zimbabwe are suffering from malnutrition and starvation, and when there is a global wheat shortage due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

I believe we can do a lot to help Zimbabwe in this respect, but we know that there were 4,500 violent evictions of white farmers. There has been a lot of talk about $3.5 billion of compensation, made up by a mixture of long-term bonds and international donors. Farmers believe that they should be entitled to something nearer to $9 billion, which is probably right. How is that going? It was meant to be within five years. Are we monitoring this? Are the white farmers getting the compensation? How is that being funded? We are beginning to see greater co-operation between white former farmers and farmers who seized the land to increase productivity. That is also something that should be welcomed.

All is not perfect within the Commonwealth. Some countries get expelled when they fall short of Commonwealth values, most recently Fiji, the Maldives and so forth. They then have to reapply by complying with Commonwealth standards. At the end of the day, Zimbabwe is looking at Commonwealth Africa and the opportunities afforded by a £13 trillion market. It is a question of how much more carrot and how much more stick; it is a mixture of them both. Membership of the Commonwealth is a huge prize for any country, particular one seeking to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the international community. It is not a prize that we should give away lightly, but where there is willing and hope we should be there to encourage, not always to criticise.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Oates, on securing this short debate. I declare an interest as chair of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. In this role and others, I have worked on finding solutions to a range of issues within the complex political sensitivities of this unique international organisation.

Zimbabwe enjoys a special historical relationship with the Commonwealth. In 1991, it was in its capital city that the Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed the Harare Declaration, committing their countries to a set of core values including democracy, the rule of law and human rights. These values are reflected in Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. Although there have been some positive developments in recent years, they have not been as significant, rapid or numerous as many of us had hoped, especially post President Mugabe. The country retains the death penalty and the rights and freedoms of women and girls are unequal, as they are for the LGBT community.

However, with Zimbabwe holding general elections this year, I draw your Lordships’ attention to the democratic process in the country. Official observers were critical of how the last elections were conducted in 2018. A colleague of mine who served on a Commonwealth observer group told me that he

“personally witnessed scenes of violence and direct intimidation by government forces”

and noted that an

“unlevel playing field”

had been created, which

“the Government considers it to its benefit to maintain”.

Moreover, there are serious concerns about an escalation in enforced disappearances and intimidation, including the torture and sexual abuse of political opponents of the regime, journalists and student activists. They are compounded by concerns over government control of the media and political interference in the police and judiciary.

In the context of Zimbabwe’s application to rejoin the Commonwealth, the 2023 election could and should be an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate their democratic credentials. Sadly, the portents are not good. However, I am both a pragmatist and an optimist. I believe that Zimbabwe’s willingness to rejoin the Commonwealth and to engage with the first stages of the process demonstrates a desire to change for the better. That is where I would encourage your Lordships to consider this question: will continually blocking Zimbabwe’s readmission to the Commonwealth help to move it in the right direction?

The Commonwealth is an immense force for good in improving the lives of its 2.4 billion citizens—almost a third of the world’s population. However, that does not make me blind to the flaws and inconsistencies of the organisation and of its constituent nations. On the issue of capital punishment, for example, only 37% of Commonwealth countries have abolished the death penalty in law, compared with 57% of all countries internationally. Indeed, several Commonwealth nations have fervently defended their sovereign right to retain it. Although we should loudly condemn many of the atrocious abuses of power being enacted in Zimbabwe, let us be wary of making demands of a country that, sadly, some current members would not themselves meet.

The Commonwealth can more effectively influence and change hearts and minds, and ultimately national laws, by working with the countries within rather than outside our family of nations. If we are too intransigent, we risk driving Zimbabwe to look elsewhere for international allies. Do we think that the lives of Zimbabweans will be improved, or their human rights better protected, if the country becomes dependent on powerful countries that are extending their influence in the region, especially China?

