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Zimbabwe: Elections

Volume 821: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of (1) state sanctioned political violence, (2) voter roll irregularities, and (3) the intimidation of voters, ahead of the 26 March parliamentary and local by-elections in Zimbabwe.

My Lords, I initiate this debate on the recent by-elections acutely aware that Britain’s history in Zimbabwe, from the first days of Cecil Rhodes’ chartered company to the last days of Ian Smith’s white supremacist regime, is a deeply troubled one. Throughout that time, political dissent was violently supressed, political leaders were imprisoned, tortured and murdered and elections of any sort, let alone free and fair elections, were denied to the majority of the people of Zimbabwe.

Given that history, for most of the years since I taught in a secondary school in rural Zimbabwe in 1988 I have been reticent about public criticism of the Zimbabwe Government. I saw in the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence how apartheid South Africa sought to destabilise and undermine it. I witnessed the heroic efforts by the people and Government of Zimbabwe to build a better future for the country, opening schools and clinics and seeking reconciliation with their previous oppressors, and I experienced amazing kindness and friendship from the rural community in which I lived and worked in eastern Zimbabwe which, just a few years previously, had had to bear the vicious onslaught of the Rhodesian security forces.

I come to this debate bearing all those things in mind and recognising fully that it is for Zimbabweans to decide how they wish to constitute their democracy and who they wish to govern them. That is not the business of anyone else, least of all the former colonial power. Nevertheless, we can and should support Zimbabweans in the choice they collectively made in March 2013 when, following an outreach programme across Zimbabwe, a new constitution was drafted by the then Government of National Unity and put to the people in a nationwide referendum. Over 94% of voters backed the constitution, providing absolute clarity about how the Zimbabwean people wish to be governed and how they expect elections to be conducted. Sadly, since its adoption, that constitution has mostly been honoured in the breach.

A military coup in 2017 was followed by flawed elections in 2018 and subsequently a wholesale attempt to destroy the main opposition party, which ultimately culminated in the parliamentary and local by-elections which took place across Zimbabwe on 26 March this year. In those elections, the main opposition party was denied the right even to use its own name in these elections or to access the public funds it was entitled to. In response its leader, advocate Nelson Chamisa, announced the formation of a new political movement called the Citizens Coalition for Change, or CCC. That party won 19 of the 28 parliamentary seats up for election and hundreds of councillors, despite its formation just two months before the polls, its lack of funds, and widespread intimidation and obstruction of its campaign by the state. By contrast, ZANU-PF’s puppet opposition faction, which had been gifted approximately $1.5 million in campaign funds by the state, won precisely none.

Nevertheless, despite the relative success of the Opposition, the provisions of the 2013 constitution were serially violated throughout the elections, raising grave concerns about the conduct of next year’s general election. State media outlets were brazenly used to denigrate opposition candidates in contravention of Section 61 of the Zimbabwe constitution requiring such outlets to “be impartial” and to

“afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions.”

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission failed in its duty to provide for the

“proper custody and maintenance of voters’ rolls”

or to ensure that elections were conducted

“efficiently, freely, fairly and transparently and in accordance with the law”,

as required by Section 239 of the constitution.

Multiple irregularities in the voters’ rolls were documented by civil society organisations, including: changes to addresses and voters deleted from the rolls without ZEC giving notice of such changes, in contravention of the Electoral Act; changes made to 156 polling stations, without informing voters; and voters transferred to other wards or constituencies despite their addresses remaining the same, implying that boundaries had been altered without due process and contrary to law.

The security situation was extremely troubled throughout the campaign. Throughout the election, the Zimbabwe Republic Police did ZANU-PF’s bidding and in doing so violated multiple clauses of the 2013 constitution, including Section 50 on the rights of arrested and detained persons, Section 53 on freedom from torture or degrading treatment or punishment and Section 58 on freedom of assembly and association. Police repeatedly obstructed the opposition leader’s rallies. On 20 February, they mounted roadblocks to harass and intimidate supporters attempting to reach the CCC’s rally in Harare. On 12 March they banned the CCC’s rally in Marondera and deployed riot police and water cannons to prevent the event taking place. On 24 March, they banned a final campaign rally at Epworth citing lack of manpower. Needless to say, no ZANU-PF rallies were banned. On the contrary, public resources were frequently misused to support ZANU-PF. In contravention of the constitution, public and school buses were regularly commandeered to transport party supporters, and schoolchildren were forced to attend rallies during school time.

