The reform process in Zimbabwe was progressing although movement was slow and was quite often obscured by events, Britain’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Henry Bellingham said this week.
Bellingham was responding to the debate on Zimbabwe raised by the Member of Parliament for South West Bedfordshire Andrew Selous.
He said the economy under the “stewardship of the quite excellent Finance Minister Tendai Biti” was showing signs of robust recovery.
“There is a lively media, and newspapers that are openly critical of the government are sold every day on the street corners of Harare. The provision of basic services has improved out of all recognition, supported by the important contributions of the Department for International Development and others in the donor community. Textbooks are now in every secondary school, medicines are in hospitals, and food is on the shelves. Zimbabwe has come a long way since its nadir in 2008, and we can be proud of the role that we have played,” he said.
Bellingham said there had also been progress in the political arena, though not much. The constitutional reform process was moving forward, but violence and intimidation of activists in civil society continued.
Below is Bellingham’s full response:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate, and I praise him for his concise and compelling speech. If I do not answer all his points, I shall write to him after the debate.
The timing of the debate is certainly opportune—ZANU-PF is currently holding its conference in Bulawayo, and it has an important few days ahead of it. Next year and early 2013 will be a pivotal time for Zimbabwe. The actions that ZANU-PF and other political parties take in the next 18 months will have a huge impact on the shape of Zimbabwe’s future.
Our policy at such a crucial moment can be summed up simply: we want to do all that we can to support the Zimbabwean people’s aspirations for a more democratic, stable and prosperous country. To set out what that means, it might be useful for me to provide a brief update on the situation on the ground and the role that the UK is playing.
It is important to recognise that the reform process has not stood still. Although movement is slow and can often be obscured by events, progress has been made. The economy, under the stewardship of the quite excellent Finance Minister Tendai Biti, continues to show signs of robust recovery. He forecast an impressive 9.5% growth in 2012 in his budget speech last week. There is a lively media, and newspapers that are openly critical of the Government are sold every day on the street corners of Harare. The provision of basic services has improved out of all recognition, supported by the important contributions of the Department for International Development and others in the donor community. Textbooks are now in every secondary school, medicines are in hospitals, and food is on the shelves. Zimbabwe has come a long way since its nadir in 2008, and we can be proud of the role that we have played.
There has also been progress, but not as much, in the political arena. Constitutional reform is moving forward, and although the process has been tough and slow, there seems to be no doubt on any side that a new constitution will be adopted before the next elections. There will almost certainly be a referendum on the new constitution early next year.
However, despite those green shoots of progress, there are considerable causes for concern. There are still those in Zimbabwe who seek to erode the reform process to retain their personal hold on power. The promising figures of the budget mask an unsustainable over-spend in public sector salaries. Violence and intimidation targeting activists from civil society and both Movements for Democratic Change continue, especially at the hands of the Chipangano militia group in Harare. Partisan political bias within the state security mechanisms threatens to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic foundation, as has been demonstrated by the cancellation of four Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai rallies by the police last month. A particularly acute illustration of that concern is the recent death threat made by an alleged state security officer to an MDC-T Member of Parliament, in response to points raised about the Marange diamond fields in a parliamentary debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire also gave other examples.
Ian Paisley: I would like to put on record my thanks to the Minister for his kindness and his good work and briefing that he has given many of us across the House on Africa and African issues.
Recently I had the opportunity of hosting Roy Bennett here. Will the Minister consider arranging for his officials and himself to receive a briefing from Roy Bennett about some of the on-going party persecutions in Zimbabwe?
Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising his meeting with Roy Bennett. I also had the chance to meet Roy Bennett when he was here, about six weeks ago. He gave us a fairly comprehensive report, which we have seen. We will look at any other report he produces, because we have great admiration and respect for him.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire mentioned Marange diamonds. I would like to touch briefly on the recent Kinshasa agreement of the Kimberley process. It was the result of considerable diplomatic effort by the European Union and our partners, and we played a full role in it. I believe that the outcome, although not perfect, is a reasonable one for both Zimbabwe and the KP. We went into the negotiations with clear red lines on what we would not compromise on, and they remained intact in the final deal.
Under the terms of the agreement, Zimbabwe can export only diamonds from the Marange region that comply with KP standards. We need only to look at Minister Biti’s budget statement to see the importance of that revenue to the Zimbabwean Treasury. Furthermore, the agreement establishes a credible and independent monitoring mechanism to ensure that the standards are respected, which includes a role for civil society. The EU, Canada and other countries were pivotal in driving that forward. The United States abstained, but we were satisfied with the outcome because our red lines were kept in place.
I will say something about the subject of land and the continuing practice of illegal farm invasions. Such abuses are once again increasing in frequency. It causes privation not only to farmers and their workers, who are being forced from their land, but to the entire agricultural sector of Zimbabwe. As my hon. Friend pointed out, tobacco yields are down 38% on 2000 levels, and wheat yields are down a staggering 82%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, the fact that a country of Zimbabwe’s agricultural potential still requires food aid for its citizens is quite appalling, and it is a result of destructive and vindictive land policies.
It is not only the UK that judges such actions to be illegal and in contravention of the global political agreement; it was also the judgment of a 2008 Southern African Development Community tribunal, which ruled in favour of three Zimbabwean farmers, including the late Mike Campbell. The demise of that tribunal was a retrograde step for regional law, but despite its suspension, the ruling was upheld by a South African court this June.
We have always recognised the central importance of the land question to Zimbabwe, which is why we contributed to a land redistribution programme immediately after independence. While we have never accepted the allegation that the UK alone should fund compensation for land redistribution, we remain willing to engage other donors in a land reform programme in Zimbabwe that is transparent, fair and pro-poor. We regard a land audit, as provided for in the GPA, to be a necessary first step in the process, and the EU made it clear some time ago that it was willing to fund such an exercise.
Continued farm invasions are symptomatic of a wider disregard for human rights, which extends to those of different political and religious persuasions. I welcome the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire on the UN convention, and I will write separately to him. I want to assure the House that the Zimbabwean Government are under no illusions of our strong condemnation of the ongoing abuses.
The enduring uncertainty over the timing of the next elections is at the centre of much of the abuse. Under the terms of the existing constitution, elections must be held by June 2013. What is crucial is that polls, when held, are preceded by the necessary reforms and avoid the devastating levels of violence that were seen in 2008. To that end, the UK fully supports the efforts of SADC, particularly those of South Africa and President Zuma, as they work with all three main Zimbabwean parties to agree a path to the finalisation of the GPA and a road map to elections. I assure my hon. Friend that the road map will include key items, such as provision for proper observers and monitors, a fully independent electoral commission and an electoral roll that is fit for purpose. As he pointed out, it is vital that the police and army stay out of the electoral process.
Regional engagement is essential. No country exists in a vacuum. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the recent Zambian election provides an impressive regional role model to follow. We, as outsiders, have only a secondary role to play, but I assure Members that we have been absolutely explicit in assuring the southern African region of our commitment to and full support for their efforts. We stand ready to do more if called upon, and have made clear, for example, our willingness to participate in the provision of international monitors.
As for the EU’s targeted measures, we have made it crystal-clear—I say this clearly to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—that we stand ready to revisit the measures only in response to concrete changes on the ground.
Zimbabwe is facing an absolutely critical time. Lessons must be learned from what has happened elsewhere in Africa, including northern Africa. A free and fair poll, which respects the will of the democratic majority of Zimbabweans, should follow the example of Zambia—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).