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I want Ministers to respond to these issues. Not being a cynical person, I could not possibly be cynical enough to suspect that the reason why the Foreign Secretary did not open the debate today was that he did not actually want to face up to making a commitment on the AU-EU summit. It is much easier to leave it to a junior Minister. I am not criticising the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who was put in a difficult position. The truth is that most hon. Members who are here today know a huge amount about Zimbabwe, which is why we are all here. Nevertheless, it is very sad
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that with the House about to go on leave for so many weeks, we cannot get a straight answer. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will give a straight answer and tell us whether the Prime Minister said what he is supposed to have said, according to The Sunday Timesand if he did not say it, I hope that we will be told why not. An answer to that question by 6 o’clock would, I am sure, be greatly appreciated.

My first ever visit to Africa was more than 30 years ago, and it was in the presence of the current Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. He was then president of the National Union of Students and I was the vice-president, and we went to the African Commonwealth students conference in Ghana. I pay tribute to the Lord Chancellor, who, when he was Leader of the House, made sure that we secured this debate. It is rather ironic, however, that one of the reasons why he kept putting the debate off was that he wanted to have it at a time when the appropriate Minister would be here. We secured the debate today, and we all thought that that was fantastic. However, we do not even have a Minister for Africa in the House of Commons. We have some new Minister in the House of Lords whose name I have not yet learned to pronounce. I have yet to see him, and would not recognise him if he were sitting up there in the Gallery. I am amazed that as well as not having a Minister for Africa, we do not possess a Foreign Secretary who is prepared to debate Zimbabwe—even just to make the opening statement today. I must say that I am very sad about what has happened. Nevertheless, we are putting what needs to be said about Zimbabwe on the record.

I mentioned first being in Africa with the NUS, and I would like to finish by quoting one of the leaders of the Zimbabwean students union ZINASU—Washington Katema, who visited us recently. He is so brave. It is just amazing how brave some of these people are to go back to Zimbabwe after being here, not even knowing whether they will be allowed through when they arrive. They always dread having their passports taken away from them. While he was at Westminster, he said:

I pay tribute to all such people in Zimbabwe, and I say to our Government that we should be leading the world on this issue. Forget the colonial tag. Get out there and make the EU and the UN take what is happening in Zimbabwe seriously.

3.44 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for her eloquent contribution to the debate. I also pay tribute to the work of the all-party group on this subject. The hon. Lady expressed concerns that I share, particularly the absence of the Foreign Secretary from today’s debate. A number of probing questions have already been raised and it would have been good if they had been answered directly by the Foreign Secretary.
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We at least secured the promise in the opening statement of another debate later in the year. We hope that the House will be given more and clearer answers at that time.

Zimbabwe shares the problems and misery of many African nations: famine, health problems such as HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, poverty, conflict, corruption, unemployment and too many guns. Other countries in the region, such as Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia, have similar problems. By and large, however, the Governments of those countries are working with their people, neighbours and outside donors to help to provide a solution. In Zimbabwe, however, as in Sudan, the Government are part of the problem.

As was mentioned in the opening statement, leadership is a key component of the solution. There have not been enough Nelson Mandelas, and Zimbabwe has the complete opposite of an inspirational leader. We have heard today about some of the problems, which I shall try not to repeat in order to allow other Members to contribute to the debate. In Sudan, as we have heard, the problem is called genocide. Whatever people call the current situation in Zimbabwe, we want to hear what can be done about it, but we have not yet heard much about that from the Government. I hope that we will hear more in the summing-up.

On this day of two parliamentary by-elections in the UK, it is appropriate to reflect on the state of democracy and civil society elsewhere in the world. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has mentioned the issue of asylum seekers. I had an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe in my constituency office some time ago. He was a political activist who had been arrested, beaten up, tortured and buried in a shallow grave. Fortunately, he and another person who were left in that shallow grave overnight managed to escape. That was the price that he paid for being an active opposition politician.

It is difficult for us to calculate the dangers faced by those who seek asylum in the UK. That asylum seeker did not want to be here—his wife and young child were in Zimbabwe and he wanted to return there. He believed, however, that were he sent back to Zimbabwe, he would be killed. He said that he would rather kill himself and have a quick end in this country than suffer a long, slow torture and eventual death in Zimbabwe. It is an outrage that we often send back asylum seekers to face who knows what.

In Zimbabwe, with the 2008 elections looming, the prospect of free and fair elections and the establishment of a real representative democracy look ever more distant and unlikely. The Liberal Democrats very much welcome the opportunity to debate Zimbabwe. Other right hon. and hon. Members have eloquently detailed the scale of the devastation affecting that country. Famine is ever more widespread, with the situation seeming to get a little worse almost every week.