Widespread violence and intimidation against opposition campaigners was perpetrated by ZANU-PF supporters across the country, violating Section 67 of the constitution guaranteeing the right to campaign freely and peacefully for a political party or cause. For example: on 2 March a CCC member was severely assaulted in Marondera after putting up opposition campaign posters; on 3 March the home of former MDC Finance Minister, Tendai Biti was attacked by men armed with machetes and his security guard was seriously injured; on 5 March the house of an opposition council candidate was set on fire in Bindura after he had hosted an opposition meeting at the house earlier that day; and on 8 March, Maxwell Dutuma, an opposition council candidate, and a party colleague were attacked by ZANU-PF supporters in Highfields. Both were injured, his colleague very seriously. When Maxwell Dutuma reported the assault to police he was arrested. Most egregiously, on Saturday 26 February, Vice-President Chiwenga openly incited violence against the opposition at a rally in Kwekwe saying:

“You see how we crush lice with a stone. You put it on a flat stone and then flatten it to the extent that even flies will not make a meal out of it. That is what we are going to do to CCC.”

ZANU-PF thugs understood that message only too well and the following day attacked an opposition rally in the same city with iron bars and machetes. An opposition supporter was killed, and many others were seriously injured.

These are just a few examples of the numerous incidences of intimidation, violence, voter roll irregularities and serial violations of the law and the constitution that took place during the election campaign. I put them on the record here so that there is an understanding of the level and extent to which the constitutional rights of Zimbabweans were violated by their own Government and in the hope that, ahead of the 2023 general elections, the international community and, most particularly, countries in the region will engage with Zimbabwe’s Government to persuade them to uphold the constitution and the right of the people to freely choose their leaders.

However, the UK’s strategy in the region must be about much more than criticism of a particular Government or their actions. It must be born of a real desire to engage positively with people—particularly young people—business and SADC Governments on a shared approach to tackling the challenges they face and supporting economic development in a way that lifts the poor rather than simply further enriches the wealthy. That means a real commitment from our Government to meaningfully engage and a real understanding of how our disengagement to date has left a gap which is rapidly being filled by both China and Russia.

Finally, we must have some self-awareness about the ramifications of actions at home on our ability to argue for values abroad. Last night, for example, we in the House of Lords debated the Government’s attempts to strip our own Electoral Commission of its independence by giving Ministers the right to issue it directions. What signal do we think that sends to would-be autocrats around the world seeking to suborn their own electoral commissions? What signal do we think it sent to people in the Southern African Development Community region when, immediately following free elections in Zambia and a peaceful transfer of power, we slashed our development assistance to that country by over 50%? What lessons do we think SADC Governments took from our hoarding of vaccines as China supplied theirs, or from our continued blocking of the TRIPS waiver? Words matter, but actions matter even more.

I finish where I started: with an acknowledgement of Britain’s deeply troubled legacy in Zimbabwe and a reflection on the tragedy that today ZANU-PF is using the same tactics and institutions, and in some cases the very same laws, that were employed by Ian Smith’s regime. It is doing so to serve the very same purpose—to oppress and silence the people so that, unhindered, it can use the wealth of the country for itself. Zimbabwe is fortunate, however, that its people have never been prepared to bow down to oppression and that—although bruised and battered by misuse—its hard-won democracy, underpinned by the courage and sacrifice of its democratic activists, still offers the best opportunity for change and renewal and a better life for all. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Oates, deserves all our warm congratulations, not just on this debate but on keeping Zimbabwe on our agenda, considering its past and continuing connections with this country. Nelson Chamisa also deserves our admiration for winning seats for the CCC despite appalling conditions: rallies and meetings were disrupted, with one person killed and 22 wounded in one incident. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission also presided over and apparently condoned many irregularities.

During the last few weeks of dramatic news from Ukraine, many other dramas went unnoticed and yet have no less importance. Zimbabwe rarely comes up on our TV screens, yet violence and human rights violations occur regularly, especially around elections. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, spoke in some detail about the brutality of the historical background and the injustice that surrounded the March election. I do not diminish the political problem, but there is another connected form of violence that afflicts Zimbabwe—the violence of hunger and the effects of climate change, which are just around the corner. This seems surprising in a country with high educational and economic standards. Some of it is down to years of mismanagement under Robert Mugabe and the violent appropriation of larger white-owned farms by the war vets, for which there has never been any compensation or full recovery. However, climate change is not the fault of anyone in Zimbabwe which, like most of Africa, has a very low carbon footprint. It is more of a pinprick, at 0.05% of global emissions compared with the UK’s 4.61%.