Democracy is not a destination but a journey. The UK, as a mature democracy and an influential member of the Commonwealth family, should be prepared to be pragmatic and take the long-term view. We must not lose sight of the ultimate goal—improving the lives of the Zimbabwean people—by making the perfect the enemy of the good.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for tabling a debate on this important topic. Since 1995, five countries have faced periods of suspension for failing to uphold the values set out in the Singapore and Harare Declarations—including Zimbabwe, which withdrew altogether in 2003 when its suspension was extended.

A number of humanitarian organisations have detailed continuing human rights violations since President Mugabe left office a little over five years ago, including post-election violence in 2018 and killings and rapes during the January 2019 protests. There are concerns about whether abuses against opposition politicians and activists are meaningfully investigated. New laws threaten further suppression and there are problems around the use of criminal law against opposition.

Such issues cannot be swept under the carpet; they must be addressed to achieve lasting improvement in Zimbabwe. The question is whether exclusion from the Commonwealth is useful in doing so. I am firmly of the opinion that it is not. The Commonwealth is founded on what is for most members a painful past and turns it into a force for good. Understanding wrongful behaviour, both intended and unconscious, creates an opportunity to put it right. That applies to all of us. For the Commonwealth to foster improvements in democracy and human rights, its members must be willing to work together towards that goal. The reason why Zimbabwe walked away in 2003 is that it had no intention of doing so and there was no prospect of a process that could see the suspension lifted. For all the questions that hang over Zimbabwe’s current record, I do not believe that to be the case now.

Let us remember that, in 2021, the British Government expressed concern about democracy in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda and Tanzania. In almost two-thirds of Commonwealth countries, homosexuality is illegal, mostly based on laws inherited from Britain. Today, 26 member countries have blasphemy laws and 16 million people across the Commonwealth are estimated to be trapped in modern slavery. On the positive side of the ledger, whereas widows face similar discrimination as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe passed a law last year giving equal inheritance rights to women in common-law marriages, which is a definite improvement and development. This is the point: if Zimbabwe, a country with as much claim as any to have suffered from its colonial past, wishes to be readmitted to the Commonwealth on the basis of its values and its charter, we should welcome that as a positive step and work with it, as we do with other members, to achieve progress.

The Commonwealth is a key channel for raising awareness of issues concerning democracy and human rights. I therefore urge the UK Government to engage constructively towards that end and support the readmission of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth.

My Lords, this is a very timely debate—I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and congratulate him on securing it—because we are likely to see elections in Zimbabwe in the next six months. The rumours are getting stronger that the Commonwealth Secretary-General wants Zimbabwe back in before such elections. I am not sure legally that that could be done, but it seems to be the rumour and it comes from fairly senior people within other African countries. I hope that it is no more than a rumour, because the country has made no progress on human rights since it was suspended in 2003, with Mugabe then taking it right out. There has been no change. There has undoubtedly been a worsening of the situation. In the short five minutes I have, I shall not add to all the things that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, but there are many examples of what has been happening. Anyone stepping out of line is beaten up and arrested. It is an arbitrary situation, and the rule of law has gone—all the things that we believe are fundamental to a democracy. Today, we should show our solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe and those fighting back for justice; it is very difficult for them in a country such as Zimbabwe to show their opposition.

The coming year will be incredibly difficult in Zimbabwe. We will see a volatile social, political and economic situation. I do not see how anyone could think that getting Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth before those elections would not be used by ZANU-PF simply to ensure that its election is carried through with the support of the international community and the Commonwealth. It would be a huge thing. It would give all that publicity to ZANU-PF and absolutely no help to the people of Zimbabwe.

We have had lots of new information recently about the lithium that has been discovered and has now been handed over to Chinese companies to look after. Some 3,000 commercial farms that were taken over and given to Zimbabweans have now been taken back to make a platinum mine. One looks at the land reforms and asks what on earth they actually achieved.

