HL Deb 09 May 2002 vol 634 cc1264-7

3.26 p.m.

Lord Freeman

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to respond to President Mugabe's declaration of a "state of disaster" in Zimbabwe.

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

My Lords, the Government of Zimbabwe have been slow to recognise the food crisis and to declare a state of disaster. The Department for International Development saw potential for crisis last year, arising from complex causes including the Zimbabwe Government's ill-managed land reform programme. The situation has now been exacerbated by drought. DfID commenced supplementary feeding programmes through non-governmental organisations in September 2001 and is currently delivering assistance to around 400,000 poor Zimbabweans.

Lord Freeman

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will she accept that, although drought is certainly one factor, some of the causes of the food shortage and possible famine are man-made and are the responsibility of the Zimbabwean regime; for example, the illegal seizure of farm land and the failure to replant? Will the Minister ensure that emergency aid is given direct to the people of Zimbabwe and not through the present regime.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thought that I made it absolutely clear in my original response that some of the responsibility rests on the Government of Zimbabwe, in particular on their land reform programme. Indeed, UNDP last year stressed that it thought that the land reform programme was not sustainable. As to the second question, our bilateral feeding programme uses local NGO networks, churches and schools for distribution and we avoid local government structures to mitigate against politicisation of that process. I am aware that there are concerns. We are concerned that it is difficult to screen out political selection under the World Food Programme process. It is an area which we have picked up with the World Food Programme and which we shall monitor.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the lack of fuel in Zimbabwe may be another reason why food, which must be given as humanitarian aid, cannot be brought to the people who deserve it.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree. Distribution is a problem, not only in Zimbabwe but in other parts of southern Africa which are also facing a crisis in terms of food availability.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, is the conference between Zanu-PF and the M DC, planned for next week on the initiative of President Mbeki and President Obasanjo, still expected to take place? If so, would not one Of the most important issues for discussion be precisely the deplorable agricultural situation? On the commercial farms in particular, it is reported that many animals are suffering very badly and that production has fallen catastrophically.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the next meeting is due to take place on Monday, 13th May. As noble Lords know, these meetings are being held under the auspices of the governments of Nigeria and South Africa. I do not know the agenda for that meeting but I am aware that there are concerns about the growing economic crisis in Zimbabwe. I anticipate that this is one of the issues that particularly the Government of South Africa will want to see addressed.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, do not the Human Rights Forum's shocking statistics—55 deaths and 960 incidents of torture from politically motivated violence between January and April—show what an unsuitable channel for aid is Mr Mugabe and his cronies.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, noble Lords will know that we have condemned all acts of violence in Zimbabwe. We are concerned that there continues to be harassment and violence, particularly towards the opposition. That is why we channel our aid through NGOs. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, we are working with the World Food Programme, which is using local structures, including the chiefs structure, to ensure that any kind of complaint is investigated. If the problems continue, the World Food Programme will consider suspending food aid in those particular areas. We all hope that it will not come to that.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the real disaster in Zimbabwe is the gross abuse of political power and that its victims are the institutions of law and order, religion, culture, the media and the very structures of society that make for any civilised community? Does she further accept that until those issues are addressed there is not a great deal that we can do except ameliorate some of the problems.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that it is important that the institutions of law and order, culture, the media, freedom of expression and human rights should be seen to be observed in Zimbabwe. We have all expressed concern about that. But, as I have said repeatedly in the House, we are dealing with an independent state which, given the economic crisis facing Zimbabwe, clearly does not put the concerns of its own citizens before its need for political power.

Lord Acton

My Lords, I believe my noble friend gave a figure of £400,000. In view of the state of the disaster, is this figure being kept under review and is there any chance of it being increased.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I apologise if I said £400,000; it is 400,000 people. We have committed £6 million for feeding programmes and emergency medical supplies through the UN system.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, has the Minister noted the reports of starvation in Matabeleland in particular? Is she satisfied that by arranging for the distribution of aid through the NGO community an even and fair distribution will occur as between Matabeleland and the rest of the country? Can she say what are the implications for Zimbabwe of the general drought and shortage of foodstuffs in southern Africa as a whole? Will that issue be considered at the G8 summit in June and discussed with NePAD on that occasion.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we and the World Food Programme have people on the ground carrying out assessments. The channelling of money and food for distribution is across the board in Zimbabwe. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right. It is important that we look at all areas in Zimbabwe.

As to the impact on the region as a whole, there is a problem in that we have a food crisis in Malawi and in Lesotho as well as in Zimbabwe. There are shortages across the region. The price of grain has gone up considerably and there are distribution problems. I was at a meeting this morning where we were considering whether or not this issue would be raised in June as part of the G8 Africa action plan, but we have to await developments.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a great deal of food aid is disappearing into the black market? I know that as a fact from a friend who lives there.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we do not have evidence that food aid is disappearing in that way. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord 'Freeman, in our feeding programmes we use local NGO networks, churches and schools for distribution. There have been some isolated incidents of violence and intimidation against distribution workers and attempts by militia groups to affect the targeting of the food. In all cases where that occurred, feeding was suspended pending resolution of the difficulties. As to the World Food Programme, it is committed to investigating all reports, and to resolve them it has deployed additional programme and monitoring staff. Where serious abuse is confirmed it will suspend distribution if intervention at ministry level fails.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, while recognising fully our responsibility to provide humanitarian aid, does my noble friend agree that in doing so we are likely to be propping up the very person who contributed largely to the disaster? Is there not more we can do to ensure that there are fair elections in that country to remove Mugabe from office.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we are totally committed to free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. We have made it absolutely clear that we did not consider the outcome of the last elections to be free and fair. But we cannot punish the people of Zimbabwe.