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2 Apr 2008 : Column 769


12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The whole world is watching events unfold in Zimbabwe, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the situation as we understand it. I hope and believe that the people of Zimbabwe will hear one message from this House today: we stand with them at this moment of opportunity for their country and we share their demand for a democratic future.

For obvious reasons the fragility of the current situation means that I and, I am sure, all hon. Members will want to choose our words carefully, given the risk that what we say will be distorted. That does not mean that there are not some fundamental truths that need to be expressed.

I have within the last 30 minutes spoken to our ambassador in Harare. The situation is obviously fluid and a Movement for Democratic Change press conference is in train as we speak. Zimbabwe’s political, civic and economic leaders are clearly considering their next moves and each others’ next moves. The full results of the parliamentary elections are still unclear. The latest tally, as of 10 minutes ago, is that 189 seats have been declared and 80 remain to be declared. The two main parties are running neck and neck, at least according to the official figures.

There is still no formal announcement about the presidential election. Many hon. Members will have seen the comments made by Opposition Leader Tsvangirai last night. His comments and demeanour were statesmanlike. He committed himself to following Zimbabwean law, providing all the more reason for the results to be announced promptly.

Although the situation in Harare is tense, there is no suggestion of crowds massing and no reports of violence. But it is not business as usual: many schools are still closed and people are watching and waiting to see what will happen. Let me assure the House that through both political and official channels there has been a high degree of contact and consultation between the UK Government and our international partners. The Prime Minister, Lord Malloch-Brown and I have been in touch with Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers in southern Africa and around the world. There is international consensus that the will of the Zimbabwean people must be properly revealed and respected.

Last Saturday, the people of Zimbabwe made their choice. Outside the 9,400 polling stations, the tallies have been posted. The Zimbabwean electoral commission knows what those results are and has a duty to announce them. The delay in announcing the outcome can be seen only as a deliberate and calculated tactic. It gives substance to the suspicion that the authorities are reluctant to accept the will of the people. They have a responsibility to do so, and Zimbabwe’s neighbours, who have borne a significant share of the burden of Zimbabwe’s collapse, have a responsibility to do all in their power to ensure that that occurs.

No one in the House would want me to hand ZANU-PF a propaganda coup by endorsing one candidate or another, or by taking it on myself to announce the
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result. In truth, in spite of what President Mugabe would want the world to believe, the crisis in Zimbabwe has never been about personalities. It is not a bilateral dispute between British and Zimbabwean politicians or anyone else. It is, and has always been, about the policies that Robert Mugabe and his Government have chosen to follow and the terrible destruction that has been wreaked on the Zimbabwean people. Now the choice is between democracy and continued chaos.

The situation preceding these elections was shocking. The conditions for free and fair elections were certainly not in place. The playing field was tilted heavily in favour of ZANU-PF. Up to 4 million people who had fled Zimbabwe’s crisis could not vote. In some areas, between 18 and 20 per cent. of those who tried to vote were frustrated by an inaccurate electoral roll. We will probably never know how many dead people on that roll cast ghost votes. In that context, it is worth saying that if a second round of voting is deemed necessary, it must be held in a way that gives far greater respect not just to our standards but to the Southern African Development Community electoral standards. We remain in contact with our SADC partners on the issue.

We do know, however, that in spite of those problems, millions of ordinary Zimbabweans still queued peacefully and voted. Now they are holding their breath: will their country reverse the spiral of decline or exacerbate it? The facts speak for themselves: life expectancy has halved to an average of 34, nearly 2,500 AIDS-related deaths occur each week, inflation is practically incalculable and day-to-day abuse of human rights and freedoms is commonplace.

Britain has always supported the Zimbabwean people through the pain of their national trauma, and must continue to do so. We are the second largest bilateral donor, and spent more than £40 million last year on aid. Our support provided HIV treatment for more than 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients and helped the World Food Programme to feed up to 3 million people, about one quarter of Zimbabwe’s population.