All this up-to-date information on the situation shows that the Zimbabwean Government, the police and armed forces are combining to plunder Zimbabwe’s resources with disregard for the rule of law and human rights, and it shows how the corrupt ZANU-PF elite is able ruthlessly to control every aspect of life in the country, including freedom of speech, movement and assembly, all of which are prerequisites to a free and fair election. Freedom from fear of retribution is also vital. Restoring that and rebuilding trust in the confidentiality of electoral processes take time, especially in rural areas, where even the distribution of food for subsistence has cunningly and methodically been placed in the hands of ZANU-PF loyalists and stooges.

I know that the United Kingdom cannot stop this happening if the majority of the Commonwealth countries decide that it should happen, but I hope that our Government will do all they can in diplomatic terms to ensure that other countries give support. I have heard from one or two noble Lords about the visit in November by the Commonwealth Secretariat. We saw a short press release about it. I wrote to the Commonwealth Secretariat and asked whether it could give me some more information. I asked whether there was a more detailed statement, as what I saw did not give a very detailed analysis of the real situation. I got a response which gave the impression that I would not understand how the situation worked. It said:

“The process of re-admission entails several rigorous steps and a Commonwealth member state that has withdrawn or been expelled … wishing to reapply … is expected to demonstrate that it upholds the principles and values of the Commonwealth.”

It said that a detailed report would later be submitted to the Commonwealth Secretary-General for review. I have written and asked whether we will see that report, because it is quite important that the Commonwealth itself gets serious about transparency and openness. We have seen nothing about who they saw when they were in Zimbabwe.

The report is made only to the Secretary-General and there is no opportunity for a wider assessment of the findings or to judge whether in any way it reflects the reality on the ground, or even addresses the concerns of those who have them for the rights and well-being of the people of Zimbabwe. It is not even possible to judge whether a suitably broad and representative range of people and institutions have been consulted. Who did they actually see? Let us see who it was. When the Commonwealth observer group is deployed, that is all open and can be seen.

Finally, we cannot go through all the Harare principles, but principle number 1 of the Harare Declaration is that the rule of international law be upheld. It is great to see Ben Freeth here in the Room, because the SADC tribunal proved that that was not being complied with. None of the things that the SADC tribunal said has been carried out. I say to the Minister: I know it is a difficult situation and that it might be embarrassing to be seen as out on a limb again, but we are not doing anything for the people of Zimbabwe if we support in any way Zimbabwe being allowed back in.

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for introducing this topical debate. In fact, I got back from South Africa this morning, so I have been fully appraised of some of the developments in Zimbabwe.

In considering the case for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth, it is important for us to analyse the reasons why it was suspended in 2002 and, more importantly, what has changed since then—for the good and for the bad. As we are all aware, in 2003 the so-called Commonwealth troika of South Africa, Australia and Nigeria refused to lift the suspension. It was on that basis that Robert Mugabe decided to leave. But when Mnangagwa became the President in 2017, I recall clearly him promising in an earlier speech that Zimbabwe would fulfil the required Commonwealth readmission conditions. He committed to trying to rejoin the Commonwealth, and those conditions were: meeting the preconditions of good governance; having media plurality and media freedoms; and to reset and respect the rule of law.

The noble Lord, Lord Swire, said that we need to have a balanced debate and I believe that credit needs to be given where it is due. There have been some achievements by President Mnangagwa. He has partially removed the indigenisation laws, which made it difficult to do business in Zimbabwe while choking the economy and increasing poverty. There is also more fiscal transparency and there has been an increase in exports. Moreover, interregional co-operation has improved, with several successful regional infrastructure projects. Here I refer to the Beit Bridge project as well as the Kazungula Bridge, which have both made a major difference by bringing revenue, but revenue which is not in the back-hand. This is revenue which comes by toll roads and goes directly to government.

