CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

REPRESSION IN ZIMBABWE – 23 January 2002

Dr Julian Lewis: It is chastening to observe that Robert Mugabe, who started his time in power in Zimbabwe as an avowed Marxist, seems to be ending it as a fascist.

I am put in mind of the fact that, at about the time that Mugabe took control of Zimbabwe back in 1980, the BBC televised a version of Bertolt Brecht's remarkable play "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui". It painted, in terms of Chicago gangland, a parable of the rise to power of Hitler and the way in which he maintained himself in power, though nothing more than a lethal murderous clown, by means of corruption of the courts, intimidation of witnesses and the substitution of gangsterism for civilised behaviour.

I am reminded of that play in the context of present-day Zimbabwe because of the series of reports that comes out of that wretched country day by day. On 15 January, it was reported that David Mpala, an opposition lawmaker, was critically wounded after 20 ruling party militants attacked him, slitting his abdomen. The police spokesman said that the incident was being investigated, but claimed that the assailants were unknown and suggested that "it could have been a case of carjacking".

Similarly, on 19 January, it was reported that Thomas Tawanda Spicer, the 17-year-old son of a Zimbabwean filmmaker, was tied to a tree, and beaten and kicked throughout the night. Later, he was taken to a police station where he was reportedly arrested on charges of kidnapping. After first denying any knowledge of him, the police then confirmed that he was in their custody, but have denied him access to his family or to a lawyer.

This is the third debate that has taken place in as many months on Zimbabwe in Westminster Hall. There remain 45 days before the presidential election. Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change states that the country is already engaged in what he describes as "low-intensity civil war". There are road blocks where people are required to produce ZANU-PF cards if they want to proceed. Prisoners are being interrogated in ways that would have Labour Back Benchers and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers frothing at the mouth if they were applied to al-Qaeda suspects in Cuba.

The foreign press is being excluded from the country, and the local press is threatened with being licensed year by year. The chief justice of Zimbabwe has been forced from office; opposition politicians have been murdered; their rallies have been tear-gassed and their offices torched. An electoral register excluding up to 2 million Zimbabweans on the basis that one parent was born abroad has been drawn up, while the same electoral register allows large numbers of long-dead voters the privilege of receiving a ballot paper.

There are threats to seize UK companies in Zimbabwe, of which there are about 300. Repeated demands are being made for British passport holders to renounce their UK citizenship and, presumably, the protection that that is still reckoned to confer. Since 2000, 156 opposition supporters have been murdered and many more have been kidnapped and tortured. The military have stated that they will not serve under a different Government from that of Mr Mugabe. Of course, they do not put it precisely in those words. The chief of staff, General Zvinavashe, said that the armed forces could not accept a president who had not fought in the liberation struggle. That was clearly designed to rule out Morgan Tsvangirai.

It is believed that, since the beginning of this month, some 10,000 soldiers have been sent on leave to campaign throughout the country for a Mugabe election win. Legislation is being put into practice to ban foreign journalists from working in Zimbabwe at the earliest opportunity. Two-year jail terms are anticipated for reporters who cause, by their journalism, "alarm and despondency" in the country.

In short, Zimbabwe is suffering from starvation, inflation and colossal unemployment, while Mugabe and his cronies embezzle funds and channel them abroad in readiness for a possible enforced retirement to Libya or some other bolthole, in the event that they are finally forced from power.

The head of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, Basildon Peta, has produced a remarkable series of reports for The Independent. He notes:

"Critics say the new laws exceed the worst excesses of Rhodesia's white minority government or apartheid South Africa".

The question that I must ask is, why are people who, rightly, strongly criticised white repression in those countries in the past responding so feebly to black repression now? This is a viciously racist and fascistic regime. Where are the mass demonstrations against it? Could it be that people on the left of politics feel a little intimidated by such Mugabe rhetoric – unjustified rhetoric I hasten to add – as, "Britain has a war with us. Prime Minister Tony Blair wants his own version of colonialism in Zimbabwe.” Is it a liberal-left guilt feeling about anti-imperialism, or simply double standards? I do not believe that it is double standards, but I do believe that a bit of liberal angst is creeping into the muted reaction that we are getting to this terrible situation.

Baroness Amos, a Government spokesman in the Upper House, reportedly told the BBC:

"There have been calls for targeted sanctions against the government of Zimbabwe.

"The process that we are engaged in with the European Union could result in what are called 'appropriate measures' if the things that we are looking for are not met. What it means is that Britain has been working with partners on this. The EU has the possibility to take 'appropriate measures'... that could be targeted sanctions."

The report, via the Press Association, goes on to say that Lady Amos added that the Government want to maintain dialogue with Zimbabwe and said:

"We are not ruling anything in or anything out.

"We are at a point now where the Government of Zimbabwe have to come back with some written commitments...

"And the EU have made it absolutely clear that they will be looking very closely at the action that is being taken by the Zimbabwe government on the ground."

Julian Brazier (Canterbury): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Is not part of the problem that Ministers have remarked more than once that Robert Mugabe came to power by democratic means? Surely the lesson of history is that some of the very worst tyrants, including arguably Adolf Hitler, originally came to power by largely democratic means. That cannot be a justification for what is happening now.

