HC Deb 11 April 2000 vol 348 cc185-96
4. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

What representations he has received on the rule of law in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. [117168]

5. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

If he will make a statement on the future of the United Kingdom's relations with Zimbabwe. [117169]

16. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

If he will make a statement on the political situation in Zimbabwe. [117182]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

My colleague, the Minister of State—my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain)—and I have repeatedly expressed our concerns at the deterioration in the economy and stability of Zimbabwe. I met President Mugabe last week in the margins of the European Union-Africa summit. I am grateful to President Obasanjo of Nigeria for helping to arrange the meeting and for having played such a positive part in it.

I emphasised our deep concern at the present situation in Zimbabwe; in particular, at the failure of the Zimbabwean police and the Government of Zimbabwe to uphold the rule of law, by complying with the court order to clear the illegal occupation of farms, or by protecting the right of citizens to peaceful demonstration without fear of violence. I also stressed the importance that we attach to free and fair elections within the time frame set out in the constitution of Zimbabwe. President Mugabe assured President Obasanjo and me that he intended to hold elections in May. He also agreed to send a delegation to London to discuss all our concerns.

Yesterday, I opened the discussion among European Foreign Ministers on Zimbabwe. I am pleased to report that 11 countries spoke strongly in support of our concerns and that we unanimously agreed conclusions demanding respect for the rule of law and urging free and fair elections. We agreed that the EU should provide monitors to observe that the conditions for elections are free and fair.

This morning, I spoke to Don McKinnon, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. I gave notice that I will want to raise our concerns about Zimbabwe at the forthcoming meeting of the Commonwealth ministerial action group.

I agree with Lord Carrington's statement this morning that we must put as much international pressure as possible on the Government of Zimbabwe. That is what we are doing. However, the solutions to the problems of Zimbabwe must be found in Zimbabwe itself. I spoke this morning to Mr. Kenwood, president of the Farmers Union, who stressed that he and his members were citizens of Zimbabwe and wanted to seek a solution in a cool and level-headed manner.

I very much regret that President Mugabe has not approached our dialogue in that same spirit. Indeed, he has repeatedly tried to turn the election into a confrontation between Zimbabwe and Britain.

I have therefore sought in all my statements to demonstrate that Britain is not an enemy, but a friend of the people of Zimbabwe. It is because of that friendship that Britain is leading the international demand that the Government of Zimbabwe respect the rule of law and that the people of Zimbabwe must have the right, through free and fair elections, to decide for themselves who will govern Zimbabwe. We will continue to take every responsible and reasonable step to secure those twin demands.

Mr. Gray

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that statement and for his commitment to cool reason. None the less, if he agrees that what President Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe looks very much like ethnic cleansing, although, in this case, it is directed against many British passport holders, when does he intend to replace the rhetoric and the discussions that he described with some real action? For example, will he consider freezing President Mugabe's international assets? Will he speak more directly to the Commonwealth about the possibility of suspending Zimbabwe? If he will not take either of those actions, when does he intend to do something to which Zimbabwe will really listen?

Mr. Cook

We are taking every reasonable and responsible step. The hon. Gentleman asks whether we will consider freezing the assets of President Mugabe. I can predict the reaction if we were to confiscate his assets; he would then confiscate farms in Zimbabwe. One farmer to whom I spoke today said: We are the ones who get beaten over the head here, whenever he gets beaten over the head there.

If we want to provoke such retaliation, that is certainly how we would go about it. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman: if those on the ground want to proceed with the matter in a cool and level-headed manner, the least that we can do is to try to make sure that we do the same in this House.

Mr. Winterton

The right hon. Gentleman will know that my interest in Zimbabwe goes back 30 years. We both believe that it holds perhaps the greatest potential of any country in central southern Africa. Would he emphasise to the House that we have no argument whatever with the good people of Zimbabwe and that we want to play our part through aid to ensure that they do not suffer through the mismanagement and wickedness of their Government? Will he assure us that aid will continue to flow to Zimbabwe, but that it will go through non-governmental organisations and direct to projects that will help the people of that long-suffering country?

Mr. Cook

I echo the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It is important that the message goes out from this House that we want the people of Zimbabwe to succeed. The real tragedy of that country is that it is potentially one of the richest and wealthiest in the region, but that its economy has now been reduced to the extent that it has 60 per cent. inflation and no foreign exchange reserves. I very much hope that the people of Zimbabwe will soon, as a result of the pressure on its Government, have the opportunity to take control of their own government through free and fair elections.

