HL Deb 30 March 2000 vol 611 cc902-6

3.4 p.m.

Lord St John of Bletso

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are taking to ensure that the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe are free and fair.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we have made clear to the Zimbabwe authorities our hope that the forthcoming elections will be free and fair. We welcome the decision to extend the voter registration period until 31st March. We are currently contributing funds to the Election Support Network, a grouping of NGOs involved in training Zimbabwean election observers.

Lord St John of Bletso

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Does the Minister agree that Zimbabwe is currently facing one of its worst financial crises in its entire history, due in large degree to the military intervention of Zimbabwe in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Is it not the case that President Mugabe is clearly putting his personal interests ahead of those of his country and the civilian population? Against the background of the farm invasions by the so-called war veterans, the fuel and currency crises and the intimidation of opposition political parties, as well as the issue of unequal access to the media, is it not now time for Her Majesty's Government, together with the Commonwealth, to take far sterner action in order to insist that the elections—which are to be delayed until the end of May or possibly until June—are free and fair?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we share the concerns touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, in particular as regards the economic and other developments in Zimbabwe. We will give serious consideration to any request from the Zimbabwean Government for support in the forthcoming elections. However, we would need to ensure that there was sufficient time to establish the minimum conditions necessary for free and fair elections. Many noble Lords will be aware that a UN team of electoral experts visited Zimbabwe last year. The team concluded that a period of six months would be required to make the technical preparations for elections. In the meantime, we are consulting others to see what action the international community can make to ensure that the elections run smoothly. We shall give serious consideration to any request that is made. However, I have to tell noble Lords that, so far, the Zimbabwean Government have not invited the international community to observe the elections. As my noble friend Lady Amos made clear in the debate in your Lordships' House on 22nd March, we would not wish to give legitimacy to a flawed process.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, in pursuit of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, does the Minister agree that the Government of Zimbabwe's recent actions, including the postponement of next month's elections, the threats to kill political opponents and the revelation that many of the farms seized illegally have been distributed to Robert Mugabe's cronies, are not consistent with the Commonwealth's fundamental political values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law? Given those circumstances, will the Government press for the rules of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to be changed to permit the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth? Furthermore, in the meantime, taking into consideration the corruption of the Zimbabwean Government, will the Government freeze the bank accounts of Zimbabwean Ministers and high level officials?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the matter of the farm invasions is serious. There is no question about that. The Government have robustly made known their views on the matter and have been joined in their response by the declaration made by the European Union and many other international countries. However, they do not constitute the serious and persistent violation of the Harare Declaration principles which would demand investigation by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group—CMAG—to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has referred.

We continue to follow events closely. We deplore the ongoing farm invasions. We have made clear to the Zimbabwe Government our concerns about that and our concerns with respect to law and order, human rights issues and the need to restore sound economic policies. The noble Lord looks disappointed, but I have to tell him that there are not yet serious and persistent violations of the principles of the Harare Declaration which would demand an investigation by CMAG. That is the legal reality.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that to talk at this stage of suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth and to argue that the rules of engagement should be changed, as the Opposition now suggest, would simply feed the paranoia of those in Zimbabwe who believe that all the problems stem from outside the country? Is not the test as to whether Zimbabwe should remain in the Commonwealth whether the president accepts the result of the elections when they occur, as in the recent referendum the population of Zimbabwe showed itself not so easily taken in by rhetoric?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I can only reiterate that, like everyone in the House, we hope that the elections are fair and free. Although electoral roll registration has been extended to 31st March, no date has yet been announced for the elections. One presumes that they will slip from April in to May, but no date has yet been announced. At the moment therefore we are all discussing this matter in a slight vacuum.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, we understand, of course, the point that the noble Baroness has made about the Harare principles. However, the continued seizure of land and handing it over to friends of Mr Mugabe is entirely unacceptable. Is there not some way in which we can discuss this matter with some degree of urgency with other leading members of the Commonwealth so that a joint approach can be made to Mr Mugabe, pointing out that if he continues to behave in this fashion the most serious consequences will follow?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the House will not be surprised to hear that we are very much in contact with the leaders of the Commonwealth, as, indeed, with other members of the international community. For example, with our EU partners we initiated discussion which led to a troika démarche in Harare on 14th March on the farm invasions and to the publication of the EU declaration which noted that the farm occupations seriously undermined the right of ownership and the freedoms guaranteed under the Zimbabwe constitution. The important point to add is that this was not only a declaration of the EU. The central and eastern European countries associated with the European Union, the associated countries, Cyprus, Malta and Turkey, the EFTA countries and members of the European Economic Area were all aligned with that declaration. The Zimbabwe Government are left in no doubt about the isolation of their position and their method of proceeding.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that equitable and legitimate land reform to change the status quo is nevertheless essential for Zimbabwe? Will Her Majesty's Government support that?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we have always recognised the need for equitable land redistribution and have to date contributed £44 million to a land reform programme. A noble Lord opposite says the words "serious socialism" from a sedentary position. I do not see why recognising the need for equitable land redistribution in Zimbabwe is a party political point. We remain willing to support a land reform programme that is transparent, fair and cost effective and which contributes to the reduction of poverty in Zimbabwe. These principles were agreed by the Zimbabwe Government and international donors at the land conference held in Harare in September 1998. We are now looking at a number of proposals submitted by the private sector and NGOs. Noble Lords opposite hiss the word "stealing" from a sedentary position. Have they not heard of the compensation arrangements? To date, in spite of all the rhetoric, no land has been taken without compensation.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, will the noble Baroness impress upon the Secretary of State, who will go to Cairo this weekend to attend the Europe/Africa Conference, that he should take these matters up in no uncertain terms on behalf of all those who love Zimbabwe and cannot bear to see what is being done to its ordinary people? I am sorry that the Prime Minister will not now go to Cairo, but it seems to me that we have a good opportunity this weekend, with our European partners, to make a difference. Will the noble Baroness please ensure that that is done?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, is absolutely right that all friends of Zimlx.bwe—that is very much the position of Her Majesty's Government—are extremely upset and concerned about the situation in which Zimbabwe now finds itself. The matter will certainly he taken up with other leaders both in Europe and in the Commonwealth at every opportunity.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the Zimbabwean Registrar General has rejected an offer from the United Nations to assist with the preparation of the register; that the provisional register is not to be produced until the middle of April, and that in those circumstances it is virtually impossible to go through the statutory procedures that would be required for a free and fair election to be held this side of the end of May, in spite of Mr Mugabe's denials that it will spill over until June? Has the noble Baroness seen the reports in a Zimbabwean newspaper about the diversion of aid money running to tens of millions received from China and Libya into the ZANU-PF coffers to help them fight the election? If the Commonwealth Secretariat is not able to send a mission to observe the election, will it at least carry out a study from a distance to see whether it can he deemed free and fair?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raises many different points. I reassure him that we shall all do our utmost to take whatever steps we can to make sure that the elections in Zimbabwe are fair and just.

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Carter

My Lords, we have now reached the 17-minute point of Questions; I think that we should move on.