I have consulted Christian Aid, where I worked for many years, about the response to climate change in Zimbabwe. It is especially concerned about the effect on poor, rural families, particularly women, and says that seven out of 10 women rely on farming to provide for their families. But with no rain, it says, women cannot grow enough food and struggle to do so for their children. In times of drought, many families can afford to eat only one bowl of porridge—and this is happening in one of the potentially wealthiest countries in Africa. Zimbabwe has suffered severe droughts but is not currently on the ReliefWeb danger list.

How are these women coping? One local NGO, BRACT, which is working with Christian Aid in Mutoko and Mudzi districts, recommends five priorities: grow drought-tolerant crops; learn how to grow food in dry seasons; build storerooms to preserve food and prepare for future droughts; eat more healthy food; and learn new skills for alternative sources of income. I have no doubt that FCDO Ministers have already taken in this wisdom from rural areas in Zimbabwe. Of course, climate change is leading to conflict between herders and pastoralists all over Africa but the Minister will acknowledge that some things cannot simply be pinned on poor leadership, as we do in Africa day after day.

Climate change is a moral issue and the remedy is greater understanding, as well as more support for sustainable development from outside. The Government need more encouragement for their work with civil society in Africa and on the need to preserve funding for that against the threat of cuts, because the goods are not just being delivered by Governments. Authoritarian states have tried for years to eliminate space for individual or independent initiatives. Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan are other examples of strong leadership—countries where the UK has had to work around presidents who never tolerated opposition. In fact, they did their best to eliminate it but have been unable to stop civil society, which has always been a strong feature of Zimbabwe.

The Conservative Party, to its credit, has been an advocate of NGOs for at least a generation. When I was working for NGOs in the 1990s, Lynda Chalker— now the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker—was the first Development Minister to see NGOs as a necessary and efficient alternative to what was offered by government. So began an era which fitted comfortably with the Labour Government from Clare Short up to Gordon Brown, who became a champion of small-scale development and lending to the poorest countries. Perhaps the Minister could confirm the continuation of that policy, as it needs to be restated.

Today I simply wanted to highlight an area of human rights which is continually neglected: the right to life, especially in the case of developing countries today, which may carry no responsibility for it. With that, I much look forward to the comments of others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who I know has carried the torch in another place for many years on this subject.

Like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Oates on not only obtaining this debate but flying the flag for a better Zimbabwe. He does so not only in the Chamber but in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe.

My first engagement with the name “Zimbabwe” was in Liverpool in 1973, when I was attending an ecumenical religious event. I came away sporting a “Free Zimbabwe” badge, and for an idealistic young outsider like me the situation seemed a relatively simple story of good guys and bad guys. For us as liberals, Ian Smith and his regime were clearly the bad guys, so those who replaced them were the good guys—until it became clear when they took over that they were not. It was increasingly apparent that Robert Mugabe and his party were not just “not the good guys” but really rather bad guys, and so Morgan Tsvangirai and his people must be the good guys. But when they ran into difficulties in ousting Mugabe, relations within the party deteriorated and there was an unpleasant split, which was obviously going to make it more difficult to defeat Mugabe—divided oppositions are always at a disadvantage.

In 2006, I was asked to meet in South Africa leading figures in the two MDC groups that were led by Arthur Mutambara and Morgan Tsvangirai. That is when it became clear to me that it was not a simple picture at all, for although I was able to negotiate an agreement between the two MDC factions on how they would manage their relationship in the future, when they took it back to Morgan, he rejected it. He went on to become Prime Minister but that did not resolve relationships within the country. If it had, we would not be having this debate this afternoon. I now take the view that it is generally unwise in the context of a political division in another country to address the problem as a simple matter of bad guys who should be punished and good guys who should be assisted. When a full-scale war breaks out, a new dynamic emerges and one is often forced to take sides but, in the context of political divisions, it is often better to address the problem of the disturbed relationship between the two or more partisan groups rather than simply back one side against the other.

