HL Deb 06 March 2002 vol 632 cc305-16

6.4 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by the Prime Minister in another place earlier this afternoon. The Statement is as follows:

"I should like to make a Statement on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that took place in Coolum, in Queensland, Australia, from 1st to 4th March. In doing so, I want to pay warm tribute to Prime Minister John Howard and the Australian Government for the excellent arrangements made for the meeting; and to John Howard personally for his patient and skilful chairmanship.

"I also want to record how much the presence of Her Majesty The Queen meant to all the heads of government, in this her jubilee year. It was an opportunity for us all to reflect on her remarkable contribution to the Commonwealth over the past 50 years. I shall be pleased to join Her Majesty for the observance service to celebrate Commonwealth Day on Monday, 11th March.

"The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting was due to take place last autumn. It was postponed because of the atrocious terrorist attacks in the United States on 11th September. It was, therefore, entirely fitting that one of the major items of business at this week's meeting was the adoption of a Commonwealth plan of action on terrorism. This focuses on how to help member states, particularly smaller states, fulfil their international obligations in fighting terrorism, including those provided for by UN Security Council Resolution 1373.

"Commonwealth heads of government also adopted the report of the High Level Review Group established at the previous heads of government meeting in Durban in 1999. This broadens the remit of the Commonwealth's ministerial level watchdog, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, beyond the overthrow of democratically elected governments so that it will in future be able to examine crises other than those provoked by a coup d'état; strengthens the good offices role of the Commonwealth Secretary-General; and streamlines the secretariat's structure. Heads also established a High Level Expert Group to report on globalisation to the 2003 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nigeria.

"The high level group report and the plan on terrorism are covered in the Coolum declaration which was agreed by heads of government at the conference. I have arranged for a copy to be placed in the Library of the House.

"These are useful developments, which strengthen the Commonwealth as an organisation committed to promoting democracy and good governance, economic development, and tolerance and racial harmony among its members. It is all the more deplorable, therefore, that one of those members, Zimbabwe, should have a president and a government so clearly violating these core Commonwealth values.

"The current crisis in Zimbabwe was extensively discussed. The violence and intimidation unleashed by President Mugabe in his desperation to prevent an opposition victory in next weekend's presidential elections is totally unacceptable. So is the way in which he made it impossible for EU observers to monitor next weekend's elections, obliging them to withdraw from Zimbabwe so that they could not document the abuses of the election campaign. And there is no doubt about those abuses. Those who are witnessing the campaign and who are still in Zimbabwe detail horrific acts of violence and intimidation.

"President Mugabe pretends that the current crisis has been prompted by the issue of land reform rather than by his determination to stay in power whatever the verdict of the electorate. This is nothing more than a pretext. Successive British governments have made clear their commitment to supporting land reform in Zimbabwe. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary repeated this commitment at the Abuja meeting last September. Indeed, since independence, Britain has provided over £40 million specifically for land reform and more than half a billion in development assistance. But our efforts and those of the wider international community—including the UN Development Programme—have been thwarted by the political intransigence and corruption of President Mugabe and his government. Make no mistake,if President Mugabe had wanted an orderly and just land reform programme at any stage in the past few years, we would have been keen to work with him. He did not. Instead, he has used the land reform issue as an excuse for undermining Zimbabwean democracy. And more than this, his actions have now provoked a grave economic crisis in a country which has the potential to be rich and successful. This is a tragedy for all Zimbabwe's people. The victims of Mr Mugabe are not primarily white; they are the ordinary black citizens, fed up with years of decline and corruption.

"President Mugabe's behaviour was denounced by a very large number of Commonwealth countries at Coolum. And let me make clear that this included outspoken and courageous condemnation by African leaders, who understand very well that the damage President Mugabe is doing harms not only Zimbabwe but Africa as a whole. Despite President Mugabe's propaganda, this is not an issue that divides the Commonwealth on racial lines; nor one that divides Africa from the other Commonwealth members.

"Although there was a strong current of criticism running at Coolum, decisions need to be unanimous. In a body representing over 50 separate nations, there was no realistic prospect of a consensus for suspending Zimbabwe from Commonwealth membership in advance of the elections this coming weekend. But we did agree a statement on Zimbabwe that expressed deep concern about the violence surrounding the current election campaign, and called for free and fair elections. This statement makes provision for Zimbabwe's suspension if the report of the Commonwealth observers currently in Zimbabwe is adverse.