Dr Lewis: It is certainly true that the system in Zimbabwe seems to be a parody of democracy. Its leaders try to govern by means of institutions that look, on the face of it, as if they conform to democracy while actually being the merest send-up or perversion of democracy in the way in which they operate.

I fear that the Foreign Office has consistently applied too much of a softly-softly approach. We saw the same sort of language back in April 2000, when The Independent quoted British officials as claiming that the Cairo meeting between the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Robin Cook), and Mr Mugabe had restored relations to

"a frozen kind of friendliness",

and that Mugabe would lessen his criticism of UK Ministers if the Government would

"lower the temperature of its commentary"

about him. That is not the approach that is required, or that we were led to expect when the Prime Minister said in May:

"I will make Africa a major personal priority and a priority for the Labour Government."

In June, the Foreign Office said in a press release:

"Relations with Africa will be an important priority for this Government's second term of office."

In a leaked memorandum entitled "Touchstone Issues" and published in The Times on 18 July last year, the Prime Minister admitted that the Government is seen as "insufficiently assertive on Zimbabwe".

It is not assertions that Zimbabwe needs, but effective action. It is hard to believe that right up until recently the deportations of people back to Zimbabwe were continuing at a heavy pace. The Refugee Council expressed serious concern that the Home Office's assessment of the situation in Zimbabwe was so out of date that it was only under severe pressure from the council – and, I might add, from the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats – that the Home Secretary suspended deportations of people back into the hands of the Mugabe regime.

There has been much talk about what measures could be applied. We hear that smart sanctions are under consideration by the European Union and America, and that the Commonwealth is expected to consider calls for Zimbabwe's suspension. Where is the voice of Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in all this? For that matter, where is the practical action by our Prime Minister, who memorably told the Labour Party conference last year that

"on the African side, true democracy, no more excuses for dictatorship, abuses of human rights; no tolerance of bad governance, from the endemic corruption of some states to the activities of Mr Mugabe's henchmen in Zimbabwe … This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us."

On 14 January, Mugabe promised the Southern African Development Community that the presidential elections would be free and fair, and that recent cases of political violence would be "fully and impartially investigated". Apparently, that was good enough for the President of Malawi, the chairman of the SADC, who said:

"Let's give Zimbabwe a chance. President Mugabe has made a commitment to us as SADC – let's wait and see."

After that regional summit in Malawi, Mugabe boasted:

"The whole meeting supported our position"

and he claimed that he would like "free and fair" presidential elections to go ahead. That was also enough for South Africa's deputy Foreign Minister, who said that there was no alternative to using "quiet diplomacy" to persuade Mugabe to restore the rule of law. He said:

"Let's try at this very difficult time to assist, to take measures that will help us stabilise the situation."

That is in stark contrast to Morgan Tsvangirai's call for South Africa to impose direct sanctions on Zimbabwe by cutting transport links and stopping fuel and electricity supplies. That call will evidently fall on deaf ears.

The sad fact is that the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has achieved more effective action against Robert Mugabe than the Commonwealth, the United Nations, the EU and the Governments of Britain and South Africa put together. Basildon Peta, the head of the free journalists in Zimbabwe, has stated that the EU, the UN, Britain and the Commonwealth have done precisely nothing. He said:

"All we can do is brace ourselves for years of dictatorship, and pray that someone, one day, comes to our aid."

He also said:

"An unfortunate truth for many Zimbabweans is that we cannot rely on institutions such as the Commonwealth, the British Government or the European Union, which purport to be the custodians of democracy, for relief against wayward leaders like President Robert Mugabe."

Tony Worthington (Clydebank & Milngavie): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Tony Worthington: The hon. Gentleman's speech has contained some fine rhetoric, but he has not yet said what he would do. Before he brings his remarks to a conclusion, will he say what he would do?

Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have said that tough sanctions should be brought into play. I may be somewhat ahead of my party's position, because I would not rule out direct intervention in the event that this dictatorship is not seen to bring matters back into a constitutional position.

Tony Worthington rose – 

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman will have his chance to contribute shortly. I want to develop the point that I was about to make when he intervened.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Ben Bradshaw), will respond to the debate, because as he knows I consistently supported the Government when they took action against tough regimes. He has remarked on that fact to me, and I am grateful that he acknowledges my support. I supported the Government over Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, and I hope, in the not too distant future, to be able to support the Government over Zimbabwe as well.

I began by drawing a parallel between Mugabe's regime and Nazism, and I want to go back to that to conclude my speech. Desmond Tutu has rightly described the Zimbabwean political leadership as having gone

"bonkers in a big way".

That reminded me of the famous despatch that our ambassador in Germany sent home as early as June 1933 – only a few months after Hitler had come to power. The ambassador, Sir Horace Rumbold, was retiring and sadly was about to be replaced by an appeaser. In his valedictory address, he said:

"I have the impression that the persons directing the policy of the Hitler Government are not normal. Many of us, indeed, have a feeling that we are living in a country where fantastic hooligans and eccentrics have got the upper hand."

His recommendation then was that Hitler should not be appeased. Our recommendation now is that Mugabe should not be appeased either.