Britain must not take its eyes off Zimbabwe- MP

Britain must not take its eyes off the ball in Zimbabwe because too many lives have been lost in that country and too many people have suffered through the tyranny and thuggishness of President Robert Mugabe, a British Member of Parliament said last week.

Speaking in the House of Commons during a debate on Zimbabwe Stephen Twigg said there was a grave danger that the world, and in particular the United Kingdom, might take its eyes off the ball in Zimbabwe because of events in North Africa and the Middle East.

He said Britain had unique influence and must use it both directly with South Africa and with other Southern African Development Community countries as well as the wider African Union because public opinion in Southern Africa about Mugabe was a challenge because he was considered a hero.

“We should give whatever support we can to (South African) President Zuma and to other governments in the region who are now prepared to stand up to Mugabe's thuggery,” he said.

Twigg said there were a number of issues that required “immediate and intensive political and diplomatic pressure”.

First, there was need to make sure that the new constitution was endorsed by the people of Zimbabwe and to make sure that election monitors were on the ground way ahead of time.

Secondly, there was need to open space for a free media to publish. This included access to balanced radio and the possibility of securing Department for International Development funding for that.

Thirdly, the electoral register had to be independently verified because there were too many dead people on the roll.

Fourthly, Britain had a crucial role to play “in securing the root-and-branch reform of the security sector”.

Contribution in full blow:

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you very much, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing this important and timely debate. I pay tribute to her tenacity and long-standing involvement in this cause, in her role as chairman of the all-party group on Zimbabwe. She and other Members have spoken eloquently today about the tragedy of what has happened in recent years in Zimbabwe, and about the courage of those in the country who have stood up to Mugabe. She mentioned the Movement for Democratic Change, the trade union movement in Zimbabwe and Zimbabwean civil society.

Debates such as this are an important opportunity for Parliament to demonstrate on a cross-party basis our commitment to and solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe in these difficult times. On 10 March there was a debate in the other place, secured by Lord Avebury, in which a number of important contributions were made, again on a cross-party basis. One was from Lord Chidgey, who placed great emphasis on the importance of security sector reform in Zimbabwe, an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall this morning. In that debate, Baroness Kinnock, a former Minister with responsibility for Africa, placed great emphasis on the important role that the European Union can play, a point echoed in a number of this morning's speeches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall referred to the tendency of ZANU-PF to smear the MDC and other critics and opponents. In February, I had the opportunity to meet Zimbabwe's Deputy Prime Minister, Thokozani Khupe, and the Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, Jameson Timba, here in London. Both are members of the MDC and, like my hon. Friend, I was very impressed by their dedication and professionalism, which give the lie to the smears against them that she described.

I also want to put on the record my appreciation for the work of a number of organisations in and around Zimbabwe, such as the Open Society Foundation. Here in the UK there is Action for Southern Africa, which arose out of the former Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the British Trades Union Congress. I also echo the thanks and appreciation that my hon. Friend expressed to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and I support her in saying that we look forward to the eventual return of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who is the Minister with responsibility for Africa, is in Africa today, and I welcome the Minister for Europe to his place in Westminster Hall to respond to the debate. Last month, I tabled a question to the Under-Secretary asking him what recent discussions he has had on the role of the Southern African Development Community in monitoring progress towards the 24 goals in the global political agreement. I want to take this opportunity to thank him for his response and to put on the record on the Opposition's behalf that we absolutely share the Government's concerns about the situation in Zimbabwe, and that we appreciate the strong and real personal commitment to Africa that he has demonstrated since he took office almost a year ago.

I also want to put on the record that we welcome the statement in February by the Foreign Secretary supporting the European Union's rolling over of restrictive measures-travel restrictions and asset freezes-for those who have perpetuated human rights abuses and political oppression in Zimbabwe, and of course the continuation of the arms embargo on Zimbabwe. These measures from the EU offer an important bargaining tool with which we can apply pressure on Mugabe's regime. As a number of hon. Members have said during the debate, we cannot and must not leave unchallenged ZANU-PF's claims that the EU's targeted measures are in any way undermining the humanitarian aid that is needed to assist the people of Zimbabwe. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said, those measures are only needed because of the policies of Mugabe.

As the hon. Gentleman also said, Zimbabwe was formerly the bread basket of Africa, but in recent years we have seen a very significant increase in the UK's bilateral aid to Zimbabwe. I am pleased that the previous Labour Government increased that aid to £67 million in the last financial year-2009-10-and I very much welcome the fact that this Government have decided to maintain that bilateral aid. However, I agree with hon. Members, from all parties, who have said that that aid should be an opportunity for us to exert more leverage on Zimbabwe in this crucial period. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall made the very important point that, in the case of Zimbabwe, consulting officials rather than elected politicians is perhaps not the best route, and certainly should not be the only route in terms of the implementation of aid; and that we should also consider consulting elected members of Parliament and councillors in Zimbabwe on a cross-party basis.

