HL Deb 18 May 2004 vol 661 cc647-9

3.6 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consequences they anticipate from the Zimbabwe Government's decision to cut short the United Nations assessment of the food situation and food crops.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the Government of Zimbabwe's cancellation of the joint UN Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission means that there is no internationally accepted estimate of Zimbabwe's harvest. The Zimbabwean claim that they have produced 2.4 million metric tonnes of maize is simply not credible. The UN will continue to monitor the humanitarian situation closely. If food aid is needed later in the year, there is likely to be a serious delay in the international response.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Does she agree that it is now imperative that Her Majesty's Government use their full influence, first with President Mbeki, and then in general with the African Union, to persuade the Zimbabwe Government to change their mind and allow the UN teams back again to report on what will undoubtedly be an extremely dangerous situation? It is widely thought that the Zimbabwe Government have acted in this way in order to bring forward the elections, in the knowledge that only their people will be fed with the food that they control. What action is being taken now, since the elections may well be brought forward to October, to provide international observers in plenty of time? I recognise that it is difficult, but it seems to me that it is vital that we should be acting on this now, and not suddenly being caught short in October.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that in some ways this can be seen as a cynical political manoeuvre on the part of ZANU-PF in terms of politicising food aid and controlling this in the run up to any parliamentary elections. With respect to the issue of international observers, obviously we would be keen to see observers present at those elections, but the noble Baroness will know that they must be there at the invitation of the Zimbabweans, and we are mindful of whether the invitation will come, or whether it will come too late.

With respect to the use of our full influence, the noble Baroness will know, as a result of answers previously given from this Dispatch Box, that we are in touch with our partners in the African Union and with the South African Government, and that we have used our full influence in terms of seeking an understanding of the situation in Zimbabwe. The South Africans are still working on a political solution, but we are not aware of the timescale for that.

Lord Acton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this decision of ZANU-PF may lead to still greater numbers of Zimbabwean refugees striving to get into South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique? What are the reactions of the South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique Governments to this development, and will she remain in touch with them?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we will remain in touch with those governments. At this point, there has not been a public reaction from them with respect to the decision about the UN Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission. There are large numbers of Zimbabwean refugees in those three countries, particularly in South Africa. It is thought that more than 2 million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa. We will continue to work with those governments because we must keep an eye on the issue of refugees.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, the food assessment programme rejected by the Zimbabwean Government is a UN initiative. Does the noble Baroness agree that there can now be no grounds on which the international community can withhold support from a UN motion expressing concern at the threat to the stability of the region?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, will know that we have worked with colleagues in the UN and in the region to bring the issues to the attention of the United Nations. In particular, we have tried to use the different arms of the UN to bring pressure to bear on the Zimbabwean Government. The noble Lord will also know that, every time that the European Union brings a motion relating to human rights before the UN, it is blocked en masse by the African group of countries. There is no widespread political support throughout the region for bringing such issues to the attention of the UN machinery, but we will continue to try.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, if Zimbabwe follows its actions with a refusal to accept international food aid, would it be feasible to arrange food drops, at least in rural areas of Zimbabwe? What plans is the international community putting into place to drive forward arrangements for refugees crossing into neighbouring countries?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, my understanding is that the Zimbabwean Government have indicated that the feeding of the most vulnerable groups—children and so on—can continue through the World Food Programme. The noble Baroness will know that we have our own programme, carried out through NGOs operating in Zimbabwe.

The World Food Programme has indicated that it is prepared to continue its emergency programme beyond June, when it is due to come to an end, and through to September. However, that will have to be done with the agreement of the Zimbabweans, and therein lies part of the difficulty. We will not be able to assess the full scale of the problem until after the harvest, which is much later in the year, in October or November. The lack of an assessment team on the ground will make that very difficult.

The noble Baroness will know that the UN has been looking at the issue of refugees. It has contingency plans in place, but they have not had to be put into effect.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, does the Minister see African governments or any other international organisations coming forward with sufficient election monitors, now that the Commonwealth is no longer a channel?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, of course we hope that African governments will play a role. As the noble Earl knows, the AU has some good norms for the management of elections that we would want to see followed in Zimbabwe. There is a caveat, however, as there is much talk about the particularity of local circumstances. In addition, the SADC parliamentary forum has produced some good guidelines on elections. Unfortunately, the governments have not signed up to them, only the parliamentarians.