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Zimbabwe: Election

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the result of the recent election in Zimbabwe, and whether it was free and fair.

My Lords, the United Kingdom commends the Zimbabwean voters for their peaceful participation in Zimbabwe’s recent elections. However, the UK shares the view expressed in international election observation mission preliminary statements that the pre-election period and election day fell short of regional and international standards. The UK is also concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the compiling of results by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the severe disruption of domestic observation.

My Lords, it was obvious to every independent observer that those elections were not free and fair. In the words of Nelson Chamisa himself, they were a “blatant and gigantic fraud”, but the hard-hitting SADC report questioned the credibility of the elections and the breaches of its own standards. The saddest thing is that, as the election observers left, the familiar pattern of widespread arrests, abductions and torture of grass-roots supporters of the opposition is taking place as we speak all over the country. There were even lawyers arrested last night in a hospital where they were representing tortured victims—the same kind of retribution that Mugabe did after 2008. Does the noble Lord agree that now is the time for full support by His Majesty’s Government for SADC’s efforts to resolve the crisis, and in particular for our newly arrived ambassador to re-evaluate all facets of our relationship with a Zimbabwean Government who flout their own laws through acts of violence and torture, and to give some hope even in the darkest days to the perseverance and courage of the Zimbabwean people?

My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to the arrival of our new ambassador. He arrived today and brings both diplomatic and development experience. I am sure he will play an exemplary role in our relations with Zimbabwe, its communities and all parties in Zimbabwe as well. The noble Baroness mentioned the abduction and torture of opposition CCC members, which we have raised directly. I can report that we are relieved that they have been found and are receiving treatment for their injuries. We also note the arrest and subsequent bail of two lawyers acting on behalf of the alleged victims on 4 September.

My Lords, I am sure that the Government’s present concerns and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, are quite correct, but will the Minister accept that Zimbabwe is a vast country of potentially great wealth? Will he accept that, in the longer term, we will need its markets, its raw materials and its support in keeping the Russians and Chinese from dominating the whole of Africa? Despite the present difficulties—and remembering that Zimbabwe was once a member of the Commonwealth and could be again, although clearly not now—will the Minister accept that these things should be kept in the back of our minds?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, who speaks on these matters with great insight and experience. Membership of the Commonwealth and its unique nature as an institution provide a real alternative to countries around the world. However, any country seeking to join must abide by standards, and, of course, that decision is ultimately for all members of the Commonwealth.

My Lords, I have just returned from Zimbabwe. I was a member of the Commonwealth observer group, and we did an extensive report, the interim statement of which Members can find in the Library. A lot of factors, many of which were also raised in 2018, led us to doubt the credibility of this election. Will the Minister agree that the ideal would be for Zimbabwe to re-enter the Commonwealth, but it can do so only when it meets the standards of proper democracy, the rule of law and free elections?

I answered the noble Baroness’s question in part in response to my noble friend, but I agree with her. I commend her efforts, and those of all the observer missions, in observing the election. We hope that, ultimately, inclusive and pluralist democracies emerge, and that Zimbabwe can find its way back into the Commonwealth.

My Lords, in light of the developments in Zimbabwe—the widespread violence and intimidation of voters in the rural areas, the abduction and torture of many opposition activists and the continued detention of opposition Members of Parliament—will the UK Government be rather less equivocal and make absolutely clear that they do not regard these elections as free and fair and that the Government of Zimbabwe have no legitimacy? Will they make clear that, as long as this is the case, it will not be readmitted to the Commonwealth, as far as Britain is concerned, and that we will work with SADC colleagues to try to find resolutions to the problem?

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord’s work as an observer of Zimbabwe, and I am sure that he has seen the two statements that we have issued since the elections. I agree with him about the importance of working with key regional partners, including SADC, which is very much deployed and making the same representations that we are, along with other key interested parties, to ensure that there is a pluralist approach when it comes to democracy. Democracy needs stability, security and inclusivity to be sustainable—that point has been made consistently to the Zimbabwean authorities.

My Lords, I will reiterate a point I have made before: the ingredients of a thriving democracy are not limited to elections; civil society’s role is vital. I welcomed the noble Lord’s statement before the Summer Recess about the Government’s response to the legislation that is being introduced, but has his department acknowledged, or made representations about, the new labour Act that they are pushing through in Zimbabwe? The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has warned that this will allow the Government to interfere in trade union administration. Will the noble Lord work with global unions to ensure that the voice of workers is heard, not just politicians?

My Lords, the noble Lord and I have often had exchanges on the importance of all aspects of society being represented, and of civil society organisations and groups having their voices heard—that is clear. The noble Lord points to legislation. We have been extremely concerned and raised directly the implications of when, in June 2023, the Parliament approved the criminal law code amendment Act—the famous “patriot Act”, as they call it—which limits civil society. We are also concerned about the PVO Bill currently in front of the President. We are making representations and will continue to do so.

My Lords, it is patently clear from all the international reports that these elections were not free and fair, but CCC still managed to secure at least one-third of the parliamentary seats. What measures can His Majesty’s Government take, as well as our international partners, to call for an all-party conference in Zimbabwe to try to reach an inclusive compromise road map for the economic and political sustainability of the country?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from great insight about Zimbabwe. First and foremost, he will be aware of the work that Zimbabwe must do with the African Development Bank on the repayment of its arrears. The economic focus that is needed is something that must be prioritised by the new Administration. I also very much agree on the need for inclusivity when it comes to Zimbabwe and its future. Of course, the CCC and indeed all other parties must be part of that. One does hope that these points prevail and, as I said earlier in response to a couple of questions, these then add to the basis and foundation for eventual membership, we hope, of the Commonwealth as well.

My Lords, how did the recent election in Zimbabwe compare with the very first election, back in 1980, which I had the honour of attending?

I did not catch that, because of other voices. I will reflect on the Hansard and respond to my noble friend, because I missed the first part of his question.

My Lords, after all the major concerns about the Zimbabwean elections raised by observer missions, and the arrest yesterday of human rights lawyers, can the Minister ensure that these issues will retain a primary focus in the governance reform challenges identified in both the African Development Bank-sponsored debt arrears negotiations and discussions with the Commonwealth regarding readmission?

Yes, I can assure the noble Lord we will make exactly those representations, because they are vital to the discussions we are having with key partners about Zimbabwe.

My Lords, is it not the case that, although we send observer teams to oversee the actual election, much of the stealing of elections takes place before any observer team actually arrives there? Was it not significant that the violence that I witnessed after the 2018 election took place after the observer teams left? We are seeing the parallel experience this time: it is before and after the observer teams are there that is the real problem in relation to elections in Zimbabwe.

My Lords, I understand the point my noble friend is making, and that is why it is extremely important that we continue to engage both pre-election but also importantly now post-election, through our ambassador and of course, as I said earlier, with key partners including most notably SADC and the African Union, to ensure that the very point my noble friend raises is addressed quite directly. I do feel we have traction: through representations, along with others, we see the release of those who are arrested. While it may be a glimmer, it is a positive glimmer in these situations.