Britain’s policy approach towards Zimbabwe has largely been driven for many years by sanctions whose purpose, laudable enough, has been to change behaviour away from all the kinds of gross abuses so clearly and ably set out in his speech by my noble friend Lord Oates. There have been and currently are gross abuses, with the illegal undermining of the opposition through abductions, torture and indeed murder, abuse of the legal system and corruption of the political system—not just at a lower level but, as my noble friend pointed out with his quotations, even from the vice-president—and dehumanisation and incitement at the highest level.

After these very many years I ask myself, as I ask the Minister, what is the purpose of our sanctions now? If all these abuses which have been described are continuing, do Her Majesty’s Government believe that the sanctions are going to resolve the problems we are discussing? I think not. Do they have a downside? Yes, they do. They portray Britain as an old colonial power that, decades on, remains insistent on sanctions that have not worked to change things for the better but which are seen, rightly or wrongly, by many—not only among supporters of the Zimbabwean Government—as contributing to the disastrous state of the Zimbabwean economy. At the same time it is clear that Russia, and even more especially China, have been engaging with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Zimbabwe, and picking up support from them with no questions asked.

Partly as a result of that, and because of its own experience of sanctions, last month at the United Nations General Assembly we saw Zimbabwe refusing to back western sanctions against President Putin’s Russia, saying that it was opposed to them because they make complex situations worse. Instead of globalisation having broadened and deepened relationships across the world, we are now splitting into those who support Russia and China, which are the majority of states in the UN, versus those who support the United States and Europe, who may control the larger part of the global economy, at least for the present, but not necessarily the majority of the people or of the UN member states.

It seems that this requires post-Brexit Britain to review its approach to policy with Zimbabwe and other countries with which we have difficult historic relationships. In the context of Zimbabwe in particular, I would be grateful if the Minister and his colleagues would begin to review the effectiveness and value of sanctions and see whether there are other, better ways of bringing about the changes we all want to see. I appreciate that this would be a major shift of policy, and timing is of course a sensitive question too in all these things. So in addition, perhaps instead of excluding Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth we should be inviting it back, at least as a guest initially, perhaps to a CHOGM meeting, in the hope that rebuilding relationships within the Commonwealth might bring some positive peer pressure to bear and perhaps a better outcome than the sanctions, which to date have not achieved what we want.

My Lords, I welcome this short debate and congratulate my friend the noble Lord, Lord Oates, on his perseverance in getting it and on his excellent speech which outlined practically the whole short history of Zimbabwe. It is vital to raise awareness of what is happening in the deeply entrenched and long-lasting horror of the crisis in Zimbabwe. Particularly at the moment while the world is focused on the terrible tragedy of Ukraine, tyrants and dictators all over the world can get away with even more brutality, such as in Zimbabwe 2022.

In 2018, just before the last presidential election I, along with the right honourable Conor Burns, visited Zimbabwe to write a report for the UK branch of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on the possibilities of a free and fair election and the chances of Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth. We did not put Zimbabwe out, of course: it left. It was a depressing report. The Zimbabwean Electoral Commission was not impartial and the voter roll was inadequate, for starters. The constitution was being ignored, so we wrote of our disappointment and surprise that our ambassador at that time seemed to be so close to the ruling ZANU- PF party. I have to say that the current ambassador is doing a great job and is widely respected.

Many of us in the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Zimbabwe at that time tried to warn of the danger and futility of expecting change from Mnangagwa. Not for nothing is he known as “the crocodile”. We were dismissed by some as needlessly pessimistic and lacking understanding of his desire to change but, as forecast, the pattern set by Mugabe was carried forward with sustained intensity and vigour, complying with plans cunningly crafted with the help of the military. Those had been planned for some time. Unfortunately too many of the agencies working in the country and too many diplomats initially fell for his lies and rather evil charm. We were told that a new chapter of peace, economic efficiency and prosperity would be opened up. They have certainly opened up a new chapter but it is the same horror story of corruption, greed and violent oppression. The only expertise ZANU-PF has ever shown, I am afraid, is in brutality, lying, theft and terror.

