HL Deb 06 November 2001 vol 628 cc126-8

2.44 p.m.

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made through the Commonwealth, the European Union, the United Nations and other international bodies in arranging for independent observers to monitor the forthcoming presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

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

My Lords, thus far the Government of Zimbabwe have not agreed to allow in independent international observers for the presidential election. We continue, through the Commonwealth, the European Union and other concerned members of the international community, to press the Government of Zimbabwe to accredit international election observers in good time for next year's presidential election. At Abuja, President Obasanjo of Nigeria agreed to raise the issue personally with President Mugabe. We welcome that.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the rule of law in Zimbabwe has been destroyed and that last week that once rich agricultural country was reduced to asking for famine relief'? Is she also aware that the question of observers is now becoming urgent because the elections could occur as early as next January? It is essential that observers are in place well before the elections take place because during that period it is likely that intimidation will occur and biased electoral arrangements will be put in place. That, at least, as the noble Baroness no doubt knows, is the clear lesson of the parliamentary elections held in Zimbabwe last year.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, knows, we remain concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe and, in particular, about the rule of law there. The question of international election observers has been raised with the Government of Zimbabwe through the Commonwealth and the European Union. I am aware that the United States has raised the matter with the Government of Zimbabwe, as have SADC members. As the noble Lord said, we want to see international observers in Zimbabwe in good time in order to ensure that the violence and intimidation which have marred other elections do not mar the forthcoming election. However, I must say to noble Lords that, if the Government of Zimbabwe refuse to invite international observers, the job will be made much more difficult.

With regard to the issue of food aid, the Government of Zimbabwe confirmed to donors on 23rd October that their country faces a major shortfall in maize and they appealed for donor support.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, considering that the Zimbabwean Government may well not give the lead for official observers to attend, will the international community consider sanctions? I do not refer to sanctions which are aimed at aid to the poorest people in Zimbabwe but to sanctions which, for example, freeze the bank accounts of those in the regime and their families.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we continue to talk to our international partners about a range of measures in relation to Zimbabwe. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will know that last week the EU agreed to move to Article 96 consultations. I agree entirely with the noble Lord that, in considering in the long term any move to sanctions, we need to put the interests of the people of Zimbabwe first. Concerns have been expressed in the region about the possible economic impact of such action. Therefore, with regard to the noble Lord's specific point about the freezing of bank accounts, we would certainly not want to take any kind of unilateral action. We want to work with our international partners and to see exactly what happens over the next few weeks.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we have gone through this before and that, on the previous occasion, the only effect of putting observers in place was to give a sort of skin of respectability to a regime which is clearly corrupt and where the chances of a fair election are nil?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, perhaps I should remind the House that Zimbabwe is an independent country. We are doing all that we can through working with our international partners, our partners in SADC, the Commonwealth and the European Union. We are also working closely with the United States. It is not clear to me what action the noble Lord considers that we in the United Kingdom can take that will prevent the Government of Zimbabwe behaving in this way.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is it not a fact that the SADC countries have laid down the most detailed rules for promoting fair and free elections and for the processes leading up to those elections? Is it not also the case that Zimbabwe has signed the document agreeing those rules? Therefore, is there not an opportunity for the other countries of southern Africa, with much more vigorous support from us than has been the case thus far, to put pressure on Zimbabwe to develop some kind of fair elections before frenzied looting and the collapse of the rule of law finally destroy that country completely?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I entirely agree with that. SADC leaders visited Zimbabwe on 10th and 11th September, and they shared their concerns with President Mugabe. They intend to have a follow-up visit. At Abuja we discussed our concerns about the situation in Zimbabwe with our Commonwealth partners. I myself participated in the follow-up visit. We made our concerns clear to the Zimbabwean Government. Until they begin to put concerns about their own people first, I say again that we cannot force them to have international election observers.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there are severe dangers in the current situation? The current difficulties have been exacerbated by the strident calls for severe action, but no one has spelt out what that means. Does she also agree that views have to be expressed to President Mugabe perhaps more stringently than previously, and especially through his friends? One difficulty that my noble friend has as a Minister is that she has to work through the Commonwealth. Frankly, the statement by the Commonwealth mission that recently went to Zimbabwe makes it clear that it received conflicting reports of violence and intimidation. That does not work. What mechanism—I ask this genuinely—can there be to find out precisely what is happening, instead of relying too much on hearsay, as often happens?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that there are dangers in the current situation. I am aware that, to use my noble friend's phrase, the friends of President Mugabe have been involved in discussion and conversation with him for some time. On my noble friend's suggestion of a mechanism to deal with conflicting reports, a UNDP mission will go to Zimbabwe in mid-November. It will spend considerable time in the country finding out exactly what is happening on the ground. The intention is that that mission will include representatives from the EU, the Commonwealth and the United States. My hope, which I believe is shared by the international community, is that when its report is published, any concerns that it expresses will be seriously taken up by the Zimbabwean Government.