HL Deb 03 July 2000 vol 614 cc1280-2

2.53 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their assessment of the conditions under which electoral observers worked in Zimbabwe.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of Slate, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the observers were generally warmly welcomed wherever they went in Zimbabwe. They had wide-ranging contacts with the political parties, the local authorities, civil society groups and the Zimbabwe Government. We agree with the assessment made by Pierre Schori, the head of the EU observer mission, that a deliberate attempt was made by the authorities to reduce the effectiveness of both the international observers and the domestic monitors through a series of administrative obstructions. The observers were, however, able to travel freely around the country and did a very good job in reporting on the electoral process in Zimbabwe. Their final reports will be placed in the Library of the House when they are available.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that the fact that polling day itself was relatively well conducted after the mayhem leading up to it is a tribute to the presence of the international observers, and underscores their importance? As the final reports of both the Commonwealth mission and the EU mission are due to be published this week and clearly will contain reference to some of the matters that the Minister has just expressed to the House, will she undertake to ensure that any future international collaboration with Zimbabwe on the economic front will be predicated on a return to the rule of law and, in particular, observance by its government of decisions of the courts?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in the tribute that he rightly paid to the observers. They made a significant difference and we should all be grateful to them for that. I can reassure the noble Lord that the Government continue to feel passionately about the issue of the maintenance of the rule of law. We share with our partners the need to keep that clearly in mind in terms of assessing the development of Zimbabwe and how matters should proceed from now on.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the outcome of the elections in Zimbabwe is a tribute also to the courage of the ordinary voters of that country, many of whom defied intimidation and threats in order to cast their votes in a way which was a tribute to democracy? In view of the extreme importance of the presidential elections in two years' time, will it be possible to work out in advance that electoral monitors will be welcomed and will be allowed to view the election throughout the whole of the country in a way that was not wholly achieved on this occasion, as my noble friend said?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I join wholeheartedly in the tribute that the noble Baroness paid to the people of Zimbabwe. They demonstrated enormous courage in voting in the numbers that they did. It is also a tribute to the international community which gave them the courage to do so; it supported them and enabled them to feel that the world was watching and did not turn away. Electoral monitors obviously played an enormous part. We must look very carefully at what happens in the next two years. If matters do not improve—we passionately hope that they will—everything that the noble Baroness said must be looked at very thoroughly. We shall consider whether the use of monitors should be advocated and when they should go in, but we must wait to see how matters develop.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the nightmare in Zimbabwe is far from over? The situation there—far from being one where we can wait and see—has been described by responsible commentators as "explosive". It is beginning to poison the whole of southern Africa, with investment drying up and a major crisis emerging. Can the noble Baroness reassure the House that everything possible is being done to sew together a responsible alliance of African leaders, which can bring pressure on Mugabe to come to his senses—and, indeed, to hasten his departure—so that the courageous MDC, which did very well in the elections, can have a chance to pursue democracy in Zimbabwe before it collapses completely?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, let me say straightaway that the noble Lord is right: the challenges which lie ahead for Zimbabwe are by no means over. However, we need to respect the voice of the people of Zimbabwe—in the end, it is they who must choose who will lead them—and whether Mr Mugabe goes or stays will depend very much on his behaviour and how it is received by the people of that country. We continue to talk with our African partners about the acute situation in Zimbabwe. We should draw some comfort from what the African leaders are doing and from the conversations they are having. We welcome the initiative started by Mr Mbeki in South Africa. The government there have appointed a team of Ministers to work with their Zimbabwean counterparts in pursuit of economic recovery and stability in the region. Our African partners take this issue very seriously—and rightly so.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the report in the newspapers that the EU Commission, in reporting the elections, felt that the Commonwealth had been rather inadequate in its response to the abuse which occurred?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have not seen that report. However, we were warmed by the amount of support we received across the board for those initiatives and in connection with the anxieties that we were expressing. There was international agreement in that regard. I should not like to voice a criticism of the efforts made by the Commonwealth as a whole, which were significant.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, if it was right for the people of Zimbabwe to have their choice of leader accepted, which choice was made in a broadly fiddled election, why was it wrong for the people of Austria not to be allowed their choice of leader in a free and fair election?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I have said before from this Dispatch Box, Her Majesty's Government do not choose which leaders are elected or appointed by any given country. Austria chose its leaders; Austria will abide by the consequences of that.