We need more Governments around the world, as well as the media and among those who can bring influence online to call to account and shame the ZANU thugs and their stooges in the army, police and judiciary. There is no rule of law in Zimbabwe. The crisis there blights the whole of Africa, particularly the SADC region. Apart from a few brave African leaders whom we can all admire, most heads of government have been mealy-mouthed and complicit in the oppression and persecution of those who have stood up for freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

Can the Minister assure us that our UK diplomats are being properly briefed so that they can actively and productively engage in rallying support for democracy and reform, and against the disastrous corruption that is ruining the lives and livelihoods not only of people in Zimbabwe but of millions of people in neighbouring countries—and against the continuing threats of violence designed to intimidate and suppress civil society, which is so important in Zimbabwe, and brave political activists? Will the Minister discuss with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association headquarters and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum how increased and targeted support for the valuable work they do to build capacity in support of democracy and freedom can be given? Will they ensure they push to have election monitoring for next year’s election in place many months before the vote? There is no point in being there for just a few days over its actual date.

Even in these darkest of days, there is still hope. The perseverance and courage of the Zimbabwean people, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, is impressive whether in this country or abroad. The vigil outside the Zimbabwean embassy here in London has restarted after Covid. It has been going since 2002, and those involved say they will continue until there are free and fair elections. Women in Zimbabwe have borne the brunt of the struggle to feed their children, which is getting harder every day. I pay tribute to all of them and to Women of Zimbabwe Arise, an organisation which has done so much to keep the flag flying for freedom and which gave me this little WOZA scarf on one of my undercover visits.

A whole generation has grown up never knowing or enjoying the riches and resources in which Zimbabwe abounds. We see so many of them contributing to the prosperity of other nations to which they have been forced to live in exile—so many good people doing their best, such as Ben Freeth of the Mike Campbell Foundation and Tom Benyon from ZANE. But hope has come in the emergence of the Citizens Coalition for Change, which the noble Lord, Lord Oates, mentioned, and the colour yellow. It was a brave move by Nelson Chamisa to set that up. The MDC had been split apart by infiltration and clever tactics by Mnangagwa. Its headquarters were taken over and its state funding was gone. Chamisa’s energetic and inspiring leadership in rallying support for the Citizens Coalition for Change during the by-election campaigns, travelling up and down the country and addressing huge public assemblies of all ages and backgrounds who long for a better and brighter future for the nation of Zimbabwe, led to a great result. The worry, of course, is that this shows ZANU-PF that it could easily lose next year, and it will now begin to plot how to stop that.

I first met Nelson some 15 years ago in Harare, during one of my undercover fact-finding visits to Zimbabwe. I was immediately struck by his integrity, energy and brave commitment to serving and delivering for the well-being and progress of the people of Zimbabwe. In the award-winning film “President”, which I hope many of your Lordships will have seen, we see the horror of the fraud of the 2018 election: the army called in, shooting innocent, unarmed civilians in the back. It shows how the electoral commission sides with the men with guns. The judges do the same. There is despair at the stolen election, but then we see Nelson speaking out.

“Hope, hope, hope, is what we have,”

he says.

Here in your Lordships’ House, I hope that we honour the memory of all who have given their lives in this struggle and those who died never being able to return to the land they loved. By having this debate here, we are showing that we will not give up on the Zimbabwean people and their longing for their beautiful country to be restored to its rightful place as the breadbasket for Africa; a country where human rights and democracy are cherished. I ask the Government to do everything possible, in the next year, to help ensure free and fair elections in that wonderful country.

My Lords, in this debate it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Baroness and pay tribute to her commitment: her frequent visits, the report she carried out and the work she did in the House of Commons. She wears her commitment to the support of those women in Zimbabwe, who are fighting for a better life, not on her sleeve but around her neck. Equally, I also endorse her comment about the “Storyville” programme “President”. It is really worth highlighting. As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, indicated, often there are countries that are crowded out from public debate. The BBC deserves credit for maintaining that documentary on iPlayer.

I am a member of the all-party group so ably led by my noble friend Lord Oates, along with my noble friend Lord Alderdice and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Oates for securing this debate and introducing it so comprehensively. He is a leader on ensuring that we maintain debate about Zimbabwe. He opened his contributions in a very sensitive way, discussing a conflicted past and those restrictions of freedom of expression, democratic representation and liberty under our administration, and then under white supremacy. As he indicated, we must be fully cognisant of the past, but this does not negate comment on the present. While I very strongly agree with my noble friend Lord Alderdice, who has indicated over very many years the complexities of the politics within this diverse country, there are also necessary areas on how we look forward: the type of exact support, areas where we seek to have leverage over the Government, and how we support, in a practical way, those who seek the rights we enjoy here.