On aid, we have for some time restricted any new aid to the Government of Zimbabwe. We are looking for ways in which we can channel it through non-governmental organisations and now a quarter of all our aid to Zimbabwe goes through NGOs. However, the NGO sector in Zimbabwe is still weak and it is not easy to replicate entirely all the aid that we provide through its Government.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

The right hon. Gentleman will be very much aware that not just this but other countries have played an enormous part in helping to revive the agrarian economy of what was Rhodesia. In fact, just two years ago, 700 farms in good areas were available for black people to farm the land. Does he agree that the time has come to put more pressure on the Government of Zimbabwe and that we should not rely just on the countries of the European Union to do that? Would it be more successful if we included countries of the Commonwealth in the representations that we make? After all, Zimbabwe is still a part of the Commonwealth.

Mr. Cook

As I said earlier, I will raise this matter at the Commonwealth ministerial action group when it meets in two weeks' time. I have already discussed the issue with a number of other Commonwealth leaders and I particularly welcome the help that President Obasanjo gave us in Cairo. Indeed, the assurance that elections will be held in May was given to him and not just to Britain. Therefore, I expect him to support us and to make sure that we proceed on that point.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about farms. Some 100 farms held by the Government of Zimbabwe are not being allocated to anybody, and they are going to waste. Over the past three years, half the farms that have been allocated under the land reform scheme run by the Government of Zimbabwe have gone not to the rural poor, but to members of the Government and officials employed by the Government. They have tended to get leases at half the rents paid by others who received farms. In those circumstances, although we are willing to fund a programme of land reform, it must be a programme targeted at the rural poor and not an urban elite.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The holding of free and fair elections is vital. Has there been any indication from the Government of Zimbabwe that they will be prepared to accept Commonwealth observers or monitors at those elections? Would my right hon. Friend confirm, along with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, that the only precedents for suspension from the Commonwealth have been when there has been a military coup in a Commonwealth country? Does he see any further scope for a role for an intermediary from a Commonwealth country, such as President Obasanjo or President Mbeki, because the vital interests of South Africa and the region as a whole could be threatened if there is a crisis of confidence among the white people of that area?

Mr. Cook

Many of the countries in the region are conscious that the decay of Zimbabwe's economy is of legitimate concern to them, and it is important that we explore every possible opportunity of working with them to find a resolution. My hon. Friend refers to precedents for suspension; there is only one and that is the case of Nigeria under its military regime. Nevertheless the Commonwealth ministerial action group has been gradually pressing for a widening of the scope of its action, and I expect support for us discussing that when we meet next month.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Should not the whole vexed question of land in that country be properly dealt with through the rule of law and negotiations? Is it not unfortunate that Mugabe and his cronies and thugs are using racism and xenophobia to whip up a situation so that Mugabe can hang on to power, because it seems to me that that is certainly the main motive in the present situation? Should not racism and xenophobia be denounced everywhere, whether it is in the country that we are now discussing or nearer home, as we witnessed yesterday with questions about asylum seekers?

Mr. Cook

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that racism has no place to play either in Zimbabwe's politics or in Britain's politics. One point that has repeatedly been stressed by the farmers whose lands are occupied is that they are not white British farmers but citizens of Zimbabwe. They are entitled to protection under the rule of law in Zimbabwe, and if any citizen of that country loses the right of the protection of the courts and the rule of law, all citizens of Zimbabwe have their rights put at risk.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will my right hon. Friend convey to the high commissioner for Zimbabwe in London the fact that many of us who took to the streets in the 1960s and 1970s to end colonial rule in Rhodesia, and against Mr. Smith, and who supported the black liberation movements, are deeply saddened by what is happening today, indeed, even embarrassed?