That said, there has unfortunately been an escalation in corruption. Several senior operators in the country have vested interests in maintaining the status quo and, sadly, Zimbabwe has been arresting journalists, including Hopewell Chin’ono, who we all know well, for exposing corruption, along with arresting opposition leaders for fighting tyranny. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, made mention of just a few of those arrested and their horrendous maltreatment while in detention. Opposition supporters have been regularly beaten up, as happened just last week in Murehwa, just 110 kilometres from Harare. As noble Lords know, others who have been mentioned have had death threats, particularly the leader of the CCC. His supporters have been harassed by the ruling party’s regional leaders. When the evidence of these threats have been presented to the police, absolutely nothing has happened. This is inexcusable.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, also made reference to the passing of the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Act. In effect, it immobilises NGOs, which are there to assist the poor and work to try to improve governance. This is in contravention of Article 16 of the Commonwealth charter. Time restricts me from talking in more depth about the impact of the Patriotic Bill but it would prevent the opposition and civil society engaging with foreign government organisations either to report violations or to seek help. If it is passed, in effect, Zimbabweans could be jailed for speaking to British Members of Parliament.

In the year of a general election—the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, mentioned that this is likely to happen in the next six months—a key hurdle must be addressing an up-to-date voters roll. However, this is highly unlikely to happen. A row has erupted over the redrawn constituencies and new boundaries, raising concerns about gerrymandering. Can the Minister elaborate in his winding-up speech on what technical assistance is being given to the Zimbabwe Government to support better governance and policy-making? There is also a dire need for more support to be given to the promotion of better education and improved healthcare.

I want to make it abundantly clear that I would be totally supportive of Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth but the conditions have not currently been met. Readmission now without the preconditions being met would simply reward impunity.

My Lords, as always, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord St John. I admire his resilience, with his fresh experience of coming back overnight. He gave an eloquent response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Swire, that the Commonwealth is not merely a transactional organisation but a family with a different set of mechanisms. I think that he also provided the evidence base against the assertions from the noble Lord, Lord Loomba. He is to be commended—as is my noble friend Lord Oates, who is to be commended both on securing this debate and on how he has demonstrated his consistency and passion on this issue.

As my noble friend mentioned in his opening remarks, we have been joined here by Makomborero Haruzivishe and Washington Ali, who are personal examples of suffering and those who have experienced loss at the hands of oppressors. They are testimony to why we are debating these important issues today.

The charter and the Harare Declaration have a purpose. A desire to be in the Commonwealth is not sufficient to be a member of it. I therefore take task with the noble Lord, Lord Leong. It is not intransigent to say that there should be a verification process to determine whether progress that satisfies the requirements of those declarations has been made. Setting aside due process, simply looking at geopolitical considerations and whether it would be desirable for a country to join the Commonwealth is regrettable.

Noble Lords do not need to take my word or that of my noble friend Lord Oates. The noble Lord, Lord Swire, thinks that my noble friend’s comments jarred with what the deputy Secretary-General said. I have taken all my evidence for my short remarks today from the Government’s report, Human Rights and Democracy, which was published in December 2022 for 2021. So, if the noble Lord takes to task anything I say, he is taking to task his Government and the FCDO report. Zimbabwe remains a priority country in which, as the FCDO has said, progress is not being made on civil and political rights, on judicial reform, on security sector oppression, on press freedom, on closing civil society space, on social policy supporting children, and on women and gender.

Therefore, the jarring element is in the statement by the deputy Secretary-General. I agree 100% with the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that we are accustomed to having debates in this House based on published reports of fact-finding missions. I know that the Commonwealth is not a government organisation but I would prefer a statement that says that progress is being made and then to look at the substantial report on which that judgment is based. But I cannot see that on the secretariat’s website. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Swire, has had sight of it but I have not.

So I will refer to the FCDO, which cites that the

“Zimbabwe Peace Project recorded 2,391 humans rights violations, a similar number to 2020.”

This is not progress. The constitutional amendment in May for the President to appoint Supreme Court and High Court judges without interview was a retrograde step. Our Government said that the Zimbabwe Government

“failed to increase security sector accountability.”

Our Government have used the sanctions regime to hold to account four security officials responsible, as they say,

“for some of the worst human rights violations”.

Those individuals are under sanction by the United Kingdom. I ask the Minister whether we support membership of the Commonwealth for countries whose senior officials we have sanctioned.

