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House of Lords Hansard
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21 January 2019
Volume 795

Private Notice Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the reports of serious violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe.

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

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My Lords, we condemn totally the violent behaviour of some protesters and we are deeply concerned that Zimbabwe’s security forces acted completely disproportionately in their response to the protests. There are also disturbing reports of security forces using live ammunition and partaking in indiscriminate arrests.

On 17 January, my honourable friend the Minister of State for Africa summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador. She urged the Zimbabwean Government to stop the disproportionate use of force, reinstate access to the internet and investigate any alleged human rights abuses.

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I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I particularly welcome the fact that the Foreign Office and the Minister of State for Africa took prompt action in summoning the Zimbabwean ambassador for discussions on the subject. Will my noble friend clarify whether there have been any discussions with SADC, the African Union or similar organisations to put pressure on the Zimbabwean Government to end all these actions? Is it not clear that a Government who are willing to shoot their own subjects, in most cases apparently for no reason whatever, should not be a member of the Commonwealth?

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My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we are working very closely with international partners—he mentioned SADC and the African Union—and in particular with South Africa, to urge the Government in Zimbabwe to stop their disproportionate use of force and reinstate the internet, which I understand has been reinstated in part today.

In terms of further work in this respect, my honourable friend the Minister for Africa will also attend the EU-AU ministerial in Brussels today and tomorrow afternoon, which will discuss Zimbabwe in particular. On the issue of the Commonwealth, as Minister for the Commonwealth, I say that we all subscribe to the values of the Commonwealth—of ensuring pluralist democracy and the upholding of human rights. Many saw during the Commonwealth summit the Government’s commitment to encourage among other partners the new Zimbabwe to come forward for membership. Clearly, the events that have unfolded recently put that into question—but of course, it is a matter not for the UK but for the Commonwealth as a whole.

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My Lords, 12 months ago in this Chamber the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, reported on behalf of the Government about the EU-AU summit to which the Minister referred and outlined a programme of reform as a consequence of the change of Government. We have had 12 months of those discussions. What have the Government been doing with our partners in Europe and with the African Union to ensure that the programme of reform outlined 12 months ago is maintained? It clearly has not been maintained in the past few weeks.

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My Lords, I assure your Lordships’ House that, as I have already indicated, we are working with international partners to see that from the desperate situation in Zimbabwe over many years we see the emergence of sustainable democracy, investment in state institutions, particularly the justice system, and the opening up and the lifting of all sanctions. However, the conditions on the ground, as we have seen in the most recent events, do not allow that to happen. We will continue to work with international partners and bilaterally. Our ambassador is working very hard on the ground. She has recently met the leaders of the opposition as well, to ensure that we remain a constructive friend to Zimbabwe—but the human rights violations cannot be ignored.

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As British Minister for the Commonwealth, will my noble friend use his considerable influence with the Commonwealth authorities and the secretariat to urge them in turn to point out to the authorities in Zimbabwe that, if ever they wish to rejoin the Commonwealth, as some aspire to do, and to gain the investment and trade benefits of doing so, they are not going about it in at all the right way?

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Let me reassure my noble friend, who makes an important point. We will work very closely with the Commonwealth and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth to ensure that that is made absolutely clear to the Government of Zimbabwe. They have to respect human rights and uphold the rule of law. At the moment, the situation on the ground is clear: they are doing neither of those things.

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My Lords, what we are hearing is very shocking and deeply depressing, when people had been optimistic about where Zimbabwe was heading. The EU has condemned this violence and sought an inquiry. It has tended to look to the United Kingdom for a lead on Zimbabwe. Will the Minister say how we are going to co-ordinate an approach with our EU partners in future should we leave the EU? Additionally, does he agree that the UK has sufficient information to cut off illicit financial flows to the current leadership and to the Zimbabwean military? Are the Government going to take action in this area?

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My Lords, I shall take the noble Baroness’s second question first. She will be aware that there are quite specific targeted sanctions, first and foremost on the previous president, President Mugabe, his wife and others connected with that Administration, including members of the military. On our partnership with the European Union, as I have already said, my honourable friend the Minister for Africa will be meeting European colleagues today and tomorrow. On the wider question of what happens post Brexit, I assure the noble Baroness that as we see other countries, including, most notably, Germany and Belgium, joining the Security Council, I will be heading to New York later this week to, hope, extend discussions about how we can work together, Brexit aside, on the importance of having a European view on issues of international importance.

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My Lords, has the Minister ever considered the idea of recolonising Zimbabwe? It is tragic to see what is going on.

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My Lords, I have to be very honest, as I always am at the Dispatch Box: that is not an option I have considered.

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My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, I had the privilege of being a member of the delegation on behalf of the Commonwealth that was one of the observers at the elections in Zimbabwe in the summer. In our report, we acknowledged many of the concerns that have been raised around the House this afternoon, and in particular the one about the potential for Zimbabwe to be readmitted to the Commonwealth. I think I am right in saying that we were slightly concerned at what I would describe positively as the “relaxed” and, negatively, as the “complacent” attitude of some members of the British Government’s delegation there about the post-election violence, in which there was an attempt to suggest that it was all simulated by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Will the Minister assure the House that no attention will be paid to those who are now trying to identify the MDC as the exclusive source of violence in this episode?

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My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords for their work on and interest in helping Zimbabwe to secure a sustainable democracy and the prevailing rule of law—important points that we have raised in your Lordships’ House and beyond. On her specific question on the MDC, as I indicated in an earlier answer, the British ambassador, along with international partners, met the acting Foreign Minister, the Home Affairs Minister and also the opposition MDC leader on 16 January to ensure a joint approach with international partners and the opposition to ensure, first and foremost, that the conflict and violence that we have seen on the roads are stopped and that the rule of law can prevail.

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My Lords, as one who went on the inspection of independence elections in Rhodesia in 1979, I can say that there is a sickening familiarity in what is happening. There was a glorious burst of democratic enthusiasm, of friendliness, of brotherhood and of peace. I stood next to the district commissioner, who, four days before that election, said, “I cannot believe what I am seeing. Those guys there”—20 people dancing in a circle carrying placards—“have swapped to placards when six weeks ago they were throwing petrol bombs through each other’s windows”. Here we are again. It is getting more and more violent, and we must have got to the stage where occasionally those who negotiate on our behalf say, “Or else”—and it would be very nice to know what follows those words.

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My Lords, I assure my noble friend that, as I have already indicated, constructive discussions are taking place with international partners and there is direct engagement with all parties on the ground. We are making it very clear that the current violence, the violations and abuses of human rights and the actions initiated by the security forces that we have seen are unacceptable. We will continue to work to ensure that that is communicated and will take all appropriate steps to ensure that the rule of law can prevail and that human rights are respected.

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My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the austerity measures taken by the Zimbabwe Government, doubling the price of fuel without consultation with the people, were deeply irresponsible?

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That was the basis on which the recent riots took place. Fuel prices are a challenge but the current restrictions that have been imposed and the lack of reforms to open up the economy, as mentioned by other noble Lords, have prevented the emergence of the kind of economy that we wish to see. Until the Zimbabwe Government take responsibility in that respect, we will not see change, and that is regrettable and challenging. However, these acts of violence cannot continue and we will make that case very strongly.