Mr. Cook

I hope that what my hon. Friend has said in the Chamber will be heard, and we will certainly make sure that it is drawn to the attention of Zimbabwe's representative in Britain. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we make sure that the people of Zimbabwe have the rights and democracy that many of us wanted them to have after independence. I have been accused in one or two quarters of having a colonial attitude in lecturing Zimbabwe on rights and democracy for its people. I totally reject the idea that that is a colonial attitude. We would have a colonial attitude if we were failing to insist on the same rights and democracy for the people of Zimbabwe that we insist on for ourselves.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

The whole House will want to send a message to the people of Zimbabwe, which should be one of Africa's most prosperous and stable nations, that we are their friend, and that Britain stands by its friends when they are in trouble. They are in trouble because of the regime: the wholesale intimidation of journalists and anyone with dissident views; the way in which the Government are cynically encouraging thugs to invade property despite the Government failing to win the recent referendum; the continued prosecution of a pointless and costly war in the Congo; and the postponement of the elections. All that is condemning Zimbabwe to penury and oppression. It is a process that now has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.

Everyone in Zimbabwe that I know of agrees that land reform is needed, but, so far, the 1 million or so acres that have been acquired by the Government over the 20 years since independence have been given not to the dispossessed but to Mugabe's cronies. Apart from our concerns for Zimbabwe itself, the House must be aware that, on the Foreign Office's own assessment, around 50,000 Zimbabweans either have, or are entitled to, British passports and are therefore entitled to enter Britain, so this country cannot stand idly by.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House why bilateral aid to Zimbabwe's Government is now increasing and Britain is still providing Zimbabwe with military assistance, as shown in the recent reply by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain)? Why is nothing being done, as far as we know, to investigate the possibility of freezing the overseas assets of Mr. Mugabe and his cronies? Those would be sanctions directed against the regime, and not the people. Why did the EU yesterday decide to continue to provide aid to the Government of Zimbabwe? Has the Foreign Secretary agreed to meet Morgan Tsvangirai, the Opposition leader, later this week when he is in Britain, as I plan to do?

Why has it taken so long for the Foreign Secretary to get around to involving the Commonwealth? Should not that family of nations be the main vehicle for international pressure, threatening suspension if Zimbabwe fails to return to the rule of law? Why should attempts not be made now to get the recent Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, or another respected African leader, to take the lead in putting pressure on the Mugabe regime to change?

Is it any wonder that Mark Chavunduka—one of Zimbabwe's leading newspaper editors, who was tortured by the Mugabe regime last January—said, when I met him last week: I was disappointed when I heard the statement by Robin Cook—basically, it was a bit wishy-washy. I would go for a far tougher course of action…? Last week, the Foreign Secretary had the chance to make crystal clear to Mr. Mugabe the abhorrence felt throughout the Commonwealth at his Government's behaviour. Does he understand how mortified and angry British people are when, instead of winning any concessions from Mr. Mugabe, the Foreign Secretary limply promises to muzzle his own criticisms?

There is a serious crisis in which Britain has a direct interest. Crises call for statesmanship. The Foreign Secretary does not even get close.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his exercise in burning the midnight oil rather than listening to exchanges in the Chamber. I am grateful to him for agreeing with—indeed repeating—many of my points.

I am happy to confirm that, like the right hon. Gentleman, I shall meet Mr. Tsvangirai. I suspect that he is looking forward rather more to a useful discussion with the Government than to one with the Opposition of the sort that we have just heard. As for why I am raising the issue only at the next meeting of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, I cannot do it any earlier than when the next meeting happens to be. I have already told the Secretary-General that it will be on the agenda on that occasion—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman has asked me a number of questions and he is entitled to hear the answer.

On the question of military training, the training provided is not to the Government or the army of Zimbabwe, but to the whole of the southern region of Africa, and it is training in peacekeeping intervention by the Organisation of African Unity or the United Nations. The group is based in Zimbabwe, but provides services across the whole of the region and to the other countries in the region. I can think of no better way of losing us influence with neighbouring countries of the region whose support we now need than withdrawing that facility.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests that we should withdraw aid to Zimbabwe, but which aid would he have us withdraw? Does he want us to withdraw the aid that we are providing to combat HIV, when a quarter of the population of Zimbabwe suffers from AIDS? Does he want us withdraw our support for irrigation, which helps those who do not currently have land? Does he want us to stop providing assistance with sanitation, which helps to prevent the urban and rural poor being exposed to disease? Those are the projects that we are undertaking. I cannot imagine a worse way of convincing the people of Zimbabwe that we are their friend, as the right hon. Gentleman says that he wants us to appear.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman's statement is flatly in conflict with the statement made last Sunday by the Leader of the Opposition, who said: I think the Government needs to restore better relations with Zimbabwe. The whole House is baffled as to how the right hon. Gentleman imagines any of his prescriptions will achieve the objective of the leader of his party. Instead, he has indulged in empty gesture politics that will not help to resolve the situation in Zimbabwe. Perhaps he should adjourn, go and see the leader of his party and ask who really speaks for the Tory party on foreign policy.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that Her Majesty's Government have now suspended the export to Zimbabwe of all arms and arms-related equipment, including spare parts for Hawk aircraft?

