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9.46 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): The whole House has agreed that the situation in Zimbabwe is a terrible tragedy. The Mugabe regime is systematically wrecking its economy, brutalising its people, stealing elections and causing enormous suffering to its people. The situation is likely to get much worse in the next few months, and I fear that there will be a very serious famine.

There is agreement across the House, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, but the difference between us and Her Majesty's official Opposition is that they seem to have forgotten about power so quickly that they think that there is a magic wand that can put the situation right. They believe that Her Majesty's Government have the power to go in anywhere in the world to stop the disgraceful wreckage of an economy such as that carried out by the Mugabe regime, which gets ever worse as time goes by. The UK does not have that power—if only—and we never did.

The Opposition motion

In fact, we have been doing just that since 1997. I say to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) that I have attended to the situation in Zimbabwe weekly—maybe fortnightly—ever since 1997. It has gone from bad to worse. I knew how bad it was in 1997—there was not a genuine programme of land reform—but no one could have predicted this wreckage or that anyone would do that to their country. We tried to take step after step, but it has got worse. There has not been a failure of attention or a failure to take action.

The truth is that we cannot fix everything across the world in every tragic situation. We have to do all that we can, whenever we can. To pretend that we can fix it when we cannot is dishonest, and is no help to the people of Zimbabwe or anyone else. We have led in building the

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international coalition that has left Zimbabwe increasingly isolated. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are no longer disbursing funds in Zimbabwe. Denmark and the Netherlands are withdrawing from it, and most other EU states are providing limited assistance through non- government channels. The European Commission is not disbursing the ninth European development fund programme. Zimbabwe is suspended from the Commonwealth and the elite face sanctions from the EU and the US.

All that is equivalent to an international coalition putting pressure on the Government of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, it has not halted the Mugabe regime's determination to wreck its economy. Even today, when the country faces famine, further action is being taken to prevent farmers from farming. It is unbelievable that any Government, whatever their motivation or lack of decency, would go on wrecking and wrecking like that. The international community is doing all that it can to stop that. We share the Opposition's frustration. We have given Zimbabwe a high priority and we shall continue to do that.

Remember the Balkans and how long it took to deal with Milosevic. Remember the unilateral declaration of independence. A Labour Government under Harold Wilson were in power then. They were determined to prevent UDI and bring Zimbabwe to democracy, and they were not always fully supported by Conservative Members. In the end, Zimbabwe came to democracy and it will return to it. I fear that that will happen through famine; the rage that it causes in the country will ultimately tear down the regime. There will be horrendous suffering in the process, and we must do everything in our power to relieve it as much as we can.

As many hon. Members said, the case for land reform in Zimbabwe is overwhelming. I was surprised by the assertion of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) that he was proud of everything that Britain had done in Zimbabwe. The land was stolen from people and UDI was a shame. Land reform must be principled and done according to law; it must prioritise the people who live in communal areas. We have made it clear that we would support that, as would the international community.

President Mugabe turned against such reform. I believe that he saw power and support for him slipping away in his country. He lost a referendum, and that gave him a shock. He therefore returned to the rhetoric of his heyday, when he was at his most popular and took over the country. What were the two main principles then? Land and beating the UK. He went back to beating that drum, believing that the people of Zimbabwe would support him. There has been complete loss of contact with reality, and all the ensuing consequences.

The UK has supported the overwhelming case for land reform since independence. We have fulfilled our commitments under the Lancaster House agreement. For most of period since independence, the Conservative party was in government. The UK has disbursed £500 million in bilateral aid and a considerable further sum through the multilateral system.

However, when President Mugabe started on the wrecking track, he set out to persuade neighbouring African Governments that the UK was resisting justified

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land reform. He went back to the rhetoric of independence and he fooled neighbouring countries for a time. I believe that that time is coming to an end, but he banged the drum of the independence fight. He was a hero in Africa in those years, and he confused the current debate there by using some of the rhetoric of that struggle to portray the UK as the monster, and suggest that we were committed to the white farmers, not the people of Zimbabwe. The confusion may arise partly because the record shows that that was sometimes true.

