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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 March 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--


1. Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): When he next plans to meet the Zimbabwean high commissioner to discuss the rule of law in Zimbabwe. [154087]

3. Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire): What plans he has to visit Zimbabwe to discuss human rights; and if he will make a statement. [154089]

8. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): If he will make a statement on the situation in Zimbabwe. [154094]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): We deplore the escalating attacks on human rights in Zimbabwe. Of particular concern has been the enforced retirement of the Chief Justice following threats to his life; the destruction of the printing press of the only independent daily newspaper; the expulsion of foreign journalists for criticising the regime; and the continuing political intimidation, which has claimed more than 40 lives in the last 12 months.

In view of the deteriorating standard of human rights, we have decided that Zimbabwe is no longer an appropriate base for the British military team that provides regional training in peacekeeping. It will have left by this weekend.

We were successful in securing a statement from last week's meeting of Commonwealth Ministers recording our common concern at the intimidation of the judiciary and the media. The meeting agreed to send a ministerial delegation to Zimbabwe to convey our collective concerns and to prepare advice for Commonwealth Heads of Government.

Britain will continue to take every responsible step, both bilaterally and through the Commonwealth, the European Union and the United Nations, to impress on the Government of Zimbabwe the fact that their behaviour

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is unacceptable by modern standards and denies the people of Zimbabwe the freedom, the safety and the rights to which they are entitled.

Mr. Fallon: Given that the Mugabe regime is now flagrantly abusing human rights, as the Foreign Secretary described, is it not time to admit that the policy of deploring and issuing statements--all the ethical posturing--has failed? Is it not time to put serious pressure on the regime by freezing the assets of the corrupt Government, banning travel by Mugabe's associates and getting tough with that regime?

Mr. Cook: May I remind the House and the hon. Gentleman of what we have done in the past year? We have imposed an arms embargo on Zimbabwe; we have stopped the supply of Land Rovers to the Zimbabwean police; and we have cut the aid that we give to Zimbabwe and focused entirely on humanitarian aid, such as combating AIDS. We have used the Commonwealth to condemn what has been happening in Zimbabwe and to send observers to the elections; we now have dialogues with the European Union under the Cotonou agreement, which provides the possibility of restricting aid to Zimbabwe.

That is a formidable list of action that has been taken. On the question of freezing assets, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Emergency Powers Act 1964 makes provision for us to freeze assets only where there is a threat to the welfare of the United Kingdom. It has been used only twice since 1964--once against Iraq and once against Argentina, and on both occasions we were at war with those countries. That is the very reason why the previous Conservative Government considered the question, but ruled out an assets freeze against General Abacha, when he was in power in Nigeria.

Mr. Townend: This is not just a case of harassment of the opposition and the judiciary; we are talking about murder and torture. If the Government really have an ethical foreign policy, why are they not proposing that Zimbabwe be suspended from membership of the Commonwealth? Why are they not suspending unilaterally British economic aid? Why do they not declare Mugabe to be guilty of gross abuse of human rights and arrange for him to be arrested if, like Pinochet, he sets foot in the European Union or Britain? If the Foreign Secretary will not do that, is it not a sign of double standards? Will he accept that a large proportion of the Zimbabwean population are a lot worse off now than they were under Ian Smith?

Mr. Cook: I welcome the first statement that I have heard from a Conservative Member in support of our action on General Pinochet; I note that that is another Conservative U-turn. We have unilaterally suspended economic aid to Zimbabwe, and now provide no aid to the Government themselves. We have pared aid by one third, and now provide it to those who are suffering from HIV, to try to combat AIDS and provide clean sanitation in the villages of Zimbabwe. For the life of me, I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman imagines we would increase pressure on President Mugabe if we withdrew that support for the poor people of Zimbabwe.

Mr. O'Brien: In the context of the Foreign Secretary's withered so-called ethical foreign policy, and in the light

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of the terrifying and unjustified expulsion of the BBC correspondent, Joseph Winter--along with his wife Anne-Marie and their baby daughter Anenti--who reported that

does the Foreign Secretary accept that Mr. Mugabe is both responsible for and presides over a tyrannical regime?