Is not the blunt, unpalatable truth that, if the United Kingdom acts on its own, it is likely to be far less effective than if we initiate concerted action through the Commonwealth, especially among Zimbabwe's African neighbours? What initiatives have the Government taken to persuade Zimbabwe's neighbours that the stability of Zimbabwe is as much in their interests as in anyone else's?

Finally, if it comes to the question of refugees—we must all fervently hope that that will not be the case—will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will accept not just their legal but their moral obligations to all and any refugees from Zimbabwe, whatever their ethnic origin?

Mr. Cook

On the last point, it is extremely important that we do not say anything that could be misconstrued or create a sense of panic. As it is, we always have contingency plans for every country, in case we should be required to assist. I will say no more on that, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me.

I agree that the pressure is likely to be more effective if we work with African leaders, and I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, in the course of Cairo, I discussed the position of Zimbabwe with the leader of every country neighbouring Zimbabwe.

On the supply of arms and weapons to Zimbabwe, I can tell the House that for a long time we have not provided licences for any equipment that might be used for oppression within Zimbabwe. We recently took a decision that we would not provide any licences for new equipment that might be used in the Congo. We are, of course, saddled with existing commitments from the previous regime—

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

No, you are not.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Lady supports a party which as recently as 1992 sent five Hawks to Zimbabwe, and the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was a Minister in the Government who agreed to do it. We will of course continue to make sure that the matter is kept under review, but at present there will be no new equipment for Zimbabwe, either for the Congo or for internal repression.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will remember that, at the time of the Lancaster house talks, land and cash from the United Kingdom and the United States were major issues in those discussions and the agreements. He has rightly said that, to date, the redistribution of land has been a dismal failure. He will also know that President Mugabe blames the financial position largely on the British Government. Will my right hon. Friend set the record straight and make it clear that the financial position is a result of the fact that Zimbabwe is not using the funds appropriately to achieve the objectives set out in the Lancaster house agreement?

Mr. Cook

In fairness, it must be said that Britain has supplied £44 million to support land reform in Zimbabwe. We remain willing to help further, but it must be a programme, first, that involves the rule of law and fair price to a willing seller, and secondly, that tackles the needs of the rural poor, not those who happen to have access to, and influence in, Harare. We remain committed to taking that forward. I hope that we will have the opportunity to do so, but we need co-operation from President Mugabe to achieve that.

I share with my hon. Friend his view that the position of the economy of Zimbabwe cannot be blamed on Britain or any other European power. President Mugabe has been in power 20 years and must accept at least some of the responsibility for the present state of Zimbabwe. The people of Zimbabwe are inclined to share that view.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

As the son of parents who stood their ground on a coffee shamba in the heart of Kikuyuland throughout the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and as someone who made his maiden speech in the House on the subject of Rhodesia almost exactly 40 years ago, may I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, in the comfort and security of the Chamber, we all need to measure our words extremely carefully? While contingency arrangements must obviously be made for any unhappy developments, threatening words from outside Zimbabwe are not likely to be well received, via the BBC World Service, on their wirelesses by European farmers who may be miles away from any other European.

I have known Mr. Mugabe for a great many years, and my belief is that he is not a man who is incapable of being persuaded to take a reasonable course of action in certain circumstances. Has the Foreign Secretary, for instance, approached Mr. Nelson Mandela or Mr. Kenneth Kaunda, to ask whether they might be prepared to go and mediate, as they demonstrated during their leadership of their two countries the great contribution that Europeans can make in an African country?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and his appeal for restraint. He speaks with real authority. Those of us who have been directly in touch with people in Zimbabwe in the past few weeks can confirm that his words are echoed by people on the ground in Zimbabwe.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of trying to find someone who can connect with President Mugabe and speak to him with respect and authority. I assure him that we are continuing to seek such a way of making an approach. He will understand that it will not help at this time if we start to discuss names in public.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Does my right hon. Friend share my view that, although the issues are emotive, they require a delicate balance between forcefulness and diplomacy, and that the shadow Foreign Secretary's recent indulgence in juvenile partisan abuse on the radio did him no credit at home and may have damaged British interests abroad?