In his comprehensive speech, my noble friend Lord Oates narrowed on the electoral process. In Zimbabwe, the most recent by-elections were marked by significant violations of human rights law and by a result showing significant support for the new political Citizens Coalition for Change, with one-tenth of the 270 seats in the legislature and 5% of the 2,000 local government council seats. As has been reported, and as I perceive it, perhaps this indicates how the full elections will take place. This debate is therefore timely to ensure that we have recorded the abuses that took place and bear them in mind for the UK’s role of working with others to seek free and fair elections.

The impact of Covid and the actions of the Zimbabwe Administration have compounded the country’s economic crisis. It is reported that its economic crisis is characterised by high inflation that has eroded purchasing power and led to foreign currency shortages, unemployment of more than 90% in some areas and low manufacturing capacity. Its currency is in freefall. In December 2016, when the new Zimbabwean dollar was introduced, it was pegged at 1:1 with the US dollar; now it is trading at 220 Zimbabwean dollars to the US dollar.

The people are suffering, but as our Government highlighted in their human rights report published last summer, the majority of the human rights violations they reported

“were due to heavy-handed policing of COVID-19 regulations by the Zimbabwe Republic Police”.

A combination of restrictive practices during an economic and health crisis and those during an election process means that there is significant concern. We are not free from corruption, fraud and a grubby disregard for rules by our own Government and Prime Minister, so let us not have double standards, but, as Amnesty highlighted:

“The human rights situation continued to deteriorate”.

That view was supported by the Government, which indicated that there was no improvement in the human rights situation in the last period of their report. Amnesty noted

“the government demonstrating hostility to human rights defenders, protesters, political activists and journalists.”

As we look forward in this grim situation, we take into consideration the opportunities for further dialogue, either within or alongside the Commonwealth and the CHOGM meeting in Rwanda or in an open process of facilitated dialogue. However, the Government need to recognise that our leverage and moral position for the people of Zimbabwe has been dramatically harmed by, as my noble friend Lord Oates indicated, the gruesome cuts to overseas development assistance to them from the people of the United Kingdom, which fell from £189 million pre-Covid in 2019-20—that included £69 million of health support—to £18 million, with no money for health support.

If we are looking for freedom of expression and in electoral processes and the implementation of the law, we must ensure that the people of Zimbabwe are supported. Therefore, an immediate return to 0.7% and an immediate restoration of support for the people of Zimbabwe are necessary from this Government.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for initiating this debate and for his excellent introduction. As he rightly says, 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 future for themselves. It is also a significant barrier to the country’s role in the international rules-based order. In the period leading up to the March elections, there were repeated reports of state interference to disrupt the electoral process. Unfortunately, this forms part of a much wider undermining of democracy in recent years.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned the important role of civil society, which we have focused on in previous debates on Zimbabwe. Civil society, including trade unions, has continued to be the subject of harsh repression from state authorities. The wave of political arrests has led to a number of activists and opposition politicians going into hiding. This is all in addition to President Mnangagwa’s use of the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext for even further harassment and disregard of due legal process, with no accountability for those responsible.

While I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, says, I believe the UK Government have been right to implement sanctions in response, including asset freezes, arms embargoes and travel bans. The Minister has our full support in doing so, but there is a case for the Government to review and monitor the effect of these sanctions, particularly on how we might work more effectively with our allies to review their implementation and effectiveness. It is also welcome that the British embassy in Harare continues to engage with civil society groups and certainly important that Ministers make representations directly to Zimbabwean officials over their treatment.

Human rights defenders and civil society organisations are, of course, facing unprecedented restrictions and abuse in every region of the world. In recognition of this, the UK committed in the Government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy to work with human rights defenders and civil society as a priority action of the “force for good” agenda. At the G7 in 2021, they also committed to address

“the closure of civic space”


“to work collectively to strengthen the foundations of open societies, promote human rights and inclusive connectivity”.

What progress has been made on developing a meaningful plan of action to make those commitments a reality? Will the human rights and civil society directorate develop a strategy addressing these issues?

Looking to the future of Zimbabwe, Ministers have previously referred to the PVO amendment Bill in this House, which could restrict civic space even further. Can the Minister detail what recent assessment the FCDO has made of the potential for that Bill to pass, and the consequences of its implementation?

