Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 6)




  1. Foreign Secretary, may I welcome you and your colleagues to the Committee? I see Mr Mark Lyall Grant, Mr Kim Darroch and Mr Stephen Wright. The agreement is that we start with some questions on Zimbabwe. The Committee will be meeting Baroness Amos next Wednesday for a fuller coverage of Zimbabwe. We then go on to preparations for Laeken and there will be a debate in the House today for which these questions will be highly relevant. We then go on for the remaining part of the morning to the foreign policy aspects of the campaign against terrorism. Clearly, we see that the crisis in Zimbabwe mounts both politically and economically. We have the land expulsions, the rule of law threatened with friendly judges appointed, the free press challenged and manipulation of preparations for the presidential elections in March. On the economic side, inflation and unemployment climb. Half a million Zimbabweans face hunger and a fall in investment confidence which affects the region as a whole with the South African rand falling to historically low levels. When you attended the Abuja summit on 6 September, you welcomed that agreement. Do you now admit on reflection that you and your colleagues were in effect taken in, played along, to gain time before the Commonwealth summit, the CHOGM meeting at Brisbane, and it is now clear that President Mugabe had no intention to change and no intention to honour the promises made on his behalf at Abuja; he has now had his chance and now is the time for the international community to take tougher decisions?

  (Mr Straw) I do not accept the assumption behind your question at all. We all went into the Abuja negotiations with our eyes open. The crucial thing that I said, once the Abuja text had been agreed in the hotel in Abuja, was that we would judge its effectiveness by whether it was put into action, not by the words on paper. If you are asking me were those negotiations worthwhile, yes, they were very important and they remain very important.

  2. Do you accept that President Mugabe had no intention of honouring the agreement?
  (Mr Straw) Let me deal with why they were important and then I will deal with what was in President Mugabe's mind. They were important in two respects. First, in breaking out of the parody that President Mugabe and the others in Zanu PF had tried to erect, that what he was involved in was a bilateral dispute between the old colonial, imperialist power, the United Kingdom, and the former colony, once Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and that all the problems which had faced Zimbabwe to an increasing degree over the last 20 years could be placed at our door step. We changed that from it being seen as a bilateral dispute to being a multilateral dispute, critically, one in which South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, along with Jamaica and then Australia, Canada and ourselves were involved. Secondly, we laid down in the Abuja text a clear framework for judging whether progress was going to be made in Zimbabwe following it and for judging the behaviour of the Zanu PF Mugabe government. Both of those are very important. Do I believe that Abuja has been followed? No. I said exactly that in the House last Tuesday in parliamentary questions. There is little in the Abuja text that has been followed. What has happened as a result of Abuja, however, is that international pressure on a multilateral basis on Zimbabwe has intensified and I do not believe that that would have happened without Abuja. To cast my mind back to June/July, there was hesitation inside the European Union as to whether action should be taken under the Cotonou Agreement to move from Article 8 to Article 96. Indeed, although we thought there was a good case for moving straight to Article 96 that was not a general view and it was agreed therefore to give the Zimbabweans another few months. The result of Abuja and what has not happened since then was that, when this came before the GAC on 29 October, they reached this agreement that we should move to Article 96. And, more importantly, the move to do that was led by the Netherlands and Finland, not by ourselves. This was widespread recognition of the problem. Secondly, within the Commonwealth, the failure by President Mugabe and Zanu (PF) to implement the spirit of Abuja and its letter in terms of the restoration of the rule of law has led to increasing frustration elsewhere in the Commonwealth. I called a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministers Action Group, CMAG, on Monday. As it turned out, it had to be an informal meeting on the telephone because Nigeria was unable to take part, but six members of CMAG took part in this, all very concerned indeed about the situation. We have agreed to meet in London in the week beginning 17 December. The date is still to be agreed.

  3. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is likely to meet roughly at the time that the 75 days under the Cotonou Agreement expire.
  (Mr Straw) No; in advance of that. The 75 days expire in January, but it is up to 75 days. Cotonou says you have 15 days to give notice of the shift from Article 8 to Article 96 and up to 60 days for confirmation.

  4. What proposals by way of sanctions would you and the British Government favour?
  (Mr Straw) I am not going to speculate about what exact sanctions we may or may not favour because for me to speak publicly about that without agreement of colleagues would be to re-bilateralise the matter. One thing, however, I would rule out is economic sanctions against Zimbabwe because they would not hurt the leadership of Zimbabwe; they would hurt the people of Zimbabwe who have already suffered.

Sir John Stanley

  5. Foreign Secretary, I think you would agree that one of the very few bright features of the situation in Zimbabwe is the limited remaining number of extraordinarily brave journalists who are doing their best to uphold press freedom and objective press reporting in that country. You will also be aware that the Zimbabwean Government has introduced their Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, so-called, under which all journalists in Zimbabwe are going to be made subject to a one year, renewable licence, renewable by the state. You will also be aware, because you have reacted to it, that President Mugabe has threatened to dub individual journalists, including some British journalists, as "terrorists" which potentially carries the death penalty in that country. Against that background, could you tell the Committee what steps the British Government is taking through the international community to make it absolutely clear to President Mugabe that attempts to shackle, intimidate and carry out any extra judicial action against the remaining independent journalists in Zimbabwe will be regarded as absolutely unacceptable?
  (Mr Straw) I entirely share your view about the absolute unacceptability of what Zanu PF have done here. It is further evidence of their desire to rig the system and further evidence of their desperation about the degree to which, over the last five or six years, they have patently lost popular support. They are now trying to reinforce what support they have by the usual methods of people who are desperate undemocratically to cling on to power. There were two big moves. One was to brand a number of journalists—who are not foreign citizens; they are Zimbabwe citizens who are working for foreign newspapers—as assisting in terrorism, which was preposterous, and then to bring in this new law which is designed to license journalists presumably on the basis of good behaviour as far as Zanu PF is concerned. I issued a very strong statement against that and made protests to the government in Zimbabwe through our High Commissioner, Brian Donnelly. What you by implication raise is the bigger question of what can the United Kingdom do unilaterally about these things. We do not run Zimbabwe. It is an independent state and, in the ultimate analysis—

  6. I said internationally.
  (Mr Straw) Internationally, we use this to build up the case against Zimbabwe very strongly, particularly with the African nations. You will have seen remarks from President Mbeke of South Africa which are increasingly critical and hostile to the Zimbabwe regime. That is of very great importance in the politics in southern Africa. Those remarks are reflected by similar concerns by the government of Botswana. It was the Foreign Minister of Botswana who chaired this teleconference that we had on Monday and there is a delegation, as he was telling me yesterday, from SADC, the Southern African Development Community, which is going back to Harare on 10 or 11 December.

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