HL Deb 05 April 2001 vol 624 cc903-6

3.7 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in establishing the values and objectives for which the Commonwealth stands.

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

My Lords, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group was set up to deal with serious and persistent violations of fundamental Commonwealth principles. It is widely acknowledged to have advanced the values and objectives established in the Harare Declaration, in terms of promoting democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law. CMAG engagement has been particularly effective in encouraging the restoration of constitutional democracy in cases where the legitimate government have been overthrown.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In the particular context of supporting democracy, was the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group satisfied with the response of the Fijian Government to the actions that they took? Is it also satisfied with the proposals for a timetable for a return to elections in Pakistan, starting with local and provincial elections? Furthermore, given the commitment of the Commonwealth to a peaceful resolution of conflict, what is the present situation of the Commonwealth countries—in particular Zimbabwe and Uganda—currently involved in the Democratic Republic of the Congo conflict, with regard to their commitment to withdraw?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked four questions. I shall deal with them in turn. In relation to Fiji, CMAG reacted decisively to the attempted coup and hostage-taking in May 2000. As noble Lords know, it suspended Fiji from the councils of the Commonwealth. Despite initial resistance from Fiji's un-elected regime, CMAG was instrumental in ensuring the appointment of a Commonwealth special envoy. The work of the envoy represented by a respected South African judge has done much. Last week at a meeting with John Battle, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Fiji's caretaker Foreign Minister, Mr Tavola, welcomed the positive nature of CMAG's involvement in Fiji. So that was a positive outcome.

As noble Lords will know, Pakistan is currently suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth in accordance with the rules laid down in the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme. Pakistan's Foreign Minister spoke to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in September last year. Pakistan has since written twice to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, but we still have no firm date for national elections. Pakistan was discussed at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on 19th and 20th. CMAG Ministers urged Pakistan to clarify its position before the October meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Brisbane. If it does not do so, it risks further measures being taken at Brisbane up to and including expulsion from the Commonwealth. That is quite a serious position.

The noble Baroness also asked about Zimbabwe's position in relation to the Congo and the withdrawal. I do not have a clear answer on that issue. I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness about that matter.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, given the latest illiberal set of dictatorial laws issued by President Mugabe, is it not now time that the values and objectives of the Commonwealth were asserted much more vigorously than they have been in the recent past? Since the Foreign Secretary has spoken about the importance of the Commonwealth, is it not time for Britain to take much more of an initiative in modernising and strengthening the Commonwealth's purposes? Finally, do the Government agree with the view of the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth that it does not necessarily follow that the Prince of Wales would be Head of the Commonwealth when the time comes?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have done much to support the values and objectives asserted by the Harare principles. Indeed, we have been very vigorous indeed. The noble Lord will know that it was a British initiative that led to setting up the high level group. It was the British voice which encouraged CMAG to take a more active part. Indeed, at the last CMAG meeting, it was decided that a mission comprising the Foreign Ministers of Barbados, Australia and Nigeria should be sent to Zimbabwe. That was a very clear signal indeed about the Commonwealth's concern. We await to hear what Mr Mugabwe said in response. But to describe the actions that we have been taking as anything less than vigorous is most misplaced. I am surprised that the noble Lord should so describe it.

The choice as to who should be Head of the Commonwealth is a matter for discussion and decision among the 54 Commonwealth countries. But the British Government would expect the Prince of Wales, on the demise of the Crown, to become Head of the Commonwealth if that were the consensus.

Lord St John of Bletso

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the light of the Zimbabwe Foreign Minister's objection to CMAG's planned visit to Zimbabwe, the time has now come for CMAG's mandate to be reviewed to embrace ostensibly democratic countries that are using undemocratic means to stay in power? Here I refer specifically to Zimbabwe.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, noble Lords will know that we have for some time expressed concern about CMAG's mandate. It is currently being considered. CMAG drew up proposals for an expanded mandate, which was considered by the heads of government at their Durban CHOGM meeting. The heads have asked the high level group set up under the chairmanship of President Mbeki of South Africa to consider whether, and if so how, CMAG's mandate should be expanded. There has been a good deal of concern that CMAG's current mandate does not, for instance, include freedom of expression.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the Question specifically refers to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. Can my noble friend say on how many occasions over the past year the group, as a group, has met?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord the exact number of occasions, but he should know that CMAG has concerned itself over a period of time with all those countries that have caused concern. It did sterling work in relation to Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Pakistan and Fiji, and now it is rightfully turning its attention to Zimbabwe. I undertake to provide the noble Lord with a specific answer in relation to the number of occasions on which the group has met, but I can reassure him that the group is active.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, did the Minister say that the high level group had agreed to recommend to the next CHOGM in Brisbane that the remit of CMAG should be extended to states where freedom of expression is under serious threat? Would freedom of expression in that context include religious intolerance, with particular regard to the situation in Pakistan, where the growing menace of sectarian violence threatens the return to democracy?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I did not say that it had determined, but I did say that it had been charged with considering whether and how the mandate should be expanded. Once it has finished that consideration, it will be in a position to present its recommendations to the next CHOGM, where the whole of the Commonwealth will be able to consider whether it is minded to adopt those principles. We hope that there will be some movement.

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