HL Deb 25 April 2001 vol 625 cc197-9

2.59 p.m.

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their reaction to the report of the mission of the International Bar Association to Zimbabwe about the situation of the judiciary and legal system of that country.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the report by the International Bar Association makes depressing reading. It reflects mounting international concern at the Government of Zimbabwe's blatant disregard for the rule of law and their policy of intimidating the hitherto independent judiciary. The Government of Zimbabwe have so far ignored international calls for them to take action to implement the rule of law. For the sake of the Zimbabwean people, who are clearly suffering, we hope that they will not ignore the recommendations made by such an eminent body as the IBA.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the mission was organised by the IBA's Human Rights Institute, of which Nelson Mandela is president? As the noble Baroness has said, the mission included senior judges and lawyers from Commonwealth countries and one from the United States. It concluded: Conduct committed or encouraged by government ministers has put the rule of law in Zimbabwe in the gravest peril and the very fabric of democracy at risk". It went on to say: This cannot be justified by the need for social justice". What action is being taken by the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the European Union, in all of which the United Kingdom is an influential member?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, all those agencies are trying to exert appropriate pressure on Zimbabwe to behave well. The noble Lord will know from questions that we have had in the House before that it is hoped that a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group delegation will be sent to Zimbabwe to discuss the issues with the Zimbabwe Government and Mr Mugabe in particular. No response to that idea has yet been received, but the Commonwealth Secretary-General has recently been in touch with the Government of Zimbabwe about the proposed ministerial mission. It is for him and for the Ministers involved from Barbados, Nigeria and Australia to agree on the timing. Internationally we are doing all that we can to bring pressure to bear on the issue. Tragically, it does not appear to be bringing the response that we would like from Mr Mugabe.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be highly desirable for the October Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Brisbane to have before it a report on the state of the law and the judiciary in Zimbabwe even if CMAG is not able to send a mission? With that in mind, would it be possible for the Commonwealth Secretariat to ask the United Nations rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to compile a report for the CHOGM, regardless of whether he is able to visit Zimbabwe for that purpose?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, there may be much merit in the latter part of the noble Lord's question. It is hoped that the CMAG delegation will be able to go. If it cannot go, it will make the appropriate report in Brisbane when the issue is considered. At that point the whole Commonwealth will be able to consider where we go from there. This is an important step. We hope that Mr Mugabe and his Government will see the merit in receiving a delegation, which will include representatives from Barbados, Nigeria and Australia, and will allow them to have proper discussions with him.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness's answers. Has President Mugabe been reminded that in a democracy it is vital that the judiciary should be free from political interference of any kind?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, that issue has always been clear. The independence of the Zimbabwean judiciary has always been impressive. They have been extraordinarily brave and robust to date. We must commend their bravery. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith participated in the trip and I understand that the issues to which the noble Lord referred were raised with Mr Mugabe.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this telling report, in which, as she says, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, played an important part, carries two powerful messages? The first is that the matter of Mugabe's behaviour is not a white issue or an ex-colonial issue, but concerns everyone in the world who loves liberty and justice. The second clear message from the report is that the one thing that Mr Mugabe really fears and will be moved by is well directed international action. In the light of the conclusive arguments in the report on that point, is it not time to be a little more vigorous than simply relying on critical dialogue and to take some of the steps suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others in the CHOGM and all the other international institutions in which Britain has considerable leverage? We have not yet used that leverage in relation to this problem.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord says that the Government have not really used their influence. There are those who say that we have used it too much and that the criticisms that have been made of Zimbabwe really represent the voice of Britain, not that of the international community. We know that that is wrong. Britain has been at the forefront among a number of equals in our clear condemnation of what is happening in Zimbabwe. We have put a lot of energy into making sure that Mr Mugabe knows how strongly the international community condemns what is happening and he has heard us. That is why he has been so critical of our involvement.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, the Minister is no doubt aware that paragraph 12.3 of the report of the International Bar Association says that the Attorney General of Zimbabwe did not consider the intimidation of judges an offence. Do the Government consider that an acceptable application of the rule of law? If not, what representations will they make?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have made clear representations. It is of interest and importance to note what the acting Chief Justice said. I cannot immediately find the reference in the report, but I shall paraphrase his comments. He has made it clear that he saw no reason for any of the judges currently sitting to be removed. We have a clear indication that the judicial integrity and robustness of the judges remains unchanged. All the issues that have been highlighted will continue to be pursued with the Zimbabwean authorities.

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