With regard to intimidation, the Government say:

“The UK has not yet seen evidence of meaningful police investigations into these incidents.”

On press freedom, the Government highlight that Zimbabwe was ranked

“130 out of 180 countries in 2021”.

We have seen civil society space closed and, just this week, we have seen reports of intimidation and violence leading up to what may be the election.

I close with a question to the Minister that relates to our relationship with the Commonwealth. When she responded to the application by Zimbabwe to rejoin, the Secretary-General said:

“I urge the government, opposition parties, the election management body, civil society, and all stakeholders, to play their part in ensuring a credible, peaceful and inclusive process that restores citizens’ confidence, trust and hope in the development and democratic trajectory of their country.”

Everybody agrees with that. The question is whether it is being met. The Government’s FCDO report says that it is not, so what is the last dialogue that Ministers have had with the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth? I note that she met President Mnangagwa in December; has there been ministerial contact with the Commonwealth Secretary-General on Zimbabwe since then? As its membership is based on consensus, will the UK make its position public in advance of the discussions? If there is to be a gap, it will be if the UK supports rejoining while the FCDO report maintains that progress is not being made in some very clear areas.

My Lords, I apologise for the delay in starting; the previous debate overran. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for initiating this debate and for his continued, powerful advocacy for a democratic Zimbabwe. It is for the people of Zimbabwe to determine their own future but continued violations of human rights, including impediments to free and fair elections, remain a significant barrier to their ability to determine that for themselves.

Unfortunately, state interference in elections, as well as broader violations of human rights, remain a significant barrier. The March elections last year were clearly neither free nor fair and formed part of a much wider undermining of democracy in recent years. In addition, civil society, including trade unions, is still routinely repressed and political arrests are still frequently reported.

We have heard the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill mentioned in this debate. I have raised it in previous debates and Oral Questions, and the Minister has responded. That Bill has now passed in the lower House. If it becomes law, it threatens to crack down on civil society in general and organisations that both expose human rights violations and hold the Government accountable.

When I last raised this in an Oral Question, the Minister expressed concern about its impact, acknowledging the risk to the delivery of development and humanitarian assistance. Of course, with the elections due in 2023, the Bill could be used to restrict the ability of civil society to operate, in a way that would be out of line with the Zimbabwe Government’s commitment to reform.

The Minister has said in previous debates that the Government continue to engage very widely, not only with civil society in Zimbabwe and through our overseas development assistance but also with neighbouring countries, including South Africa. Can he tell us what recent engagement has taken place with Zimbabwean civil society, including trade unions? I also stress the importance of talking to global trade union federations, which frequently offer support and assistance to Zimbabwe within the country. The UK Government have been right to implement asset freezes, arms embargos and travel bans on the Government; for the period that these remain necessary, it would be wrong to support readmission to the Commonwealth.

The Minister has said before that President Mnangagwa desires more engagement with the UK and that, in many respects, he shares that aspiration. However, he acknowledged that deeper re-engagement with the UK will require meaningful political and economic reform and respect for human rights and the rule of law, in line with the President’s own stated commitments when he took office. So, what is the latest assessment by the Minister and the FCDO of progress made? We have heard in this debate that it appears to be very little. Can the Minister update us on the implementation of these sanctions and any assessment of their effectiveness?

Finally, as noble Lords have mentioned, admission to the Commonwealth is a decision for all members, not just the UK, so it is important to hear from the Minister what discussions, if any, have been taking place with other national Governments in the Commonwealth on the question of Zimbabwe’s readmission.

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for tabling this debate and for his ongoing commitment to promoting human rights, democracy and prosperity in Zimbabwe as co-chair of the APPG. I also thank other noble Lords for their insightful contributions.

The United Kingdom would like nothing more than to see Zimbabwe rejoin the Commonwealth. As noble Lords are aware, that is a collective decision for all members to make if the Secretary-General makes a formal recommendation that Zimbabwe has met the criteria and is ready to be readmitted. The 1991 Harare Declaration and the 2012 Commonwealth charter were landmark moments that redefined the Commonwealth and cemented its place as a modern, forward-looking organisation. The core principles of freedom, democracy, peace and prosperity are as important now as they were then. They remain the basis for assessing any application to join or rejoin this family of nations.