It is also important, however, to remember what Zimbabwe was like prior to Robert Mugabe’s destructive influence. In 1980, when Mugabe came to power, the average annual income in Zimbabwe was $950, and at that time a Zimbabwean dollar was worth more than an American dollar. By 2003, the average income was less than $400, and the Zimbabwean economy was in freefall. Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly three decades, during which he has led it from being an
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impressive country with a hopeful future to probably the most dramatic peacetime collapse of any country in the world. Zimbabwe has gone from being one of the potential success stories of Africa to languishing at 151st out of 177 countries, in the United Nations Development Programme’s human development index.

While Mugabe may wish to blame Zimbabwe’s problems variously on the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, the reality is that the downfall of the country rests very much on his shoulders. Zimbabwe as a country was not destined to fail; it has failed because a corrupt leadership has persecuted its own people and poisoned its politics.

In Zimbabwe today, hundreds of people continue to be arrested for participating or attempting to engage in peaceful protest. While the police have been accused of torturing human rights campaigners in custody, the independence of the judiciary has been compromised and there is little if any room for freedom of expression. Zimbabwe is under martial law in all but name.

Political party activists, trade unionists, journalists, lawyers, students, the youth movement and women activists are all targets, as the Government continue to sponsor violence, torture and brutal oppression of its own citizens. This repression was shown in graphic detail to the world on 11 March with the beating of the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and many others. It is worth remembering that the film of that event made its way on to our screens only after being smuggled out of the country at great risk. We can only imagine the similar crimes of political oppression that go unreported and unseen.

It is worth noting, on a small and probably rare point of optimism in the debate, that the regularity of the protests against the Government since February this year seem to be on the rise, as does the willingness of protesters to stand up against police oppression. On that point, I put on record our tribute to those Zimbabweans who are trying to oppose the brutal regime in the most difficult and hostile circumstances.

While political freedoms are in decline, the utter collapse of the economy, which was mentioned earlier, and the resulting poverty are equally tragic. Others have mentioned the figures. The unemployment rate is more than 85 per cent. There is debate as to what the inflation level stands at. It is officially 4,530 per cent.; others say that it is above 1,000 per cent. Some analysts have predicted that it may reach 1 million per cent.

It was recently claimed by a former US ambassador, Chris Dell, that

Only time will tell whether that is the case with Zimbabwe. What is certain, though, is the dire consequences of that economic devastation for the people, with more than 4 million dependent on food aid because they cannot afford to buy their own food. Many survive only on remittances from abroad. For this, we should all pay tribute to Zimbabweans in this country who are playing their part to ease the suffering in their country. I would welcome the Minister’s view on what we can do to help Zimbabweans return in an orderly way if and when there is regime change in Zimbabwe and once transition is under way so that
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they can help rebuild their country without jeopardising their immigration status in this country.

I remember, as other hon. Members will, a time when Zimbabwe was the bread-basket of the region. Today it can no longer feed its own citizens and is using food as another political tool of repression and intimidation; the regime prioritises its supporters while denying food to those who stand up for democracy and human rights. To make matters worse, the Government continue to obstruct humanitarian aid agencies. The NGO Bill passed by the Government in 2004 may still be awaiting Mugabe’s signature, but it is having a major impact on what NGOs are able to achieve. It is estimated that thousands, possibly 3,000, die from AIDS-related illnesses, yet Mugabe’s regime is not willing to allow full access to the country to aid agencies that could help.

The Foreign Secretary, who will no doubt read this debate, has been commendably robust in his dealings with Russia this week. However, if ever there was a regime with which Britain needed to flex its diplomatic muscles, it is surely Zimbabwe. Tough statements in this place will get us only so far. The time is right to look afresh at what we can do. I hope that we will hear at the end of the debate today an answer to some of the questions that have been posed today. I seek fresh assurances today that the Government are doing all that they can to bring pressure to bear on President Mugabe, both by encouraging solidarity among the international community and by urging our EU partners rigorously to enforce the economic sanctions and travel bans that are in place.

I know that the previous Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister both expressed their intention to push for increased sanctions and targeted measures against Mugabe’s regime. We would welcome that and would like to see a tightening of EU sanctions by considering further financial and travel restrictions. I would welcome an update from the Minister on any progress in that regard.

Does the Minister agree that it is absolutely essential to ensure that the Mugabe regime cannot be represented at the summit in Portugal? There has been no clear answer to that and we hope that we will have one by the end of the debate. It would be a betrayal of the suffering of those in Zimbabwe if we were to give a platform and an air of legitimacy to Mugabe by allowing him to attend that summit. It would also call into question the credibility of our sanctions— something we cannot afford.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the importance of other African nations accepting that the crisis in Zimbabwe is the responsibility of all Africa, not just Zimbabweans. Along with the crisis in Sudan, Zimbabwe will be a key test of African co-operation and diplomacy. South Africa and SADC are key players and exert considerable influence in Zimbabwe. The condemnation by South Africa of the beatings of Opposition leaders in Zimbabwe earlier this year was welcome, but it was the first time I can recall any public condemnation of the human rights abuses of Mugabe and his regime.

