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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Debate on Zimbabwe

Friday, July 20, 2007

The House of Commons held a debate on Zimbabwe on the 19th July 2007, the main part of Meg’s opening speech is below.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I welcome this debate. The issue is a matter of great concern. The former Leader of the House gave the hon. Gentleman a commitment to have a debate on Zimbabwe, which is being fulfilled. I have now made a further commitment - precisely because it is a matter of such concern and because we want to see it debated even more fully - to have a another debate, subject to the agreement of the business managers, in the autumn. There are expectations of further decisions being taken over the next few months, which I will outline in greater detail later, which provide a good reason for having a further debate at that time. We wish to arrange that as soon as possible.

I shall now move on to the substance of my speech. As the Prime Minister recently said in Berlin of President Mugabe:


“We call upon him to respect the civil liberties of the people of Zimbabwe, and we call upon him to end what has been a disastrous period of poverty and, in many cases famine, and also the damage to human rights that has been done in that country.”


In my own speech, I will deal with the following issues: the current situation, including the human cost and economic decline; the appalling human rights abuses that have occurred and still are occurring; the response of the region and the Southern African Development Community or SADC initiative; our approach to supporting the people of Zimbabwe and all those now working for democratic change; and the EU-Africa summit.


I hope that all hon. Members can agree on two points: first, that the situation in Zimbabwe today is appalling; and secondly, that the cause of it is the actions of Robert Mugabe’s regime. The bare statistics are shocking enough: an economy halved in just seven years; unimaginable levels of inflation well in excess of 15,000 per cent.; an unemployment rate of more than 80 per cent.; a currency that has lost 99.9 per cent of its value in the last four years; and one in every five adults infected with AIDS.


The human misery that lies beneath those statistics is starker still. On average, a Zimbabwean boy born today will be dead before he reaches 37, and a Zimbabwean girl will die even earlier - she will not reach 35. One consequence is that today one in four Zimbabwean children has lost a parent. People are fleeing their homes and their country in the hundreds of thousands. The latest estimate is that more than 2,000 cross the Limpopo every night. Around a quarter of the population has already left. Of those who remain, almost half - more than 4 million people - will need food aid by 2008.

Let us not forget where this is all happening. It is happening in a country that was one of the richest in Africa - a country that enjoyed comparatively high standards of living, a booming economy, and some of the best health, education and legal systems in the region.


There can be no doubt where the responsibility for the terrible tragedy in Zimbabwe lies - with President Mugabe and his regime. In the first 10 years after independence, significant gains were made in access to basic services. After 27 years of rule, however, Mugabe’s enduring legacy to the people of Zimbabwe is misery, poverty and oppression. Owing to Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is in the grip of a corrupt culture that has destroyed what was once the breadbasket of southern Africa. Since 1998, agricultural productivity has fallen by a staggering 80 per cent and more than a million people, many of them black commercial farm workers and their families, have lost their livelihoods.


Robert Mugabe’s regime has compounded the catastrophic failure of policy at every turn. The mining sector is crippled - gold production is at its lowest ebb since 1917 - which has put another 40,000 out of work in the past decade. Today there are reports that Zimbabwe, despite its huge reserves of coal, is having to import from Botswana. Even so, electricity supplies have now become so irregular that those few companies struggling to survive are having to import their own fuel from outside the country.


The new legislation being rushed through the Zimbabwean Parliament tells the same story. If approved, the legislation will make all foreign investors offer up a 51 per cent shareholding to local investors. No doubt Robert Mugabe will ensure that his supporters receive the benefit while ordinary people suffer. Meanwhile, in 2005, Robert Mugabe added to the misery of the 1 million people displaced from the countryside by destroying the homes or livelihoods of 700,000 people living in the cities. He has refused to appeal to the UN for food aid, and has persistently ignored the advice of the International Monetary Fund on how to rescue his nose-diving economy.


I am sorry to report to the House that the latest news coming out of Zimbabwe shows that Robert Mugabe is set on pursuing yet more disastrous policies. The ill-thought-out and economically illiterate Operation Reduce Prices is resulting in panic- buying, empty shelves and looting. The few remaining businesses and manufacturers are closing. As might have been expected, such a clumsy attempt to manipulate market forces is simply driving consumers elsewhere - to the black market. As is always the case, those in the best position to take advantage of such an underground economy are the political elite.


Zimbabwe is grinding to a halt, while Robert Mugabe and his regime continue to close their eyes to the suffering.