We want to do more to encourage development within Zimbabwe. When there is real and positive policy change on the ground, the House has my assurance that Britain will play a full part in supporting recovery. We know that the Zimbabwean people face a massive rebuilding task. We will help them to do that, with EU and international colleagues, but that can happen only when and if there is a return to real democracy and good governance in Zimbabwe.

We will continue to do all that we can to encourage that to happen and to encourage other countries in the region to exert what influence they have over the situation in Zimbabwe. Those with the greatest influence are of course those closest to Zimbabwe, but we are clear that the situation will not be one that Africans alone have to carry the burden of supporting.

The House will want to know that our ambassador and embassy staff are safe. Both UK-based and local staff are working tirelessly in very difficult circumstances. They are in very close contact with a wide range of Zimbabweans and stand ready to offer consular assistance to the many British nationals in Zimbabwe.

Many hon. Members in all parts of the House have been tireless advocates for the true interests of Zimbabwe over many years. The people of Zimbabwe
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have suffered for too long. Every hon. Member and every British citizen will yearn with them for that suffering to end, and for it to end now.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House to make this statement. He said that he hoped and believed that the people of Zimbabwe would hear one message from this House—that we stand with them at this moment of opportunity. I absolutely support him in saying that so that they do hear that one message from this House, and we strongly support the Government’s calls for the immediate and full release of the results of the election.

This is obviously a crucial but dangerous time for Zimbabwe. As we saw recently in Kenya, contested election results in highly charged circumstances can lead to a very dangerous situation. In Zimbabwe, the combination of brutality and repression for many years, a desperate humanitarian crisis and decades-long stifling of political opposition create the circumstances of a political pressure cooker.

As the Foreign Secretary said, it is not about personalities. Mugabe is the author of Zimbabwe’s catastrophe, but it will no doubt take much more than his departure for the country to recover. However, there is now hope for change: the Mugabe Government may attempt to cling to power, but they may just be unable to resist the force of an overwhelming public rejection—if that is what has happened in the election.

I turn now to some specific questions. Is the Foreign Secretary aware of whether President Mugabe has spoken to any of the leaders of neighbouring countries? It does not seem so, but has he given those leaders any indication of his intentions?

There have been reports of negotiations between the Zimbabwean Government and Opposition leaders. Has the Foreign Secretary been able to confirm any of those reports? He rightly referred to our very hard working embassy officials, but have they been able to speak to Morgan Tsvangirai or his senior colleagues? What assessment has he made of the threat to Opposition figures, many of whom are reportedly in hiding in anticipation of a crackdown?

One of our immediate concerns, of course, is the safety of British citizens in Zimbabwe in the event of an outbreak of violence. The Foreign Secretary touched on that in his statement, but will he assure the House that our ambassador in Harare has well developed contingency plans if the situation suddenly deteriorates? Even before the crisis, it took Z$10 million to buy a loaf of bread, and 4 million people were dependent on food aid. Are the British Government liaising with the UN about preparations for emergency food and medical support, as well as for coping with a sudden outflow of refugees into neighbouring countries?

The Foreign Secretary mentioned continuing British support for the people of Zimbabwe. Does he agree that we must prepare actively now for the rehabilitation of Zimbabwe at the appropriate time—that is, when it is set on a clear course towards the rule of law and democracy? Whenever that happens, does he accept that Britain, with the international community, must be preparing a major programme of assistance now?

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Does the Foreign Secretary agree that such a programme could include holding a donor conference, under the auspices of the European Union and the African Union, to develop a programme of assistance that is tailored to Zimbabwe’s needs? The programme could include setting up a contact group to provide sustained diplomatic support, and an offer to assist Zimbabwe in the move from being a culture of violence to one governed by the rule of law. That could be achieved by supporting thorough reform of the security sector, training officials in civilian policing and human rights, and assisting with the orderly return of the Zimbabwean refugees to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred. Could not that programme of assistance, in the event of a major deterioration in the situation in Zimbabwe, also include making preparations for an international observer mission or over-the-horizon humanitarian force, under the auspices of the AU and backed by the major powers in the world?

