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House of Commons

Wednesday 7 May 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Transas Group Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 14 May.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What overseas aid projects she is supporting in Zimbabwe in 2003. [111516]

5. Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): What plans she has to increase aid to Zimbabwe; and if she will make a statement. [111520]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): In Zimbabwe, my Department has provided £51 million for humanitarian needs—mostly food, but also basic medical supplies—in the past 18 months. We are also spending £26 million on an HIV/AIDS programme over the five years to 2005. The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe cannot be resolved without political and economic change, but we must do all that we can to support its people until that change comes about.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that rational and full reply, and I commend her for the work that she is doing in Zimbabwe in trying to reduce the chaos and tragedy of Mr. Mugabe's Government. Does she accept the view expressed yesterday in the House by the Foreign Secretary, who said that Zimbabwe is now affecting regional security? Does she not therefore believe that we should internationalise the problems of that country and that the United Nations should become more involved so that we can get people from other countries on the

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ground to realise the chaos and catastrophe of Mr. Mugabe? The sooner he can be got rid of by his own people, the better for them.

Clare Short: I certainly agree with the latter sentiment. Things seem to be mounting up. The mass stay-aways have been big and the pressure from Africa seems stronger. The disaster is terrible in terms of the destruction of the economy, thuggery, hunger and suffering. My instinct is that the end is coming and that the forces are mounting, but it cannot happen too soon.

On the effects on security in the region, many people are moving out of the country and the crisis affects the region's economy very severely. The drought is less bad in neighbouring countries, so the humanitarian crisis is also less bad there, although it is serious in Zimbabwe. The UN has been involved, especially in the humanitarian crisis.

We need new tools in the international system. When dictators destroy their countries, we do not have the tools to deal with them. I hope that when the International Criminal Court is set up, we can start indicting and arresting some of those individuals, instead of having to wait for the country to fall apart before the international community can act.

Mr. Wyatt: Have there been any meetings of the Commonwealth's financial action taskforce, which deals with laundered money? Zimbabwe is a member of the taskforce and we have observer status.

Clare Short: I do not know whether that taskforce has held a meeting, but I shall certainly find out and let my hon. Friend know. As I should have told the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Commonwealth has also been actively involved, so there is international engagement, but the process is taking longer than we would all like.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the right hon. Lady not agree that it is grotesque that this tyrant, who is depriving his people of their lives and his country of its prosperity, should still carry a high British honour? Will she advocate its immediate removal?

Clare Short: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's depiction of President Mugabe. The suffering and destruction that he has brought upon his people—a wealthy nation and an educated people—are unbearable. I am not an expert in honours, but I shall convey his view to the appropriate authorities.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): What planning is my right hon. Friend's Department doing? While Mugabe is still in charge in Zimbabwe, the crisis will obviously continue. Until normal relations are restored in the country, there will be no proper planting or food production. Has she given any thought to how many years this crisis will continue?

Clare Short: I am afraid that I cannot predict exactly when tyrants will fall. We all know when it is coming. When Milosevic fell, it went on for longer than we would have hoped but we knew that it was coming. In the meantime, we must plan flexibly against nature, which is

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why assessments are being made of the current harvest. That makes a difference, but it is not enough, because the fundamental wreckage of the economy is political rather than a result of the drought.

We must also plan for flexibility. As soon as there is some sort of legitimate Government with whom the international community can work—I hope that a Government of national unity will start the reform process—the whole international community will be able to engage and help the people of Zimbabwe to start rebuilding.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I am sorry that the House will have to put up with a solo act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) is with his Select Committee in Washington this week.

The Secretary of State said that pressure from Africa was getting stronger, but despite the fact that a high-level delegation of African leaders went to meet President Mugabe behind closed doors on Monday, there has been no apparent progress. What measures is her Department taking to buttress the efforts of the Movement for Democratic Change to bring an end to state-sponsored violence? Does she share the MDC's view that regional powers are shielding Mugabe from international censure?

Clare Short: I agree with all who have said that pressure from African neighbours and from African countries generally has been very disappointing, but that is partly because Mugabe was such a hero, especially in southern Africa, for his stand against the Ian Smith regime with people who were living under apartheid. His reputation was such that people were unwilling to believe the truth of what he was doing to his country. He also confused Africa by claiming that the issue was all about white farmers with excessive land; and there was indeed a case for stronger land redistribution. Consequently, pressure from Africa has been much less than it should have been. The voices are getting stronger and the pressure is getting greater, although it remains behind closed doors.

As the hon. Lady knows, we are an international development agency. We support the efforts of the Foreign Office to bring pressure to bear throughout the system on state-sponsored violence, but we make no conditions in terms of feeding those who are to be fed—humanitarian aid cannot be used for political purposes.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton): Surely we can do more to put pressure on the international community to ensure that Mugabe does eventually go. What are we doing to ensure that people in Zimbabwe know that there is a better life in front of them when Mugabe has gone?