There is only one way in which a regime that is so incompetent and venal can survive - by denying the people the freedom to change it. Robert Mugabe and his regime depend on brutality and oppression for their survival. Since 11 March, when a young Zimbabwean was shot dead and opposition and civil society leaders bludgeoned, the number of opposition activists arrested and beaten throughout Zimbabwe has continued to grow.


John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, Beatrice Mtetwa, an extremely distinguished human rights lawyer, and Lovemore Madhuku, the chair of the National Constitutional Assembly, both of whom I had the privilege of meeting as long ago as February 2004, are just two of the people who, on more than one occasion, have been arrested and savagely beaten by the fascistic forces of Mugabe’s regime, does the Minister agree that President Mugabe should under no circumstances be allowed to attend the EU-African Union summit, and if he does, that our Prime Minister will boycott that pointless and thoroughly insensitive charade?


Meg Munn: I understand entirely the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he will bear with me, I said at the outset that I would refer to the issue, and I will do so.


In early June, lawyers peacefully protesting outside the high court were attacked and a leading female human rights lawyer was badly beaten in public. In the same month, police used batons against some 200 members of the group Women of Zimbabwe Arise who were protesting peacefully in Bulawayo. Seven of their members were detained and denied access to lawyers. They were held for several nights in degrading conditions before being released without charge. In the past, some of their members have been arrested and detained with their babies.


Just last week, it was the turn of Zimbabwe’s students: when they protested against the forced eviction of 5,000 students from their halls of residence, hundreds were beaten and injured by riot police. All that, of course, is set against the backdrop of the continued persecution of opposition politicians, including Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, the rigging of elections, the systematic crushing of Zimbabwe’s free media and the use of food, fuel and land as tools of political repression.


The meltdown in Zimbabwe is a tragedy for the people of that country. But it is also a problem for the entire region. The repeated lesson of history is that the impacts of state failure will always migrate across borders. It is therefore undoubtedly in the interests of African nations to find and lead the solution to the problems in the country. We will support them in that effort.


Zimbabwe’s neighbours are already feeling the negative economic and social consequences of the exodus of Zimbabweans. It is putting added strain on their social and welfare structures. Zimbabwe’s neighbours are having to deal with HIV/AIDS patients, malnutrition, safety and security problems. In turn, that is causing tension within their own populations. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to his South African counterpart last week. They discussed the more than 2 million refugees already in South Africa—the last thing that South Africa needs - and the damage that Zimbabwe’s failure is doing to its neighbours’ economies. There are clear signs that the capacity of Zimbabwe’s neighbours to absorb those fleeing the country is approaching its limit. South Africa has returned more than 100,000 irregular migrants in the first six months of this year, which is twice the rate of the previous year.


The regional consequences of Robert Mugabe’s destructive approach are one compelling reason for the need for African leadership. The other, equally compelling, is that it is African countries and African leaders who have the greatest influence on the government of Zimbabwe. That is why we support a more active stance by the South African Development Community. We have been encouraging progress under President Mbeki’s leadership to promote dialogue between ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. President Mbeki updated the Prime Minister earlier this month, and there have been numerous ministerial level contacts with other SADC leaders as the situation in Zimbabwe has worsened.


We are expecting President Mbeki to report on progress to fellow SADC leaders at the summit in Lusaka set for mid-August. This is the opportunity for them to make a difference. However, I would not be being frank with this House if I did not say that ZANU-PF representatives have repeatedly failed to turn up for talks, and this is not encouraging. Robert Mugabe must not think that the SADC initiative can be used as a smokescreen to distract the opposition and his neighbours while he prepares the ground in Zimbabwe for another set of crooked elections.


It would be a catastrophe, not just for Zimbabwe but for the region, if Zimbabwe suffered its fourth manipulated elections in a row next year. SADC has itself agreed high-quality standards for its elections. So we will support its efforts to put its stated commitment to promoting good governance and to respecting human rights and the rule of law into effect. It is only through such regional engagement that the situation can be prevented from deteriorating further.


African leadership is key. It helps to undercut one of the great sustaining myths of the regime’s propaganda effort - that international concern is colonialism by another name. We in this country must be particularly adroit in how we approach this problem. As the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, made clear on British television just a few months ago:


“The British government cannot be seen to be at the forefront of confronting Mugabe, alone ... that will be misconstrued as a colonial resuscitation of the same situation again. So Britain has to act together with the rest of the international community and the AU”.


However, none of that is to deny the very specific historic connection that we have with the people of Zimbabwe. And it is concern for them which drives our policy.


Our approach is twofold. We want to see Zimbabwe back on the road to recovery. We want a reforming government who pursue sensible and just policies. We want the people to have a chance to choose their government freely. But until that time, we will do all that we can to relieve the suffering of the people of that country through a significant humanitarian aid programme.