Mr. Cook: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and fully endorse his description of the expulsion of the BBC journalist, about which we have protested vigorously, and shall continue to do so. The Harare declaration provides clear principles for the rule of law, freedom of speech and democratic principles. Plainly, but ironically, Zimbabwe itself is now in breach of that declaration.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): In condemning again the Mugabe regime's thuggery, murders, intimidation and its playing of the race card, does my right hon. Friend not agree that such condemnation best comes from those who have always attacked tyrannies--not the Opposition who, time and again, have defended previous tyrannies in South Africa and been apologists for Pinochet and his murderous regime? We need no lectures from Tory Members.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. To sharpen the point, the House and those on the Opposition Benches might wish to recall that it was the Conservative Government who presided over the government of Great Britain at the time of the Matabeleland massacres, which led to the killing of 10,000 people in Zimbabwe and took place over a period of two or three years, during which there was not a word of criticism from any Minister. There was no cut in overseas aid--on the contrary, Lady Thatcher increased aid by £10 million at the time of the massacres. No attempt was made to use the Commonwealth against Zimbabwe at the time. It is no wonder that President Mugabe let it be known that he was grateful for the British Government's restraint. In the light of their inactivity at the time, it is rich hypocrisy on the part of the Conservative Opposition to criticise us for not doing more.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that consistency requires that Zimbabwe should be treated the same as any other Commonwealth country that was found to be intimidating judges, expelling independent journalists and seeking to use intimidation and other weapons of repression against its political opponents? A Government adhering to the principles of the Harare declaration of 1991 would not have anything to hide. In those circumstances, does not the refusal of the Mugabe Government to receive a mission of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers tell us all that we need to know?

Mr. Cook: I agree absolutely with the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend. We will not accept it the first time President Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe says no. I welcome the statement by the Secretary-General that he will continue to press for the delegation to be received. The reason that the Zimbabwe Government seek not to receive

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it is that they know full well what a serious step it is for Commonwealth Foreign Ministers to agree to send a delegation. I hope that they will stop pretending that this is all a British conspiracy, when it was a decision taken unanimously--unanimously--by eight representatives of Commonwealth countries representing those members of the Commonwealth charged with keeping close tabs on violations of human rights. I believe that the delegation must be met. If not, that will send a strong signal to all the Commonwealth countries.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): I do not recall the Labour Opposition of the late 1980s fulminating much about Mr. Mugabe, either.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Mr. Mugabe was presented with a massive propaganda coup when he was received in state recently by the Prime Minister of Belgium and the President of France? The Foreign Secretary has said that written advice was given to the Belgian Government. Will he publish that advice? Is he aware that Belgian MEPs are saying that not only did the British Government appear unconcerned about the visit, but that they were privately supportive of it? What does that shabby episode say about the Foreign Secretary's willingness to stand up for ethical values, and what does it say about his influence with our European partners?

Mr. Cook: I have no problems with publishing the advice, which I will happily send to the right hon. Gentleman and place in the Library. It set out the scale of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. We have since been advised by the Foreign Minister of Belgium that in the course of the meeting the Prime Minister of Belgium pressed President Mugabe to end the occupation of the farms, to allow foreign journalists to return and to stop the intimidation of the Chief Justice. I am glad that I provided the advice. It was plainly useful in the exchanges.

Mr. Maude: The effect of those visits was to give Mugabe a propaganda coup, and the Foreign Secretary should admit it. If the Commonwealth ministerial action group is prevented from undertaking its mission in Zimbabwe, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, without hesitation, he will press for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth? Will he urge the imposition of travel bans and criminal investigations of those of Mugabe's henchmen who sustain him in his murderous and repressive regime? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that, yes, there is a case for quiet diplomacy, but that there is no case for supine inaction?

Mr. Cook: I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has been listening to the exchanges that have taken place so far, and I am quite clear that he wrote that last line before he heard them. I have retailed to the House exactly the action that we took, which provides clear, sharp contrast with the inaction of the Conservative Government during the Matabeleland massacres. In the event of President Mugabe persisting in his refusal to see the delegation from the Commonwealth ministerial action group, we will consider that with our colleagues. We are committed by the statement that we adopted last week to provide advice to the Heads of Government, and plainly that will have to be reflected in any advice that we offer.

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On the issue of suspension from the Commonwealth, I invite the right hon. Gentleman to reflect carefully on that before repeating it. I believe that the most practical thing that we have done in Zimbabwe in the past year is the deployment of Commonwealth observers during last year's parliamentary elections. That was warmly welcomed by the democratic opposition, who said that it had curbed the worst excesses of the Mugabe regime. If we suspended Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, the net effect would be that we could not provide Commonwealth observers when President Mugabe comes up for re-election next year. I do not see how it would help anybody in Zimbabwe for us to be unable to provide observers, which would give Mugabe an even clearer run at re-election.

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