"If the observers' report does indeed find widespread evidence of intimidation and violence, the fudging will have to stop. The credibility of the Commonwealth itself is at stake. The procedures laid down in the Harare Commonwealth Declaration and the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme are clear, and action must follow, up to and including suspension. Let me add that it is a remarkable tribute to the strength of democracy in Zimbabwe that the opposition retain a chance of winning these elections at all. Again, let us be clear: if they do win, President Mugabe must accept the result and hand over power.

"The Coolum meeting provided an opportunity for me to meet a number of African leaders to discuss the New Partnership for African Development. We need to work with Africa, through the G8 and through a wide range of international organisations, to grasp this opportunity for a new start and new hope for Africa. On aid, trade and conflict, I believe we have a real chance for progress, with commitment and leadership on both sides. We will continue to make this a major priority of British policy.

"Coolum also allowed me to meet the heads of government of Commonwealth Caribbean countries. We discussed ways of developing the United Kingdom's relations with them and ways of helping them confront the challenges they face, particularly in countering drugs and terrorism, and in the economic and trade fields. There will be a further opportunity to develop this dialogue at the meeting of the UK-Caribbean Forum in Georgetown, Guyana, next month.

"Finally, I co-hosted with John Howard the Commonwealth sports lunch, where we looked forward to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester this summer and then in Melbourne in 2006.

"I wish to conclude with thanks to my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary for the work he did in preparing for the Coolum meeting, particularly in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. It was a great sadness that, for personal reasons, he was unable to attend the meeting itself. I wish also to record my thanks to my noble friend Lady Amos for the valuable role she played at Coolum".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.12 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement made earlier by the Prime Minister in another place. At the outset, I join the noble and learned Lord and the Prime Minister in commending the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos. One of the best things to come out of the CHOGM was to see a Member of this House doing so well.

I also join the Prime Minister in saying how deeply moving it was to see the affection and respect with which Her Majesty the Queen is held by the leaders of 51 very diverse countries. It was right and appropriate that they dedicated their opening ceremony to thanking Her Majesty for 50 years of service to the Commonwealth.

The critical issue of the conference was to address the rapidly deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. In that, as the Prime Minister has admitted, the conference was a failure for British diplomacy. Is it not regrettable that the Commonwealth, which has established a much respected reputation lately as a guardian of human rights, has in this instance failed? I sense in the Statement an air of complacency about the causes of that failure. To relieve the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe, quiet and persistent diplomacy was needed over a long period to isolate Mugabe, while leaving him in no doubt of the consequences of breaking the rule of law. We have not pursued that diplomatic course. Despite repeated requests from all sides in this House, we have sent false signals to the Mugabe regime by remaining engaged with it long after we should have slammed shut the door on him and all his coterie.

This House, which was forced to endure the absurdity of a government boycott of the democratically elected Government of Austria, has been made to go along with the policy of appeasement of Mugabe, which has completely failed, as the appeasement of a dictator always will. Is not the story of our action—or rather, our lack of action—on Zimbabwe a clear case of too little, too late? Is it not deeply depressing that, by rushing to the barricades at the last minute, we have failed to carry the support even of close allies in the Commonwealth?

Fortunately, in a few minutes, thanks to the Conservative Party, this House has an opportunity to debate the issue—and what could well be an impending disaster in that country—in detail, so I shall say no more, save for one thing. In view of the disturbing reports this morning that white residents in Zimbabwe, many of whom are British citizens, are making contingency plans to flee the country in the event of a Mugabe victory, could the noble and learned Lord tell the House what the Government are doing to address that potential refugee problem and to safeguard British citizens?

I very much welcome the CHOGM declaration on terrorism and congratulate those Commonwealth governments who are actively involved in the fight against it in Afghanistan. In that context, did the Prime Minister raise the continuing plague of terrorism in Northern Ireland and seek assurances from other governments that they will forbid the funding of terrorist organisations in other Commonwealth countries?

What discussion was there at CHOGM of the strong stance taken by President Musharraf of Pakistan against terrorism? I note the decision of CHOGM to maintain Pakistan's suspension from the Commonwealth. Was any message of gratitude or support sent to the president for his stand in this critical battle? In view of the acknowledgement of the improved security situation in Sierra Leone, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House when British troops will finally be withdrawn from that country?

Regrettably, I found no reference in the communiquéé to multilateral trade issues or the question of steel. Did the Prime Minister raise the question of steel at the conference, given the significant Asian production of steel? If not, why not? If he failed to do so, has that not become all the more serious given the success of Mr Mittal's lobbying against British steel exports in the United States?