Attitudes are changing. As the Governments of Africa witness what is happening to Zimbabwe, they are no longer confused and they are increasingly moving against Mugabe. However, the approaching tragedy will cause enormous harm to many people.

I do not have time to respond properly to all the speeches. I understand and share the rage of the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who said that he would rule nothing in and nothing out. We are doing everything in our power; all suggestions are welcome. There is no magic wand.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) that we should pay tribute to the brave Zimbabweans who stood for hours, indeed days, to vote in an election when they were being brutalised. We should express our respect for their courage in the circumstances that they faced.

I emphasise to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that we have given Zimbabwe a high priority. Perhaps we should have debated it in the House more often, but it is difficult to express everything in debates. For example, many organisations are trying to deliver food and they face resistance, but I will not name them in answer to hon. Members' questions because if they appear in Hansard, they will experience even more difficulties in Zimbabwe. However, I shall always write to hon. Members or discuss such questions with them.

I saw Chief Anyaoku recently. We can contact him again to find whether he believes that he can do anything. Let us be clear: we have tried and tried and tried. Persuading President Mugabe to be rational and care for his people seems impossible. We shall go on trying, but it is difficult. The powers of the International Criminal Court are not retrospective, and therefore not relevant to the subject that we are discussing.

I stress to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that I shook my head about Afghanistan because the extent of the crisis there is similar. Before 11 September, 5 million people in that country had to be fed daily. The number increased to 6 million, then 7 million. It is now up to 12 million as we turn the country round and get it resettled. I am not, therefore, saying that there is not a monstrous crisis emerging in southern Africa because of the situation in Zimbabwe; it is on a comparable scale.

As for NEPAD, Zimbabwe must, of course, be discussed in the context of that partnership, but we cannot hold a whole continent—the poorest continent in the world—hostage to the misbehaviour of President Mugabe. We must engage with African Governments who are reformers in driving forward the reform agenda, and try to get them to join in the effort to improve, to put pressure on the Mugabe regime and to take Zimbabwe forward.

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I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk on money freezing, and if the figures are as low as he says, let us look into it. I undertake that I, or another Minister, will write to him on that and on his other suggestion—I know that the USA was considering taking action on Air Zimbabwe. All these actions should be considered, and we will do that.

I would say to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) that I have an office of enormously brave staff in Zimbabwe who are making sure that the food supplied by the UK is not tainted or touched by ZANU-PF thugs who might prevent it from being properly distributed. I want to pay tribute to my staff there, who are working in very difficult circumstances to that end. We are working with the World Food Programme and the UN to ensure that, in trying to face the coming crisis, there will be no political manipulation.

Let me say, however, that we cannot feed those who will be hungry unless the Mugabe regime permits the private sector to import food. As yet, it will not, and the situation looks appalling. There will be considerable food aid, but trucks will be needed to distribute it, and the trucks are all controlled by the regime. The commercial suppliers are not allowed to import, while the Zimbabwean currency has such a high exchange rate that the costs are prohibitive. The country is facing a drought that will cause a crisis that could easily be managed, but it is potentially a disaster because of the mis-government, the mismanagement of the economy and the grossly mismanaged land reform that has handed farms to fat cats, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire stated.

If the regime in Zimbabwe cannot be persuaded to allow us to do our work to get food to the hungry, there will be famine conditions, and the population will stream out into the neighbouring countries. I am afraid that that is how the political crisis will be resolved: in an utter tragedy. I am sure that that will bring down the regime, but it will do so in a way that will cause even further suffering to the people of Zimbabwe. This is not a matter of dispute across the House; there is no difference between the Government and the Opposition on this analysis or on our sense of the forthcoming tragedy.

On top of all that, Zimbabwe has the highest HIV infection rate in Africa. The lives of the poor people of Zimbabwe have been wrecked by the Government who have brought untold harm to them. I give those people an undertaking that we will do all in our power to keep them fed through the coming crisis. We stand ready, when they can find a way of bringing round this regime, to support them in a democratic election and in rebuilding their economy and their country. That beautiful country, which is naturally very fertile, should be the bread basket of this region of Africa, instead of facing this crisis. It will rebuild again—

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