HC Deb 16 June 2004 vol 422 cc761-3
4. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe. [178964]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)

The Government of Zimbabwe's misguided policies, including on land, continue to fuel the humanitarian crisis, which is made worse by HIV/AIDS and erratic rainfall. The Government of Zimbabwe claim that there has been a bumper harvest and have said that they will not seek further international food aid. The UN and other independent observers do not believe those claims and have warned that they could delay international help if it is needed later in the year. We will nevertheless continue to work closely with the World Food Programme to monitor humanitarian needs in Zimbabwe over the coming months.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that positive and detailed response, but does he share my anger and concern that despite the serious problems facing Zimbabwe—including the chronic fuel, food and currency shortages, a contracting economy and growing starvation the Government have placed an order with the People's Republic of China for 12 jet fighter aircraft and 100 military vehicles? They have also bypassed their procurement board to place that order. Can the Secretary of State tell us what further humanitarian aid we can direct to the suffering people of Zimbabwe without going through their Government?

Hilary Benn

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, because the priority for the resources that are available should be helping the people of Zimbabwe, who are suffering considerably. That suffering is not helped by the fact that, as well as making disputed claims about the size of the harvest, their Government have cancelled the UNICEF nutritional assessment, which is one piece of information that we need to assess the impact of food shortages, and the crop assessment mission—after it had begun—which will make it more difficult to reach a judgment on the harvest.

We continue to provide significant support, including supporting the World Food Programme in increasing its monitoring force. Those decisions by the Zimbabwe Government could make it more difficult to provide help if it is needed, but we will continue to do all that we can to help people who are suffering.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we see a continuing erosion of all the democratic principles—such as a free press—in Zimbabwe? It is true that the harvest has been nothing like as good as the Government claimed. How can we encourage those people in ZANU-PF who recognise that Robert Mugabe's days are up, because he is destroying the country and their party? How can we make them understand that they need to tell him that it is time to go—the quicker, the better?

Hilary Benn

The international community must continue to apply all the pressure that it possibly can. My hon. Friend will be aware of the steps that the EU has taken through the arms embargo, the assets freeze and the visa ban, but anyone who makes an objective assessment of the present circumstances in Zimbabwe—high inflation, unemployment and an estimated 90 per cent. of the population in urban areas living on less than a dollar a day—knows that they cannot go on like this. We hope that that pressure, and pressure from other African states—which have an important responsibility in that area—will lead to the change that we all wish to see.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

Given that both the United Nations and the Southern African Regional Poverty Network insist that Zimbabwe will be short of approximately 600,000 tonnes of food this year, does the Secretary of State agree that the cancellation of the joint crop assessment and the refusal of the Mugabe Government earlier this week to meet the UN humanitarian envoy for special needs were sinister in the extreme? What particular representations about the latter has the Secretary of State made?

Hilary Benn

Well, I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, because those steps by the Government of Zimbabwe show clearly that they are not interested in discovering the true position. As I said earlier, in reply to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), those actions will also make it more difficult for the international community to step in. Representations continue to be made to the Government of Zimbabwe—most recently, about the displacement following the farm seizures that have taken place in Kondozi and Charleswood. The UN humanitarian co-ordinator has written to express concern about that, but to date has received no reply.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab)

In Zimbabwe, non-governmental organisations operate largely through the internet, but President Mugabe is bringing in a Bill that will stop internet access for NGOs by controlling the internet service providers. What pressure can we bring to bear on the International Telecommunication Union to stop that process and to give a quid pro quo—so that if it is done inside Zimbabwe, it will not stop the NGOs' external use of the international telecommunications system?

Hilary Benn

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to that step proposed by the Government of Zimbabwe, of which I was not aware. I undertake to look into it and to talk to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and other colleagues to see what we can do to address it. It is a further sign of the desperate attempts of the Government of Zimbabwe to stop people hearing about and reading about what is happening, as has also been shown by the action taken against the Tribune newspaper.

Mr. Bercow

Knowing that the right hon. Gentleman shares my disgust at the behaviour of the Zimbabwe Government in threatening to starve millions of people, spending extortionately on defence and sending the head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to this country with his begging bowl to stump up cash to sustain their brutal tyranny, may I ask whether he agrees that, rather than lamenting the limited effect of existing sanctions, as the Prime Minister did at column 523 of the Official Report on Monday, it would be better to seek to extend the EU sanctions so that the head of the Reserve Bank, Gideon Gono, is included in them? That would be a vital contribution in humanitarian terms to helping the people of Zimbabwe, who have suffered too much for too long with too little help from the outside world.

Hilary Benn

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the sanctions that were reviewed earlier this year were extended. There is always an argument to be had about which names should be included on that list and which should not, and the list was extended. The action that he advocates in relation to Dr. Gono would not affect Dr. Gono's current visit, but the Government have always said that, along with our EU colleagues, we shall continue to review the effectiveness of the sanctions to make sure that we take the right steps to affect those who are responsible while not further harming the people of Zimbabwe.

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