The United Kingdom is committed to maintaining a constructive dialogue with the Government of Zimbabwe, including on the principles underpinning the Harare Declaration. The former Minister for Africa held frank discussions on many of these issues with Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Shava last summer. During his visit to Harare in November, Professor Luis Franceschi, the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Assistant Secretary-General, had a meeting, which has mentioned a couple of times in this debate, with a range of stakeholders from the Government, opposition parties, civil society groups and diplomatic missions. This included a meeting with our own ambassador to Zimbabwe, as well as a meeting with all Commonwealth ambassadors to Zimbabwe.

Discussion focused on the evidence of progress against the Harare Declaration principles and some areas of progress were noted, particularly on economic reforms. However, equally, concerns were raised about instances of political violence, the harassment and detention of opposition activists, and efforts by the Government to restrict the freedom of civil society to operate. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, that we, too, would like to see the Government of Zimbabwe meet their international and domestic obligations by respecting the rule of law, safeguarding human rights, and delivering genuine political and economic reform for all—obligations that are clearly articulated in the Harare Declaration and the Commonwealth charter.

All that as a package is the precondition of membership, whether new or renewed, of the Commonwealth. We will wait to see the Secretary-General’s assessment—we will see it but, as I understand, it is not a public document; I will get back to the noble Baroness on that if I am wrong. We will be able to see her views of the progress, or otherwise, against the Harare Declaration principles and her subsequent recommendation following the mission by the secretariat last November.

As the noble Lord, Lord Leong, said—in fact, it was a point made by a number of speakers—the general elections expected this year present the ideal opportunity for the Government of Zimbabwe to demonstrate progress against the principles of the charter; namely, respect for human rights and freedom for the political opposition, civil society and media to operate. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, made this point very clearly. She referred to some of the rumours of when submissions might be made. I would like to reiterate on behalf of the UK Government that we see the general election as the moment for the Zimbabwean Government to prove and to demonstrate their readiness to rejoin the Commonwealth. It seems to be the most obvious moment for that signal to be sent by the Government.

Of course, the UK does not support any particular candidate or political party in Zimbabwe. We will continue to engage with all parties across the political spectrum, as noble Lords would expect. It is for the people of Zimbabwe alone to choose their president and Members of Parliament. It is essential that this choice is exercised through peaceful, credible and inclusive elections in line with Zimbabwe’s own constitution. We will therefore continue to encourage the Government to implement the recommendations of the 2018 electoral observation missions ahead of the 2023 elections. Unfortunately, we note, as others have, that there has been only limited progress on most of the recommended reforms to date. Of particular importance are the independence of the electoral commission; an accessible voter registration process; publication of an accurate voter roll; the transparent use of state-owned resources; a transparent and accountable result-tallying process; and equal access to state-owned media for all participating political parties.

We will also continue to encourage the Government of Zimbabwe to allow space for the opposition and their supporters to—

My noble friend has made comments in relation to the upcoming general election. The noble Lord, Lord Leong, referred to the Commonwealth observers at the last election, of which I was one. I was party to the report that was prepared on that occasion. Given the positive comments that my noble friend made about the importance of the 2023 election, I ask that that message is given to all members of the Commonwealth so that they understand the judgment—which I think most of us would share—that no decision could be made before the general election and before observers’ reports are published.

I thank my noble friend for his intervention. There is no question in relation to our position on this. Our view, as I have just stated, is that the importance of the general election is hard to exaggerate in the context of the discussion that we are having now. That is well understood across the board.

As I say, we continue to encourage the Government to make space for opposition candidates and their supporters to campaign without fear of violence and for civil society organisations and journalists to operate without harassment, in line with the country’s own constitution.

