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Volume 831: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Zimbabwe regarding the detention of opposition Deputy Chairperson and Member of Parliament Job Sikhala, who has been incarcerated for over a year in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and denied bail on 15 occasions.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is concerned by the ongoing detention of government critics in Zimbabwe, including Job Sikhala MP. The Minister of State for Development and Africa raised these concerns, and the case of Job Sikhala specifically, with Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, when they met in the margins of His Majesty the King’s Coronation last month.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I welcome to the Public Gallery Steven Van Zandt and Jerry Dammers, musicians and songwriters who have done so much to campaign for freedom and justice in southern Africa. Does the Minister agree that today freedom and justice are under vicious assault in Zimbabwe? Will he and his ministerial colleagues work with SADC Ministers and the Commonwealth to make it clear to ZANU-PF that there can be no return to normal relations until Job Sikhala and all political detainees are released, political violence stops, and genuinely free and fair elections take place?

My Lords, first, I acknowledge the noble Lord’s insights and expertise on all issues to do with Zimbabwe. He knows the country very well, and I appreciate his tabling of the Question. With regard to the specific issue of human rights and the importance of progressing on human rights before the elections on 23 August, I assure the noble Lord that we are engaging with all key partners. As he is aware, Zimbabwe is very keen to progress its membership of the Commonwealth, and human rights are a pertinent part of that assessment. I know that we are working very closely with the secretariat in that respect. Ultimately, if Zimbabwe rejoins the Commonwealth, it will be a matter for all members of the Commonwealth, so it needs a cross-Commonwealth approach.

I assure the noble Lord also that we are fully seized with the different abuses of human rights, which regrettably and tragically continue to happen. Even this morning, I have heard of further arrests in that respect. The information is still coming through, but I am aware of further arrests that have been made. We have called for full transparency and the release of those being held in an arbitrary fashion and, indeed, when cases are being pressed, that those court cases are held in a transparent form.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply about Job Sikhala but it is not just Job Sikhala who has been arrested: six students have been arrested for doing nothing more than protesting against politicians being arrested. Emmanuel Chitima, Comfort Mpofu, Lionel Madamombe, Benjamin Watadza, Darlington Chigwena and Gamuchirai Chaburumunda may have exotic names but they are not being kept in exotic conditions. They are in prison for protesting, perfectly legally and freely. We must wake up to the fact that Emmerson Mnangagwa is actually more of the same after the evil Mugabe.

My Lords, my noble friend raises a number of cases and I assure him that we are fully aware of them. We remain deeply concerned by the failure to address the allegations of abduction and abuse of opposition members. There are also the cases of Joana Mamombe—which he has raised—Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova. I assure noble Lords that we have raised our concerns with the Government and have publicly called for full investigation into these allegations. If Zimbabwe wishes to be counted among those countries that are recognised for progression not just bilaterally but, importantly, within multilateral organisations, it is vital that it stands up and ensures transparency of justice systems. It must also ensure that those who are taken and arrested are done so on transparent charges and that if they are not held on any substantial charges, they are released. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of protest are key parts of any progressive democracy.

My Lords, many of us warned for many years that Mnangagwa would be worse than Mugabe, particularly because of his years of repression and what happened in Matabeleland. He is clearly not going to change and, sadly, things such as an invitation to the Coronation do not help—they help him in Zimbabwe. Does the Minister accept that it is very unlikely that there will be genuinely free and fair elections in Zimbabwe in August? We saw just last night a very well-respected human rights lawyer, Obey Shava, being beaten almost to death by ZANU-PF thugs. Is it not time for us to stop pandering to Mnangagwa and to condemn what is happening right throughout the country loudly and clearly to the international world?

My Lords, I also welcome the noble Baroness’s deep insights and expertise on Zimbabwe. I am aware of the case this morning—as I sat down, I got an update on the alleged attack on the lawyer. I am in the process of getting further information on that attack and will update the House and the noble Baroness accordingly. I agree with her that the actions we have seen from the President of Zimbabwe and his Government, particularly on areas of legislative change which they are also bringing into force, are of deep and alarming concern because they mean the suppression of civil society within Zimbabwe. As I said, these are key tenets of any democratic reform and an open and vibrant civil society is a key part of that. I assure noble Lords that we want to work very constructively on this agenda. There is a lot of expertise in your Lordships’ House and we want to leverage that to ensure that we can continue to make the case pertinently and forcefully and, one hopes, ensure progression on the ground.

My Lords, on that final point, the Minister knows that I have stressed the importance of civil society. When states fail their citizens, it is civil society that stands up for human rights. I have urged the Minister to support civil society in the broadest terms, including trade unionists who have been under attack in Zimbabwe. What are the Government and the FCDO doing to contact global trade union institutions so that it is not just our voice but voices throughout the world that condemn this action and can promote a free and fair election? Will the Minister assure me that he will contact international trade union institutions?

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance and as he will have extensive contacts in this respect, particularly with a focus on Zimbabwe, I would welcome his insights into the key components, organisations and individuals. I assure the noble Lord that we have engaged directly with the Government of Zimbabwe, particularly on the PVO amendment Bill and the so-called patriotic amendments. That Bill would extend state control over civil society organisations, the whole point of which is to challenge Governments. We are making that point very forcefully to the Zimbabwean Government directly.

My Lords, ahead of the general election in Zimbabwe on 23 August this year, what assurances have His Majesty’s Government been given on international election observers for this election and an updated election register?

My Lords, ultimately, of course, it will be for the people of Zimbabwe to choose their Government in August. My right honourable friend the Minister for Development and Africa reiterated these points in the meeting he had with the President of Zimbabwe on 5 May. There has been some progress; for example, the announcement by Zimbabwe that invitations have now gone out to observer missions for the elections. It is important that international and domestic observer missions, including those of SADC, the EU and the AU, are able to independently observe the 2023 elections. We are also talking to the Commonwealth about its role within the context of the elections. We are also aware of a petition submitted to Ministers calling for Zimbabweans in the diaspora to be granted the right to vote in the elections to ensure greater engagement and direct involvement of Zimbabweans across the world. I will continue to update the House but I assure all noble Lords that the onus is very much on the Government of Zimbabwe to ensure that all citizens can vote. The UK continues to press that point to them.

My Lords, the Minister referred to Zimbabwe’s desire to re-enter the Commonwealth. Further to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Bellingham, and my noble friend regarding political detention, will the Government outline in clear terms in advance of the elections the criteria we would set for the UK Government to consider what the human rights record should be, especially for political prisoners?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the criteria for readmission to the Commonwealth are not just for the UK Government to set; it is for all Commonwealth countries. There are 56 in total and the decision on whether Zimbabwe rejoins the Commonwealth is for all Commonwealth members. I assure the noble Lord that the UK will support readmission if Zimbabwe meets the admission requirements, which are very focused on human rights, and complies with the values and principles set out in the Commonwealth charter.