Finally, is the noble and learned Lord aware—I do not think that he will be—that I consulted the Prime Minister's website this morning and found more information on it about the clothes that he wore than about the Commonwealth conference? In passing, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord knows the opinion of his predecessor as Leader of the House—the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, whom I see in her place—of the Prime Minister's taste in shirt cuffs.

6.17 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I shall not pursue the fashion note of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I am perhaps one of the least suitable people in the House to do so. I add my thanks to the Leader of the House and I commend very warmly the immense contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, whom everyone in the House recognises as an outstanding advocate of her department and of the cause of overseas development. The Commonwealth was lucky to have such a Minister present.

We on these Benches are not among those who would be only too happy to see the Commonwealth disappear. We believe that it has a central importance, as one of the very few global organisations—perhaps almost the only one apart from the United Nations—that links together nations with very different levels of income and wealth and very different racial compositions and unites them in an effort to try to create a better, more prosperous and just world. We would regret any serious damage that was done to the Commonwealth either by itself or by some member states trying to use it as a scapegoat.

I shall come to the issue of Zimbabwe in a moment; first, I have one or two other questions. The Leader of the House said that there was a ringing statement from the Commonwealth about terrorism. At this critical moment in our affairs, I simply wish to draw out the significance of having some clear evidence that Iraq is part of a smoking gun if military action is to be considered against that country—evidence either that it is related to Al'Qaeda or that it has resumed the development of weapons of mass destruction. We on these Benches feel passionately that every possible effort must be made to try to resume inspection. We wish the Secretary-General of the United Nations—who, I understand, is meeting Mr Saddam Hussein today—well in his efforts to try to get that extremely difficult and unhelpful state to again accept its obligations under the United Nations.

On multilateral trade, there is a certain contradiction between what was achieved and stated in the Commonwealth heads of government declaration and what happened only yesterday in respect of US steel import restrictions. It would helpful if the Leader of the House could say whether that matter was discussed at Coolum or whether it was too soon to do so.

As to Sierra Leone, I pay tribute to the Government because it looks as though some kind of rule of law has been re-established in at least part of that country. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can describe the position not only with the withdrawal of troops but how fast Sierra Leone is moving towards becoming a reasonably viable country that is able to resist pressures from some of its neighbours.

We share the Leader of the Opposition's view that Pakistan's president is making a real effort to deal with terrorism and has committed himself to a return to democratic process. Can the Leader of the House say anything about the efforts being made by Pakistan to deal with terrorist organisations in its own country, which clearly threaten peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Can the noble and learned Lord say a word or two about the Commonwealth's position on smaller member states—particularly in respect of the effect of global warming on its most recent member, Tuvalu, which may survive only briefly as a Commonwealth member before it is swallowed up by the waves? What is the Commonwealth trying to do about global warming?

The situation in Zimbabwe is of desperate urgency. We strongly urge the Government to take steps to protect British passport holders, which is obviously the first priority. We would deeply regret it if steps were not also taken to protect some of the extraordinarily brave and courageous men and women in Zimbabwe who have consistently fought for democracy and the rule of law. The only way that they can be protected is if the British Government, with other Commonwealth governments, are willing to press for the opening of the borders with neighbouring countries—Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and others—so that people in Zimbabwe can flee to safety. Part of that has to be a commitment by the United Kingdom to spend the money that never went to land reform to ensure that refugees can be cared for and supported until they can return to the country of their birth and upbringing.

It is absolutely vital that the British Government commit themselves to making money available to protect British passport holders and courageous warriors for democracy, should Mr. Mugabe succeed—or, should his opponent succeed, then be threatened or overthrown as the army has suggested. The army has said some extremely troubling things about his belief in the right of an elected government to govern in a free and democratic country.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Baroness about my noble friend and colleague Lady Amos. She has been in post for only a short period but it is plain to us all how effectively my noble friend has been discharging her duties. I know how pleased she was to have responsibility for Africa as part of her portfolio.

The noble Lord said that the conference was a failure hut I do not agree. The Prime Minister stated unambiguously that he was deeply disappointed at the failure in part to have Zimbabwe suspended. I do not regard the outcome of the conference as a failure. That would be too gloomy. To concede that the conference was a failure would be to do a significant disservice—not least to the ordinary citizens of Zimbabwe.

The noble Lord spoke of complacency and said that we should have been engaged in diplomacy for a long time. We have been. I know myself of the efforts that have been made. It is easy to be an armchair general, sitting safely in this House, without necessarily taking into account the wishes of the MDC and—to echo words of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—its extraordinarily courageous leader. It would be foolish and irresponsible not to pay careful attention to the MDC's past or current views.