As I said in the House last October, the UK has observed a trend of lengthy pre-trial detention of government critics in Zimbabwe. A number of examples have been cited already in this debate. While most of the opposition Members arrested in Nyatsime in June have now been granted bail, Members here have raised the specific case of Job Sikhala MP, and we are continuing to monitor his ongoing detention. In response to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, we of course remain concerned by the failure of the Government to address allegations of abduction and abuse of three opposition Members who he named—Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova. We have raised our concerns with the Government and publicly called for an investigation into the allegations. We are, as I say, concerned by the trend of lengthy pre-trial detention of government critics and we regularly call for due legal process to be followed and for human rights—including those of prisoners—to be safeguarded.

Noble Lords will be very aware of the case of Makomborero Haruzivishe—I apologise for my appalling pronunciation—an opposition activist who I understand is here with us today. I welcome him to the House. As noble Lords will know, he spent 11 months detained without trial in Chikurubi, a maximum-security prison, and that his case is far from unique. I take this opportunity, not least because we have Washington here with us too, to echo the condolences to Moreblessing Ali’s family and friends, which were passed by our ambassador to Zimbabwe publicly. Our ambassador called for those behind that terrible crime to be brought to justice.

I also highlight our concern at the violent incidents around by-elections in Zimbabwe last autumn. We urge all political parties to refrain from violence and to adopt measured language, which will support peaceful campaigning. Any incidents of violence should be investigated in full.

Zimbabwe must allow space for civil society organisations to operate properly and fully in the run-up to the general election. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill. Like him, our view is that if passed into law and implemented—which it has not yet been—it has the capacity to seriously undermine this principle and prevent civil society delivering critical development and humanitarian assistance across Zimbabwe.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, raised how the UK will work with other Commonwealth nations on Zimbabwe’s application to re-join them. The UK, with our international partners, is committed to supporting Zimbabwe to make progress on reforms. We have deep and long-standing partnerships with many member states and we engage and consult widely on all issues of importance to the Commonwealth. For example, UK Ministers and officials speak very regularly to their South African counterparts, most notably at the recent South African state visit to the UK, on a broad range of issues, including Zimbabwe. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to engage constructively, openly and robustly with all relevant parties in the lead-up to this year’s elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised the issue of sanctions applied by the UK. As he said, our sanctions target five individuals—I think he said four—responsible for some of Zimbabwe’s worst human rights and corruption violations. I want to make it clear that those sanctions are not targeted at, and seek to avoid impact on, the wider economy and the people of Zimbabwe. They are not the cause of Zimbabwe’s economic problems. To lift the sanctions, the UK needs to see reasonable progress on political reforms and human rights.

My noble friend Lord Swire touched on our ODA, particularly pensions. The UK regularly underlines to the Government of Zimbabwe the importance of fulfilling their responsibilities to all those entitled to a Zimbabwe government pension, including former southern Rhodesian civil servants. The ambassador wrote to the Minister of Finance on 30 May 2022 on this issue, and the Government of Zimbabwe have assured us that they will resume payments when the economic situation allows. The Commonwealth veterans’ fund, which he mentioned, was in receipt of £430,000 last year, which I am told has provided direct support to 470 veterans.

We will continue to support the most vulnerable people in Zimbabwe through our broader aid programme. This financial year we provided £101 million, mostly focused on education and livelihoods, promoting health, standing up for human rights and supporting climate resilience. While we work constructively with government ministries on a range of those issues, none of this aid is channelled directly through the Government of Zimbabwe.

The UK wants to see Zimbabwe prosper for the benefit of all its people, including by rejoining the Commonwealth. We will continue to engage constructively with its Government wherever we can to help Zimbabwe achieve its ambitions, but meaningful reform is needed to achieve them. We sincerely hope that the Government of Zimbabwe seize the opportunities presented by the upcoming elections to demonstrate progress on meeting their commitments, by respecting the rule of law and safeguarding human rights. This would pave the way for Zimbabwe to be readmitted to the Commonwealth.

Committee adjourned at 5.09 pm.