Mr. Cook

I have already been obliged to express my views once on the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude); I do not want to have to return to him.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Does the Foreign Secretary realise that the position is getting worse and has been deteriorating in the past two or three weeks? Does he also realise that his perceived inaction makes matters worse not only in Zimbabwe but in Kenya? We hear that some opposition Members in Nairobi are calling for similar policies in Kenya. The right hon. Gentleman cannot walk on the fence indefinitely. He must take action. For how long is he prepared simply to say that he will continue to hector President Mugabe when the latter is not in listening mode?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on awaking from his slumber. I will spare the House repetition of all that I have said since we started discussing the matter at 3.30 pm. President Mugabe's strategy for the general election is clear: he will stand as a candidate who opposes Britain. It would not be wise, nor would it help the people of Zimbabwe, if we volunteered to fill the role that President Mugabe is writing for us.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

My right hon. Friend is right to ignore the Opposition's domestic political agenda. We are in serious difficulties with President Mugabe. The message that my right hon. Friend has repeated today is important, and it should be repeated to the audience in Zimbabwe. That corrupt regime, which has squandered the money for land reform, will not improve the interests of the ordinary African, white or black. However, it is important that the ordinary Zimbabwean knows that land reform is available and that the British Government will be at the forefront of those who try to achieve that fairly and consistently.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to repeat the message, and I hope that the BBC World Service and other outlets will carry it to Zimbabwe so that the truth is known: Britain stands ready to support a programme of land reform provided that it is within the law and that it helps the poor of Zimbabwe. That remains our offer, and we await discussions with people from Zimbabwe. I want the people of Zimbabwe to know that it is not true that we do not support land reform. However, such land reform must be in the interests of the people and not only of the Government.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Are not the vital interests of neighbouring African countries also affected? The present circumstances, in which there is no rule of law and property is expropriated, threaten any prospect of inward investment in Zimbabwe. Some of that property belongs to banks, and its expropriation will thus undermine them. The circumstances threaten not only the economy of Zimbabwe—any suggestion of their repetition elsewhere will undermine prospects of serious inward investment in other neighbouring African countries because people will have no confidence in the security of their investment.

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, if confiscation of farms proceeds, I cannot imagine that a prospective investor will have confidence in investing in Zimbabwe in the way in which the people need. That could have a ripple effect in the region. In the areas where farms have been occupied, there have been many protests by farm workers who are now denied their livelihoods and cannot support their families.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Despite the valid criticisms of the policy of violent expropriation, does my right hon. Friend share a slight sense of unease that the media and, indeed, the Chamber, take a keen interest in Zimbabwe only when farmers of European origin are involved? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be unwise to place Britain in a position whereby we actively endorse the opposition party in Zimbabwe, as the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), the shadow Foreign Secretary, appears to do? We should criticise policies that are wrong, but we should not attempt to decide Zimbabwean politics.

Mr. Cook

It is not for us to decide the politics of Zimbabwe or of any other country, but we have the legitimate right to express concern about the human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe or elsewhere. I repeat a point that I made earlier, as it requires to be stressed: those farmers who face the prospect of confiscation are every bit as much citizens of Zimbabwe as President Mugabe, and many of their families have been there for generations. I met one at the weekend who is in great distress about what is happening to what he properly and rightly described as "his country". He regards himself as a Zimbabwean; he should be given the chance to help to build the future of Zimbabwe.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Can the Foreign Secretary shed light on the suggestion that, despite the principle of a fixed-term Parliament, no polling date has been determined because the constituency boundaries have not yet been settled?

Mr. Cook

As I understand the legal provision, the Parliament of Zimbabwe will require to be dissolved this month because it will come to the anniversary of its election and elections for a new Parliament must be held within four months of the dissolution. I welcome the fact that President Mugabe has committed himself to elections in May and hope that he will carry that through, but the right hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. There are valid concerns about Zimbabwe's preparedness for elections and one is bound to say that the only possible responsibility for that lies with the Government who have been in power for the past four years and have known that there must be elections this year.