I reiterate the Prime Minister's statement that there is still a prospect that the will of the people of Zimbabwe will be freely heard. One wants to be extremely careful—I re-emphasise this without wishing to be offensive—sitting in the comfort that we do, about running risks with loose language and other people's lives, wellbeing and happiness.

The noble Lord asked about British citizens. There is a civil contingency plan but it would be foolish o go into detail. I am perfectly happy, as always, to discuss matters privately with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.

As far as I am aware, there was no discussion of the funding of the Northern Ireland political or other parties.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about President Masharif. I am happy to repeat what the Prime Minister has said publicly on many occasions. President Masharif has been doing remarkable work and taking quite extraordinary personal and political risks. We believe that he is intent on the restoration of full democracy in Pakistan.

As to the question about the president's efforts to deal with terrorism, his record speaks for itself. President Masharif is governing a country that has a significant and strong view about Afghanistan. Large sections of Pakistan opinion seem to be at variance with what President Musharrat is doing and we should commend him for the courage and resolution with which he has been discharging his duties.

Sierra Leone, which was mentioned by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, is a remarkable success story for British diplomacy—more importantly, for the British Armed Forces. They are small in number but extremely professional and have brought about an improvement in that unhappy country that none of us would have been able to contemplate even a short while ago. Sierra Leone is a country where political activity once involved chopping off the limbs of small children.

I refuse to speculate on when our troops might be withdrawn. We hope that elections will come about in the reasonably near future. We must continue to give all appropriate support to Sierra Leone in its quest to recover any sort of internal stability.

I know of no distinct discussion about steel. I would not necessarily have expected there to have been such a discussion. There was of course discussion about global development generally.

I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, does in the mornings. I dare say that he does play with his computer. I am resisting any temptation to undo my cuff. That is all froth. It was amusing and enjoyable but in the context of the seriousness of the occasion, I wonder sometimes about the sense of proportion of my friends in the press. The noble Lord mischievously just encourages them.

The noble Baroness asked about Iraq. She said that before any steps are taken, she would look for some clear evidence. I repeat the Prime Minister's statement in the other place this afternoon that if there were any decisions to be made about Iraq—and I stress and repeat the Prime Minister's remark that no decision has been made—plainly Parliament would properly look for the opportunity to reflect on any decisions that might be made. I repeat my right honourable friend's commitment to that.

Trade was of course discussed. I can confirm particularly that there was a very full discussion about the smaller Commonwealth states. The specific small state which is subject to the consequences of global warming and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred was a particular area of discussion.

I round off in this way, if I may, because I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, who has conscientiously and deliberately pursued these issues for a long time, has a full debate and I do not want to trespass on issues that will be developed and expanded. The meeting was not a failure; it was a disappointment. However, if one is in a co-operative club comprising more than 50 nations, one is never in a position to insist on one's own way on every occasion.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way, and I hope that he will forgive me for intervening. The point that I raised about the refugees and the opening of boundaries could be crucial to so many thousands of lives. I wonder whether he can say anything more about that before he concludes his reply.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was just coming to that issue, which is extremely important but also extremely delicate. The UNHCR has, obviously, a keen interest in the issue. On this occasion, I would prefer to say no more publicly about it than that. It is of course true that the neighbouring states have suffered quite grievously. Not only the citizens of Zimbabwe have suffered; South Africa also has suffered. I do not think that the recent catastrophic drop in the rand—which has partly recovered—was coincidental.

Such behaviour is monstrously irresponsible of a president of Zimbabwe who has had every opportunity of generous outside help, which has been offered time and again by governments of both parties in this country, to resolve the land problem and deal with internal problems. It is monstrously irresponsible of the president of a country that was a net exporter of maize but now has to look, scrabble around and beg for food for its own population. His irresponsibility is not confined to Zimbabwe. He has the potential to damage all the efforts which have been made so laboriously and so generously by the new Government in South Africa to try to create a country in which all are treated fairly.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that, if the Commonwealth is to have influence, it must act unanimously and after careful consideration? Will he perhaps point out to the shadow Leader of the House and to the Leader of the Opposition that the days of Britain acting alone and sending a gunboat up the Zambezi—or of summoning President Mugabe and telling him to do as he is told— are long since passed? If we are to have any influence, it will only be by diplomacy and by working with the other countries of southern Africa.