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there might be something of a golden hour—a window of opportunity—when the international community ought to be prepared to take rapid and decisive steps to help the people of Zimbabwe in rebuilding their country’s economy and society? To succeed, that country will need support from its neighbours, international organisations and its friends. Will he do his utmost to ensure that all of those stand ready to help?

David Miliband: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words today, not least because the speed of change in the situation in Zimbabwe has made it difficult to give him as much advance notice of the contents of my statement as would normally be the case. A number of his questions would be very interesting to discuss, although probably not in the full glare of publicity in the House of Commons, so I hope that he will accept the following answers.

I think that the right thing to say about President Mugabe is that he has been conspicuous by his absence from the air and telephone waves. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned reports of negotiations, and we have seen them as well. In my statement, I said that senior figures in Zimbabwe were watching and waiting, and it is clear that discussions have been taking place both within and between parties.

The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about the security situation and the security of Opposition figures; that is obviously a great source of concern. There is also the issue of the security of Zimbabweans of all backgrounds. He asked about consular planning. Of course we try to stay in close touch with as many as possible of the 10,000 or 12,000 British nationals in Zimbabwe. We have reached some far outlying areas, but of course we cannot be complacent, given some of the doomsday scenarios that have been mooted. I can assure him that there has been a serious degree of activity on our part, and on the part of the Department for International Development, to deal with that contingency.

The other side of the coin is, of course, a brighter future for Zimbabwe. As I suggested in my statement, it is important that the whole international community is ready, when it has a decent partner Government in Harare, to take part in the sort of comprehensive economic, social, political and security engagements
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that will help to rehabilitate—I think that was the right hon. Gentleman’s word—the country. The rehabilitation will be on a scale not seen by almost any country for a long time. I cannot remember the exact levels of inflation in the Weimar Republic, but he mentioned that a loaf of bread cost Z$10 million; I think that four weeks ago it was Z$1 million. That is a degree of chaos that is almost unknown. However, I can certainly assure him that discussions are taking place.

It is incumbent on the Government to try to prepare for all eventualities. One can never have perfect foresight, but it is important to refer to the second round of elections that might be deemed necessary. If they are, we want them to take place on a fairer and freer basis. The humanitarian situation also needs to be prepared for as far as possible, and I am grateful for the fact that on that matter, at least, there is cross-party support.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): When the change in Zimbabwe comes, there will be, as the Foreign Secretary says, 4 million people who are outside their country. Many of them are in South Africa, but there are quite a large number of Zimbabweans in this country. Will he have urgent discussions with his colleagues in other Departments, including the Department for International Development, and with the people responsible for the Border and Immigration Agency, about providing assistance and help, in a careful manner, to those Zimbabweans—doctors, nurses, teachers and others—who wish to go back to Zimbabwe to help to rebuild their democratic country?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are not yet ready to cross that bridge, but hopefully the time will soon come when we are, and I assure him that we will seek to do so in an effective and efficient way.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Although the House will clearly want to debate Zimbabwe, and although I understand why the Foreign Secretary felt that he needed to make this statement today, in doing so does he not run the risk of being deliberately misinterpreted? Will he share with the House the exact reasons why he decided to make the statement, and why he did not contact the Opposition parties to see whether we would agree on whether to delay the statement? Will he reassure the Opposition parties that when there is something solid to comment on he will update us, especially during the recess?

The whole House will share the great hope and excitement, expressed by many voices coming out of Zimbabwe through blogs and other media, that we may be about to witness historic, positive change in that wonderful country, which was brought to its knees by misrule of the most odious kind. I therefore agree with the Foreign Secretary that the Zimbabwean electoral commission must publish all the election results without further delay. Is not the most striking and fantastic aspect of the Zimbabwean general election the strong showing of the opposition parties, despite the massive electoral fraud and despite the political corruption? May I therefore associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Foreign Secretary’s
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expression of solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe? We have a shared belief that the true democratic will of the Zimbabwean people must be heard and acted on. As I have made clear, I understand that the Foreign Secretary wishes to tread carefully, but will he confirm that the targeted EU sanctions will be maintained and toughened if the current regime tries to hold on to power in the face of a confirmed democratic verdict?