Martin Horwood: We need to treat the conditionality of aid very cautiously. The hon. Gentleman's Government -the last Labour Government-were right to grant aid to Zimbabwe through the UN and NGOs exclusively, rather than giving aid from Government to Government, and we have been right to follow that policy. It is important to understand that point.

Stephen Twigg: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. What I sought to do was to echo an important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall about the specific circumstances right now in Zimbabwe. An approach that relies on officials, which may well make sense in the vast majority of countries, does not make sense in the case of Zimbabwe, for the reasons my hon. Friend set out earlier.

I echo what a number of hon. Members have said about the robust approach of President Zuma, which, as my hon. Friend has said, stands in stark contrast to the lamentable record of his predecessor. I also agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I happened to be in South Africa in 2003 when Walter Sisulu had just died, and I saw the pictures of Mugabe at Sisulu's funeral. Mugabe got exactly the sort of response then that the hon. Gentleman described in his speech today, and we need to remember that public opinion in Africa, particularly southern Africa, is a challenge, and that we should give whatever support we can to President Zuma and to other Governments in the region who are now prepared to stand up to Mugabe's thuggery.

We have seen some progress in recent years towards economic improvements in Zimbabwe-my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall referred to visiting shops that were full of produce-but clearly, as this debate has demonstrated, political developments have fallen well short of what we would expect. Targeted measures remain an essential lever at our disposal, but we also need to press a number of issues that require immediate and intensive political and diplomatic pressure.

First, there is the need for a new constitution that is endorsed by the people of Zimbabwe, and I press the Minister to respond to the points made by almost all this morning's speakers about the vital importance of getting election monitors on the ground as soon as possible. Secondly, there is the importance of opening space for a free media to publish. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport spoke about access to balanced radio and the possibility of securing Department for International Development funding for that. Thirdly, there is the crucial importance of an independently verified electoral register. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about people who are on the register but are no longer with us, and about fairness in the electoral register being important in there being a free and fair election. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke about the experience of manipulation of the register in Zimbabwean elections. Fourthly, there is the crucial role that we can play in securing the root-and-branch reform of the security sector.

Progress, as this debate has demonstrated, has been painfully slow. I welcome the establishment of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Human Rights Commission and Media Commission, but it is demonstrable that those bodies do not have sufficient resources to operate effectively, and there is a real danger that what should be independent bodies might serve no purpose other than the objectives of Mugabe and his supporters. Any election that is held ahead of an agreement to a new constitution, the opening of space for free media, an independently verified electoral register and security sector reforms, will not be acceptable, and it is vital to restate that throughout this debate.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) spoke about the escalation of abuse in the run-up to elections, and I want to highlight the very concerning recent escalation of violence in Zimbabwe, and to refer to an excellent but disturbing report from Human Rights Watch, "Perpetual Fear: Impunity and Cycles of Violence in Zimbabwe", which documents the context of impunity within which ZANU-PF activists have perpetrated systematic violence against other Zimbabweans, whose only aspirations are for a free and democratic Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch has observed the active and passive forms of impunity that are fostered by the democratic deficit in Zimbabwe, and as long as fear and intimidation are either encouraged or ignored by the state apparatus, democratic developments will not be achieved.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, SADC has an increasingly important role to play. She said that there are reasons to be hopeful, but the situation is fragile. What today's debate has demonstrated once again is the very real cross-party agreement in this House in standing up for the people of Zimbabwe. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport talked about the important role that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy could play, and I echo those words.

A number of hon. Members have referred to events elsewhere in Africa and the middle east, and there is clearly a danger that the world, and the UK in particular, will take its eye off the ball. We have a unique influence and we need to use it, as has been said, both directly with South Africa and with the other SADC countries, the wider African Union, which has its own responsibilities, and our European Union partners. I am keen to hear the Minister's current assessment, as the Minister for Europe, of the perspective at a European level, and also at an African level, with the role that SADC and the African Union have to play.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall paid tribute to Mike Campbell, and said that we must hope that his death was not in vain. Too many lives have been lost in Zimbabwe; too many people have suffered through the tyranny and thuggishness of the Mugabe regime. We must not take our eye off the ball. I again congratulate my hon. Friend and the other members of the all-party group, and I look forward to the Minister's response, which I am sure will demonstrate that the Government maintain their absolute commitment to the people of Zimbabwe, and the absolute commitment of the British people to securing a democratic future for the country.

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