Clare Short: I do not honestly think that we can do more: everything that can be done in the international community has been done. That action has been led by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, and I have joined in whenever I can. The frustrating aspect of situations where dictators are wrecking their countries is that the tools that the international community can bring to bear are limited. The people of Zimbabwe have no doubt about how terrible the situation is—there is cruelty and

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dictatorship. Their power to bring about change is limited, but they are struggling to do so, despite the intimidation, as the results of the recent by-elections showed.


2. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): If she will make a statement on aid being provided to Afghanistan. [111517]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): At the Tokyo conference on Afghanistan in January 2002, donors pledged $4.5 billion over one to five years for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Last year, more than $1.8 billion was disbursed, and another $1.8 billion will be provided this year. It is widely suggested that Afghanistan has not had the resources that were promised. That is not true, but one of the problems is that because the authority of the Government in Kabul does not extend right across the country, some resources are flowing through the UN and other agencies. Getting security and order across Afghanistan is essential in moving on to further development.

Sir Teddy Taylor : My friends in the area tell me that following the magnificent crusade to establish liberty and democracy in Afghanistan, the only optimism is in the heroin industry, which has been freed of the Taliban restrictions. Can the Secretary of State say how she is endeavouring to circulate aid in a country which, outside Kabul, seems to be run by warlords and mini-dictators? I do not in any way blame her for that, but is there an answer?

Clare Short: There have been improvements in the lives of the people of Afghanistan. More children are in school, people have been fed, and the drought is coming to an end, which is a blessed relief. The UN system kept up the feeding right through the crisis and has done so ever since. Many children have been immunised. However, I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point. The whole economy is based on narcotics, and it is run outside Kabul by warlords, who were strengthened during the conflict. People have been fed, the basics have been improved, and Kabul is safe and secure, but we now need to build a national army, to demobilise the warlords' fighters, and to assert the Government's authority across the territory.

Provincial reconstruction teams are being put in place in the big cities; my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is to make an announcement about the UK's contribution to that. We must secure authority across the country and disarm the warlords; otherwise, the narcotics industry will continue to flourish.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): The House will understand that despite the dreadful problems with warlords, drug barons and so on, good progress has been achieved by working with UNICEF

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and others to deliver humanitarian aid and to develop and encourage education, especially for girls. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that progress can continue?

Clare Short: My right hon. Friend is right. The fact that an enormous amount remains to be done should not deter us from congratulating the international system on the progress that has been achieved. The lives of people in Afghanistan are better. For example, many children are back in school; many women are back teaching; a Loya Jirga has taken place; work is progressing on a new constitution; and many children have been immunised. Further improvement depends on progress on order, building a national army and disarming the warlords. Progress on tackling the narcotics trade also depends on that. We have reached a point where there must be order outside Kabul or we will not move much further.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): The right hon. Lady will remember her words to the Select Committee on International Development in December:

We have already heard that that has not happened and that the position is worse. When will there be adequate security in Afghanistan to allow progress on reconstruction and public services? When will asylum seekers be able to return willingly and without compulsion? Will Iraq suffer the same fate as Afghanistan, or will the presence of oil make the difference?

Clare Short: Afghanistan is not worse, as I made clear. If the hon. Lady reads the briefings, the details make that clear: people are being fed, children are in school and being immunised and people are back at work. The position is not worse, but the country was wrecked by 20 years of warfare. It is desperately poor—one of the poorest countries in the world. [Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Lady sighing; rebuilding a wrecked country takes time and a lot of effort.

Agreement has now been achieved. It has taken longer than I would have liked, and the United Kingdom has played a part in applying pressure for the formation of a national army. There are many powerful vested interests in the warlords, and some of their power is influential in the country's Ministry of Defence. Agreement must be followed by demobilising many fighters. The process is beginning to progress, as are the provincial reconstruction teams. However, the country will not move forward without persistent engagement and we need to drive forward on security outside Kabul in the next months and years.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Can the Secretary of State confirm that, as part of continuing security operations in Afghanistan, some coalition troops are conducting operations in civilian clothing while armed, and claiming to be humanitarian workers? Does she accept that British aid workers' lives are being put at risk by the blurring of the distinction between aid workers

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and soldiers? What is she doing to raise that with the Secretary of State for Defence and members of the US Administration?

Clare Short: I am not aware of that serious allegation of a complete breach of the Geneva convention. If it is true, it would endanger the work of humanitarian workers; indeed, a worker from the International Committee of the Red Cross died near Kandahar I believe, speaking from memory. I have heard nothing about such an allegation; I shall look into it and get back to the hon. Lady.

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