The Foreign Secretary has begun to outline some of the Government’s thinking on the help that Britain and the international community are already organising for a fresh Government. Will he assure the House that such support for recovery and reconstruction will be rapid and generous? Does he recognise that there must be no delay in providing support? Proposals such as new World Bank support and donor conferences are of course sensible, but assuming that those proposals go ahead, will he ensure that matters are so organised that international pledges of help actually materialise once the summit headlines have gone, as the record in Iraq and Afghanistan is not encouraging?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the support that the international community supplies also flows into Zimbabwe’s neighbours, as their populations and economies have sheltered the vast majority of the refugees and exiles escaping Mugabe’s tyranny?

David Miliband: I hope I may suggest, in the nicest possible way, that the fact that the hon. Gentleman has been able to ask four or five perfectly sensible questions shows that perhaps it was not completely ridiculous to make a statement today. However, I do not want to fall out with him about that. I will check with my office, but I would not want it to stand on the record that there had been no contact with the Opposition parties over the last two days; it is important that there is contact.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point: one reason for being here today is the fact that the recess beckons, and I shall ensure that we stay in touch, even if not in quite such proximity, over the next two weeks.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me into a series of perfectly legitimate hypothetical situations, either where democratic will is frustrated and sanctions continue or where democratic will is respected and rehabilitation and reconstruction are necessary on a grand scale. It is important, particularly given what he said about the danger of misrepresentation, that we keep saying that the onus is on the Zimbabwean electoral commission to announce the results and that the international community shoulder its responsibilities as it does so, although we must be clear that we are prepared for a range of eventualities. I hope he understands that to go beyond that could be seen as not terribly helpful. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the impact of Zimbabwe on its neighbours is important, however, and many people will scratch their heads at how countries surrounding Zimbabwe have had to cope with such an influx of Zimbabwean refugees and how they have tried to manage the politics, as well as the social and economic consequences, of that.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State for International Development and I try to look at southern Africa regionally, as well as nationally and locally, in relation to how our aid and other programmes work. We will continue to do so.

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Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): First, may I endorse everything the Foreign Secretary has said and, secondly, put to him the following? One of the few things that Mr. Mugabe has been successful at is representing his difficulties as a bilateral dispute between him and the UK and a legacy of colonialism. He has succeeded in convincing many of his African colleagues of that. Therefore, those who consider themselves friends of Zimbabwe should, as my right hon. Friend said a moment ago, be cautious in what they say at this delicate time to ensure that our position is not misrepresented, as it will be if we put a foot wrong.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks with the authority of a former Minister for Africa, and in short I agree with him. I know that he is a true friend of the Zimbabwean people, and in everything he has said and done he has shown that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): It certainly appears that the prayers of those of us in the House who have taken an interest in Zimbabwe over many years may finally have been answered and that, despite an election that was clearly anything but free and fair, a majority of the people of Zimbabwe have clearly indicated that they want change. I agree with everything the Foreign Secretary said, as I do with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said.

Will the Foreign Secretary give the House further information about the immediate aid that we can give to the people, not a Government, of Zimbabwe to reduce starvation and to help in relation to health and with AIDS, as well as the problems associated with it? That would give them hope that what they have done so bravely will be rewarded by a country that was in part responsible for bringing Mr. Mugabe to power.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman speaks with real passion, born of long engagement with the struggles of the people of Zimbabwe, or long sympathy with their recent struggles. He will know that the aid programme is now almost £50 million. It is paid through the United Nations, whose role was highlighted earlier.

The best thing might be to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to put a note in the Library before the rise of the House tomorrow afternoon. I hope that there will be a double purpose in that: first, to inform hon. Members, but also to help to make it clear to the British people what difference their tax money is making today to the people of Zimbabwe.

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