I would also like to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to persuade South Africa that refusing to acknowledge human rights abuses and political oppression is not in its best interest and is not their best approach to the problem.

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On the issue of not sweeping Mugabe's crimes under the carpet, I invite the Minister today to give fresh assurances that there is no prospect of any deal whereby in order to facilitate Mugabe's political demise, he might get some sort of deal letting him off the hook for all his crimes against humanity. I am sure the Minister would agree that that would be entirely unacceptable and I invite him to underline that view today.

I said in my introduction that Mugabe was responsible for the current state of Zimbabwe. While few would dispute that, it does not mean that removing Mugabe will remove the corruption or reverse the economic disaster that he has created. Even when Mugabe goes—he will go eventually, and we will all welcome that day—and is no longer in power, we have to accept that Zimbabwe as a nation is simply not yet geared up for democracy. Other hon. Members may also have seen the comments of a former Zimbabwean trade Minister who said:

I am afraid that Mugabe has created a political system in an image of himself and it is one that will outlast him.

The emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change around 2000 provoked much optimism in Zimbabwe and among the international community about possible political change. However, since the split and the problems of 2005, the Opposition have almost imploded and although the two factions look likely to fight the 2008 elections under one banner, it has been a hugely damaging few years for both sides. Worryingly, both sides of the MDC have shown themselves to be unable to make a clean break with the traditions of post-colonial Zimbabwe. That mindset will not be removed when Mugabe is gone. The recent alleged coup and its aftermath give us an unpleasant picture of how a post-Mugabe power-struggle might unfold.

Kate Hoey: I should remind the hon. Gentleman that political parties in this country have split and broken up at various times and democracy has continued. He is being slightly too concerned about the so-called split.

John Barrett: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. However, the problems for political parties in Zimbabwe are so huge compared with parties considering splitting or making new alliances in this country. Here, there is almost an encouragement to shift political concentration. In Zimbabwe, the Opposition have enough problems anyway without internal splits. I wish them well in being an effective Opposition.

Getting rid of Mugabe would be a start, but that is all. We may have to brace ourselves for the prospect of the situation getting worse before it gets better. On that point I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the crucial issue of what aid we can provide in the event of Mugabe’s downfall or a change in regime. It is important to ensure that we are able to respond rapidly and effectively to help the people of Zimbabwe. I would especially like to know what mechanisms for transition and reconstruction are in place and what guarantees on transition to a free and democratic Zimbabwe the Government and other donors would require.

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Zimbabwe is not at war, but it bears all the hallmarks of a conflict country. If there were a power transition in Zimbabwe, may I ask the Minister whether it would be possible to treat it as a post-conflict state in order to gather maximum support for a programme of sequenced humanitarian aid, stabilisation and reconstruction?

4 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): First, I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for doing so much to keep the issue of Zimbabwe on the agenda in this place and elsewhere, and for the courageous manner in which she has pursued her cause. I also wish to say that I have some sympathy for the Minister, as she is only the latest in a series of hapless Foreign Office Ministers—I was myself one—who have been put up to deal with debates and answer questions on Africa even though they might never have set foot on that continent. That is because for the past two years and more the Africa Minister has sat in the House of Lords.

I yield to no one in my respect for Lord Triesman, who succeeded me in that post; he is held in great esteem in the other place and was a most effective Africa Minister. However, it is a bit of a problem—I do not put it more strongly than that—that there is no Foreign Office Minister in the Commons who deals on a daily basis with African issues and can answer questions.

The rapid turnover is also a bit of a problem. I should declare an interest: I was this Government’s sixth Africa Minister, Lord Triesman was the seventh and Lord Malloch-Brown is the eighth. I remember an occasion when an African leader said to me that he had visited the United Kingdom four times but he had never met the same Africa Minister twice. That creates a problem for our relations with Africa. We say that we care about Africa, and we do—we take Africa seriously from the Prime Minister down—but the high turnover of Africa Ministers means that no one has a consistent grip on African issues.

I spent two happy years as Africa Minister at the Foreign Office even though there were many enormous African issues to deal with—many of them bigger than Zimbabwe in terms of scale of catastrophe and human suffering, such as events in the Congo region, Angola, Sudan and Liberia. However, Zimbabwe occupied more of my time than any other issue—and I, like the Minister, had to come to the Dispatch Box to be lambasted by the Opposition for not doing enough, even though we were doing everything in our power to keep Zimbabwe on the international agenda.

I am ambivalent about House of Commons debates on Zimbabwe. We have had a lot—although I acknowledge that not all have been held in the Chamber—and despite the fact that we all agree that Mugabe’s rule has been catastrophic and that he has inflicted ruin on his people and that he should leave office as soon as possible, such debates to some extent play into his hands. Whether we like it or not, he has succeeded in convincing many Africans leaders and Africans that this is a bilateral dispute between himself and the former colonial power—although I am glad that that argument is now becoming threadbare.

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