Let me inform the House of the specific measures that we are taking to keep up the pressure and maintain the international spotlight on Robert Mugabe’s regime.


We take our duty of care and responsibility for British nationals in Zimbabwe very seriously. We provide a full consular service in Harare. We are making efforts to ensure that all British nationals, including those who are vulnerable and elderly, are aware of the assistance that we and other organisations can offer them. The embassy is making particular efforts to identify and support those who are infirm or elderly and who may find it harder to access consular assistance.


The measures that we are taking have the support of Zimbabwean civil society organisations because they are, rightly, focused on Mugabe and his elite, not the people of Zimbabwe. As a direct response to the Government-orchestrated violence in March, we added further names to the EU’s travel ban and assets-freeze list. The EU ban on arms sales and the EU travel ban and assets freeze on 131 leading members of the regime remain in place. But there are no economic sanctions, despite regime propaganda to the contrary, because of the damage they would do to ordinary Zimbabweans. The greatest sanction on the Zimbabwean economy is the policy of the Zimbabwean government itself.


There are currently no sporting sanctions on Zimbabwe, but international sport should never be a way for dictators to publicise their misrule. We would not want the England cricket team to tour there. It is a matter for the English cricketing authorities to decide ultimately whether England play Zimbabwe or not. Our views are clear.


Let me also say a few words about the EU-Africa summit. We have stated very clearly to all concerned that this Government is committed to Africa and the EU-Africa relationship. Indeed, we launched the EU-Africa partnership strategy in 2005 under the UK Presidency. Above all, we want a summit this year that delivers real results for Africa. We do not want anything to overshadow this work, including Robert Mugabe. We want a solution that is consistent with the EU’s common position on Zimbabwe and with what the EU and Africa want to achieve together on governance. We believe that any conference that goes ahead should, in our view, include a specific discussion on the situation in Zimbabwe.


Meanwhile, we are continuing to shine the UN spotlight on Mugabe’s human rights abuses. We pushed for fifty countries to condemn him at the Human Rights Council in March and we will push for Zimbabwe to be back on September’s agenda. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the many other groups working in the region and in this country - NGOs, church groups, women’s groups and some trade unions in particular - to document and draw attention to the abuses of the regime.


I am being as clear as I can be on this matter, and it is very clear where the Government stand in respect of Robert Mugabe. I have set out at length our views on this situation: we are working with EU and African partners on a solution that is consistent with the EU common position on Zimbabwe. I cannot answer any more questions on the matter, as I would merely be repeating myself.


While maintaining and tightening political pressure, we are providing targeted humanitarian assistance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development would have expanded further on the issue of such assistance in closing the debate - which he wished to do - were he not currently in Sudan dealing with another pressing problem with which Members will be familiar. However, I can inform Members that we are one of the three largest donors to Zimbabwe, and that UK money is helping to keep hundreds of thousands of people alive. Last year, we committed more than £33 million to humanitarian programmes, including food aid. In the last five years we have given £35 million to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and we have committed a further £47 million for the next three years.


Baroness Vadera announced yesterday in another place that we will commit a further £50 million over the next five years to continue the protracted relief programme in Zimbabwe. That will enable there to be continuing provision of social protection in the form of agricultural inputs, water and sanitation, training and home-based care for some 2 million of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Zimbabwe. Our aid is channelled through United Nations and NGO agencies, not via the Government. Our food aid is not a part of the ZANU-PF programme to use food as a means to force support or to punish opposition. We are also spending another £3.3 million this year supporting civil society and organisations working to promote good governance and open democratic space.


Of course, we have a particular responsibility for those British nationals still residing in or visiting Zimbabwe. Their welfare is a prime concern. We provide a full consular service in Harare and we maintain a network of consular correspondents to ensure that we keep in close touch with our nationals in other urban and rural areas. We have a comprehensive and regularly updated contingency plan that covers the 12,000 nationals registered with the British embassy, including the elderly and vulnerable.


The country and people of Zimbabwe are being driven into the ground by the policies of a corrupt and brutal regime. Zimbabwe can recover, but only if the policies are in place to permit it. The UK stands ready to help substantially with Zimbabwe’s recovery. I know that many of the Zimbabwean diaspora are anxious to return to Zimbabwe and play their part.


I end by saying that a major change of direction is needed, and a major change of policy. Only then can the situation in Zimbabwe be reversed. We do not believe that Robert Mugabe is willing or able to change and, more importantly, neither do the people of Zimbabwe. We will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that their voice is heard, so that Zimbabwe can enjoy new leadership and a new start.


The full debate is available from:


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