Human rights in Zimbabwe remain a serious concern across this House and, unfortunately, the recent events during the elections form part of a pattern. The EU’s observer mission found that the state’s actions in the post-election period undermined the integrity of the elections. The mission stated that

“the restrictions on political freedoms, the excessive use of force by security forces and abuses of human rights in the post-election period undermined the corresponding positive aspects during the pre-election campaign”

and that, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said,

“many aspects of the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe failed to meet international standards.”

I hope that the Government will continue to hold the President of Zimbabwe to account, and that the Minister can outline specific actions by the department on how it intends to do that in the months ahead.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for tabling this debate and for his continued interest and tenacious advocacy as co-chair of the APPG on Zimbabwe, which has been of huge benefit to the House. I thank all noble Lords for their insightful contributions.

The by-elections of 26 March were the first that Zimbabwe has held since the start of Covid regulations in 2020. While the delay in convening the polls was a concern, we welcome the Government of Zimbabwe’s subsequent actions to ensure that 28 parliamentary seats and 122 council seats have now been filled. As noble Lords will expect, the UK does not support any particular candidate or political party in Zimbabwe—it is for the people of Zimbabwe to determine and for them to choose their Members of Parliament and councillors—but clearly it is also our very strong view that this choice should be a real one and that it should be exercised through free and fair elections in line with Zimbabwe’s constitution. Indeed, respect for democratic principles, alongside human rights, the rule of law and civil society space, is central to Zimbabwe’s stated desire to see the UK sanctions regime lifted and to rejoin the Commonwealth.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, raised the question of the Commonwealth, as did other noble Lords. As noble Lords are aware, the decision about whether Zimbabwe rejoins the Commonwealth is for all Commonwealth members. In due course, we would of course like nothing more than to see Zimbabwe rejoin. However, Zimbabwe cannot yet credibly be said to meet the principles set out in the Commonwealth charter.

On the by-elections themselves, we welcome the largely peaceful manner in which the by-elections of 26 March took place and the calm reaction to the results. Like numerous Zimbabwean citizens and noble Lords here today, I also note several serious concerns about the pre-election period and the management of the elections. On the right to freedom of assembly, we were concerned that, ahead of the by-elections, the police prohibited two rallies—as already noted in this debate—requested by the newly created party, the Citizens Coalition for Change, otherwise known as the CCC. This was ostensibly on security grounds, despite the party requesting the necessary police clearances. The CCC was able to hold 10 rallies in the pre-election period, but it is clear that the state has been seeking to frustrate the opposition’s ability to campaign.

We are also concerned about the language used by senior political figures, language which appears to be designed to incite violence. The noble Lord mentioned Vice-President Chiwenga’s call on 26 February for the CCC to be “crushed like lice”, which was perhaps the most alarming language that was used. While we acknowledge President Mnangagwa’s subsequent call for peace, the lack of accountability for the vice-president’s language is clearly a problem. Let me be crystal clear on behalf of the UK Government: language like that has no place in any country or any elections ever. Given the potential for tensions to increase ahead of nationwide elections in 2023, we call on all parties to keep their language measured and conducive to an atmosphere of peaceful and fair campaigning.

We are also concerned by the increase in political violence in the build-up to 26 March. The death of Mboneni Ncube at a CCC rally on 27 February, allegedly at the hands of ZANU-PF supporters, is of particular concern. We welcome the police investigation into the incident and await the outcome of forthcoming legal proceedings. The alleged beating of CCC campaigner Godfrey Karembera while in police custody on 17 March is also of huge concern. Zimbabwe’s constitution is crystal clear: all security forces should remain neutral in all political activity and any incidences of violence must be fully investigated. These efforts to frustrate the opposition’s right to free assembly and to incite violence are not in keeping with President Mnangagwa’s commitments or Zimbabwe’s constitution. It is in that spirit that we call them out, seek accountability and ask that lessons be learned.

On the voters’ roll, we welcome the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s efforts to ensure that each polling station had a full voters’ roll published outside for public viewing. However, we are concerned at the confusion regarding the publication of the final voters’ roll in the build-up to the 26 March by-elections. Combined with insufficient voter education, this resulted in some voters being turned away from polling stations after having registered after the official cut-off date. We are also aware of the accusations of voters being moved into new constituencies without their knowledge and of abnormally large numbers of voters being registered in individual homes. A transparent and accessible voters’ roll is clearly essential to build trust in the electoral system.