Will my noble and learned friend also resist the temptation to fall for the line which is peddled at every election that, if President Mugabe wins, there will be a mass exodus of whites? Nothing can do more damage to the future of white Zimbabweans than stories that Britain is preparing for a mass exodus of refugees. The thought could be father to the wish. This is an extremely difficult situation, and to repeat rumours about a mass exodus, as has been done today, will do no one any good.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with enormous authority and experience, as he can say—he never does, but I shall—that for very many years he fought against apartheid in South Africa. So he does know what he is talking about. I agree with him that we cannot be the dictator in a co-operative club. If one tried to do that, it would be worse than a crime, it would be a blunder, because it would be wholly counterproductive. There has been diplomacy, and there is going to be—as the Prime Minister has announced, and repeated in Australia—the prospect of a new partnership of equals with Africa, so that we can properly contribute what we feel we ought generously to do.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, as one who has had the good fortune through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to meet several Zimbabwean Members of Parliament since 1982, may I ask the Leader of the House to confirm what I think he has already said—that an absolutely essential test of membership of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is to have, and to be seen to have, a properly and fairly elected democratic government? I fully note his comment that the elections in Zimbabwe have not yet happened, and I agree that no conclusions should be drawn until they have, but if their result is that Zimbabwe no longer meets that test, we should immediately call for its suspension from the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. If we do not, I believe that it will bring the Commonwealth's quality and purpose seriously into question.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree with the fundamental principle that the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, has expressed—not forgetting, of course, that one cannot really have a free election without a free press. I would not want this occasion to pass without paying very full and very genuine tribute to the press in Zimbabwe, which has had its printing presses blown up and its editors and reporters attacked and threatened. Yet it has continued, in circumstances of such difficulty, danger and fear that we can hardly imagine, to play its part in what is or ought to have been a new democracy.

The mechanism has been established. I agree with the noble Lord that we ought to wait for the results of the election and collate such reports as are available and we can rely on. I think that your Lordships know that President Mbeki, President Obasanjo and Prime Minister Howard are tasked to reach a view on the elections after they have happened. I stress, however—this is not the voice of complacency, weakness or lack of spine—that we need to be very cautious indeed about what we say at the moment. The risk that comes from loose language is not a risk that falls on us.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Statement mentioned help for the Caribbean countries in combating drugs and terrorism. Is the noble and learned Lord aware—I am sure that he is—that a statement was made today on the enormous increase in the number of people in our prisons, and that part of that growth is accounted for by the drug smugglers who are apprehended at Heathrow? I should perhaps add that smugglers are particularly well represented in the increase in the female prison population. Will the noble and learned Lord say a little more about how we intend to help Caribbean countries to combat the practice of smuggling drugs from their territories, and whether we could provide them with particular help based on our expertise in detecting drugs by the use of dogs and other technologies?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes, it was agreed that there should be a regional initiative in the Caribbean area. That is not new; when I was Attorney-General, I had close contact with the Attorneys-General in the Caribbean countries. We are always ready to offer expertise. I agree with the noble Lord that the key to the problem is not at Heathrow but is long before that. It is partly economic development and partly expertise in criminal investigation. It is also, significantly, expertise in money laundering. Thereafter, if there are convictions, it is asset seizure.

I found no difficulty at all in having very productive conversations with my opposite numbers in those countries. My noble friend Lady Amos tells me that her experience is exactly the same. I believe that we have to think laterally and get back to the heart of the problem. There is also very significant co-operation with both Canada and the United States in that area as they have particular interests for obvious reasons.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, if the Prime Minister was disappointed at the Commonwealth summit about Zimbabwe, was he nevertheless enthusiastic about the New Partnership for Africa's Development? If this initiative is to succeed, it must have the Commonwealth's full support. In my view, it is a typical Commonwealth project.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that question—that is the initiative to which I referred earlier, although rather too briefly, bearing in mind that there is going to be a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Blaker. The noble Earl is quite right that this opportunity could be extremely significant. In a curious way—because of the disparate nature, history and origins of the Commonwealth countries—we have this opportunity as an organisation distinct from the United Nations, though plainly in partnership with it, to bring about very significant change. The levels of poverty, deprivation, lack of education, poor health and HIV/ AIDS are disastrous. That is something to which the Prime Minister is personally committed, as your Lordships know.

It is interesting when one talks about the disparate nature of the Commonwealth to remind ourselves that Mozambique joined only recently. We have not had a similar historical connection with that country a s we have had with others, such as South Africa, Nigeria or Zimbabwe.

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