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Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

3.31 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that took place in Coolum, in Queensland, Australia, from 1 to 4 March. I pay warm tribute to Prime Minister John Howard and the Australian Government for the excellent arrangements 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 provided 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 11 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 11 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. That focuses on how to help member states, particularly smaller states, to fulfil their international obligations in fighting terrorism, including those provided for by United Nations Security Council resolution 1373.

The 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. That report 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. It strengthens the good offices role of the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and streamlines the secretariat's structure.

The Heads of Government 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.

Those useful developments 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 who are so clearly violating those 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 European Union observers to

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monitor next weekend's elections, obliging them to withdraw from Zimbabwe so that they could not document the abuses of the election campaign. 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 no matter what the verdict of the electorate. That is nothing more than a pretext. Successive British Governments have made clear their commitment to supporting land reform in Zimbabwe. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary repeated that commitment at the Abuja meeting in Nigeria last September. Indeed, since independence Britain has provided over £40 million specifically for land reform, and over £0.5 billion in development assistance.

However, our efforts, and those of the wider international community—including the United Nations Development Programme—have been thwarted by the political intransigence, and indeed corruption, of President Mugabe and his Government. Make no mistake, Mr. Speaker: 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, the actions have now provoked a grave economic crisis in a country that 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. Again we should make it clear that this included outspoken and courageous condemnation by African leaders who understand very well that the damage that President Mugabe is doing harms not only Zimbabwe but Africa as a whole. Despite President Mugabe's mob propaganda, this is not an issue that divides the Commonwealth on racial lines—not 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 at the Heads of Government meeting, and in a body representing more than 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. That 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 even a chance of

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winning those 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 that we have a real chance for progress, with commitment and leadership on both sides. We will continue to make that 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 to confront the challenges that they face, particularly in countering drugs and terrorism, and in the economic and trade fields. There will be a further opportunity to develop that 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 hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary for the work that 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, but I wish also to record my thanks to my noble Friend Baroness Amos for the valuable role that she played at Coolum.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): May I join the Prime Minister at the outset in recording my pleasure at the presence of Her Majesty at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting during her jubilee year? As the Prime Minister so rightly said, the leadership and service that she has given to the Commonwealth over the last 50 years is admired and respected by very many people around the globe, and I, like him, look forward to the observance service on 11 March. I also welcome the adoption of the action plan on terrorism, and that part of the Coolum communiqué that reaffirms the principles of working to reduce poverty through the Commonwealth institutions.

However, no hon. Member can be satisfied with the outcome of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting regarding Zimbabwe. What the Prime Minister said in condemning Mr. Mugabe is quite right, and I associate myself with all those statements criticising him and accusing him of all the things that he has done. This is not about black versus white in Zimbabwe, and it never has been; it is about everyone in Zimbabwe suffering under a tyrant who has thrown out the rule of law and democracy. However, the suggestion that the Commonwealth might in due course merely voice "collective disapproval" at the actions of the Zimbabwe Government is only the latest in a litany of laughable and inadequate responses that have too often let Mr. Mugabe off the hook.

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Last October, the Prime Minister publicly told his party that there must be "no tolerance" of

Those were rightly tough words, yet, sadly, the Government have in their actions too often appeared to tolerate his activities. The Abuja agreement did nothing to stop the violence and intimidation practised by Mr. Mugabe's regime, yet it was greeted by the Foreign Secretary as "a positive step forward" and, despite evidence that Mr. Mugabe was ignoring it throughout, no action was taken.

We were not alone in voicing our concerns. In September last year, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai—a very brave man—called for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the Commonwealth if Mugabe breached the law on land reform. The British Government never publicly set any such benchmark. In fact, it was a further three months before the Commonwealth declared that the situation in Zimbabwe was a "serious and persistent violation" of its fundamental principles.

Why did it then take the Foreign Secretary and the Government another three weeks after that long delay finally to recommend that Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth? In the four months taken to get to that point, Mr. Mugabe's regime of terror continued unabated and very well reported, yet my concern was that the Government dithered: they seemed to hide behind the claim to be working within the European Union, yet Europe, too, was dragging its feet.

It was not until 28 January—only five weeks ago—that the Foreign Secretary was able to say that the EU's position on sanctions was "clear, unambiguous and unanimous". Even then, it took another three weeks and the expulsion of the head of the EU observer mission for sanctions to be imposed. People such as Mr. Mugabe clearly feed off that kind of indecisiveness. It is no wonder that—despite the Prime Minister's best efforts, which we support, in Brisbane—he could not persuade his Commonwealth colleagues to take action against Zimbabwe. As far as they were concerned, the British Government only decided to support suspension just under two months ago.

It could all have been very different. If there had been real leadership throughout, from whatever source, the Commonwealth would have sent a much stronger message, and one that we would have done well to learn.

The lesson is that we must not repeat that failure, and the Prime Minister therefore needs to answer some important, key questions about the future action that the Commonwealth may or may not take.

First, will the Prime Minister guarantee Morgan Tsvangirai the full support of the British Government—whether he wins or loses—not just now, but in the difficult months ahead? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to the House that the transparency of Sunday's election will be judged on the criteria laid down by the Southern African Development Community in March last year? Thirdly, does he agree that, if those forces opposed to democracy continue their terrible destruction of Zimbabwe, an international coalition composed of the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe and the Commonwealth should take all necessary steps to secure a safe future for Zimbabwe?

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The Commonwealth's statements on Zimbabwe and Mugabe this past weekend have been weak and ineffectual, and we must ensure that a much stronger and clearer message goes out to Zimbabwe. I served in Zimbabwe when we brought about the transition to the current Government back in 1979–80—so I need no sedentary lectures from Labour Members, who have done nothing but mouth off—and the high hopes of those days are now being destroyed. The Government's policy and those of the Commonwealth now read like a text book on how not to deal with a tyrant. The Government talk a lot about leading in Europe and leading in the Commonwealth. They have not yet done so—perhaps now is the time for them to pull this situation back before it is too late.

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