Following the by-elections of 26 March, and reflecting on the international observer missions after the 2018 elections, we are joining others in pressing the Government of Zimbabwe to make far greater efforts on reforms and to ensure free, fair and credible presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023. The 2018 observer missions called for a number of measures, few of which have yet been seen through to completion. Clear voter registration and publication of an accurate voters’ roll, transparent use of state-owned resources and more effort to demonstrate the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission are essential to the elections’ credibility. The Government must also fulfil their commitment to allow equal access to state-owned media. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, raised a point about election monitoring. We are pleased that election monitoring has been offered. The initial indications are that the Government of Zimbabwe are open to that and we will keep pressing very hard to ensure that that follows through. The UK, with our international partners, stands ready to support Zimbabwe to make progress on these important issues.

In relation to the question on sanctions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and, coming from a different angle, by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who I thank for his support of the Government’s position, our designations seek to hold to account individuals responsible for egregious human rights violations and corruption. The sanctions do not target and seek to avoid impact on the wider economy and the people of Zimbabwe. They will be retained as long as accountability is lacking and the human rights situation in Zimbabwe justifies them. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, raised the spectre of China and Russia. Although we do not have time in this debate to go into the details, he makes an important point and one that is very much on the radar of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in relation to Zimbabwe and numerous other countries in the region.

With national elections due in 2023, we are also concerned by the Government of Zimbabwe’s gazetting of the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill. If passed into law and implemented, the Bill may be used to restrict the ability of civil society to operate in a way that would be out of line with the Government’s commitment to reform. We have asked the Government to re-examine the provisions that appear to restrict these freedoms and are out of step with Zimbabwe’s constitution. We have raised our concerns with the Government of Zimbabwe, including with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 16 February, and we will continue to do so.

I shall briefly address the comments by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, about climate change, a hugely important issue. He is right that Zimbabwe is very much on the front line. In fact it is one of the countries in the world that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change and extreme weather. Equally, with its abundant clean and renewable energy sources, Zimbabwe has a real opportunity to capitalise on its natural assets and act as a regional leader in reducing global emissions and tackling climate change. Zimbabwe made a number of commitments at COP 26 at the end of last year in Glasgow to reduce its emissions, tackle deforestation and increase the use of renewable energy. As the noble Earl and other noble Lords know, tackling climate change is a priority of the UK Government, not just because we hosted COP 26 but in our policies across the board. Indeed, we doubled our international climate finance to £11.6 billion, and a big focus of that will be on nature-based emissions which, again, lend themselves to countries such as Zimbabwe.

However, I think it would be a mistake to attribute many of the issues that we are talking about today in this debate to climate change. I do not seek in any way to diminish the impact or threat of climate change to countries such as Zimbabwe, but the issues that we have been discussing today, or could have discussed today, such as the fact that Zimbabwean women experience more violence directed at them for being women than almost any other country on earth, are clearly not climate change issues. They are issues of governance and go far beyond the issues that we are discussing today.

I echo the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who has been a great advocate for Zimbabwe for as long as I have known her. Zimbabwe is an extraordinary, beautiful and wonderful country, and its people reflect that. The potential for that country, in the right hands and with appropriate levels of governance, is extraordinary, and that potential has simply not been capitalised on or realised for very many years.

I do not want to disagree with the comments that noble Lords made about the urgent need to restore the 0.7% commitment that we have had in this country. That is a topic for another day—a debate for another time. However, I do not think that anyone in government does not want to return to that 0.7% as soon as we possibly can. That message has certainly been heard loud and clear from this House ever since the decision was made.

The history of the UK and Zimbabwe is long, complicated and well documented. I want to be clear that the UK wants absolutely nothing more than to see Zimbabwe prosper for the benefit of all Zimbabweans, and we will continue to engage in this vein.

We welcome the Government of Zimbabwe holding the by-elections on 26 March and the positive aspects of the polls that I noted earlier. However, as I also indicated, there are areas where we hope the Government of Zimbabwe will make real progress. That progress is badly needed so that, ahead of 2023, the Zimbabwean people can be confident in a free, fair and transparent election process. As ever, we stand ready to support.

Committee adjourned at 5.31 pm.