Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:
Whether they intend to raise the recent closure of church schools in Zimbabwe, the arrest of teaching staff and warnings of forthcoming famine in the country at the United Nations.
The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, Zimbabwe’s schools have now re-opened and the teachers have been released without charge. The continuing humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe is a topic of constant discussion among the donor community, including the United Nations. The UN will continue to monitor the humanitarian situation as closely as it can, but the Zimbabwe Government’s recent decision to cancel the joint crop assessment could delay the international community’s response if food aid is needed.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. Did she see the disturbing comments at the weekend of the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Archbishop Ncube, who said that he believed that the Mugabe regime,
“is planning to starve the people in order to get votes”?
Does she not agree that the deliberate targeting of food against opponents of the regime is a very sinister development, and that the eviction of the United Nations crop assessors whom she just mentioned also will ensure that the situation in the country becomes ever worse? What has to happen in Zimbabwe before Her Majesty’s Government believe it right to raise this matter in the Security Council?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I did see those comments. The noble Lord will know that the Archbishop of Bulawayo stated that he thought that some 10,000 people in western Zimbabwe had died as a result of lack of access to food in the past year.
On the issue of the Security Council, we have been round this ground a number of times. The UN Security Council will look at issues only in relation to peace and security in the world. When the situation was dire, we managed through the World Food Programme to have the issue of Zimbabwe raised at the Security Council. However, without the support of the African nations that have consistently voted a no-action motion in the Commission on Human Rights-so that the concerns of the European Union and others about human rights are not considered on an annual basis-this issue will not be raised at the Security Council.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the noble Baroness the Leader of the House aware that because parents are being charged a levy at Zimbabwean schools for the cost of chalk, paper and other consumables, which is continually being increased to match the 600 per cent inflation, many parents have withdrawn their children from schools, so that enrolment is now at only 59 per cent? Is she further aware that Mr Gideon Gono, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, is here, apparently to make arrangements to ensure that all remittances by exiles are sent through the Reserve Bank so that he can cream off a fee and exchange it at the official exchange rate, making it even more difficult for parents who depend on these remittances to continue to keep their children at school? Will she not withdraw the visa that has been granted to Mr Gono? How does he come not to be on the exclusion list?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, on the number of children withdrawn from schools, I was not aware of the figures mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I am aware of the fact that the fees have had to be raised and that inflation in Zimbabwe is running at more than 500 per cent, which is causing a great many problems not only for parents with children but for every ordinary Zimbabwe citizen in accessing food and other daily essentials.
As I understand it, the governor of the Reserve Bank is not on the list because he is not playing a leading role in the ZANU/PF politburo or in the government. However, I will go back and check on that and write to the noble Lord if my information on that has changed. I am aware that the government of Zimbabwe are seeking to reach out to the diaspora and seeking to get them to send remittances back to the country through formal channels. I cannot comment on the use that they will make of that.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, is the Minister aware that half an hour ago I was speaking to the diocesan secretary in Matabeleland, who informed me that although things have improved as the Minister indicates in education, the fact remains that the three heads of the Anglican schools in Matabeleland remain suspended? The issue of fees being raised to match the 600 per cent inflation to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred, remains a continuing problem. I wonder whether the noble Baroness can reassure the House that her very optimistic response really does have sufficient background to it.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I certainly do not feel that I gave an optimistic response. I think that the situation in Zimbabwe is dire. On the issue of the Anglican school heads, I was not aware that they remained suspended. I was asked the specific question of whether there were any remaining concerns with respect to church schools in Zimbabwe. I will go back and check on that matter again. The information I have indicates that six head teachers were briefly arrested but were released. However, the issue of suspension was not brought to my attention.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, the noble Baroness-I think with the full understanding of the House, which knows of her concern in this matter-pointed out the difficulty of getting any reaction from the African states. Can she confirm that there is a very serious situation in Botswana because of the number of Zimbabwean refugees flowing into that country looking for some sort of food and some sort of work? Can she say whether the same crisis is occurring among other neighbours of Zimbabwe, with the possibility that minds might be altered by that?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I shall try to explain to the House that it is very difficult to get a collective response from African countries when these issues are raised in public. In our discussions with individual heads of state of African countries they will express concern about the situation. Noble Lords will understand that I cannot go into the detail of those private discussions.
Botswana is facing a difficult situation. Some 127,000 Zimbabweans are trying to get into Botswana each month. The noble Baroness will know that Botswana has had a long history as a stable economy, which has recently been undermined because of the high level of HIV/AIDS. Botswana has erected a security fence on the pretext that it is to keep out wandering cattle. Many people feel that it is to deal with illegal immigration. It is impacting on other countries, who have expressed concern.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, the Minister has told us many times that it is effectively impossible for us to raise the issue of Zimbabwe in the UN Security Council for the reasons that she has given. What effort has been made to get the Commonwealth, which, after all, includes a number of African and Caribbean countries, to make representations as one body in the United Nations? As it is, we are allowing the African Union to dictate what happens in an organisation that is supposed to be there to protect the humanitarian rights of the world, among other things. Can we not have a Commonwealth-organised demonstration of sympathy and solidarity? Let the Commonwealth or the Commonwealth countries table the resolutions that we are unable to do, apparently.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Baroness knows as well as I do the difficulties that the Commonwealth has faced at recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings-the most recent in Abuja and the one before that-in reaching a consensus on Zimbabwe. She will also know that Mr Mugabe actually took Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth as a result of the decision that was taken at Abuja-a decision which, I have to say, was fought hard over. I met with some individuals from the Commonwealth Secretariat this morning. Their feeling is that they are only just beginning to repair some of the damage that was caused at that meeting as a result of the discussion about Zimbabwe. So, while I understand what the noble Baroness is trying to say, I do not think that it is something that the Commonwealth would be able to do collectively, with respect to the UN Security Council.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I think that we all agree that Mr Tabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, is a central figure in trying to resolve this terrible situation. Now that the poison is spreading out of Zimbabwe into Botswana, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has reminded us, and into South Africa, can the Minister say when Her Majesty’s Government last made representations to Mr Mbeke or last talked to him about action that is desperately needed to stop this issue poisoning the whole of the southern African development plan?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I have said many times in this House, as has my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, that we have an ongoing dialogue with South Africa about this issue at ministerial and official level. My honourable friend, the Minister responsible for African affairs, was in South Africa last week and of course these issues came up as part of that discussion. South Africa is playing a very important role behind the scenes in seeking to bring the opposition parties and the government together with respect to looking at the future of Zimbabwe. However, we all know that it is not an easy task and some noble Lords will have seen the interview on Sky and the comments which were being made by Mugabe about the state of that country. It is absolutely clear that he puts being in power above all else and cares little for what is happening to the people of Zimbabwe.
Lord Acton: My Lords, last week in answer to my supplementary question on a Starred Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, the Minister gave a figure of 2 million Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa. Today she has given a figure of the number of Zimbabweans seeking to enter Botswana. Does she have a figure for how many Zimbabwean refugees there are in Botswana and how many there are in Mozambique?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I do not have that figure, partly because the figures I have are from the Botswana immigration authorities and relate to people trying to get into the country. They have concerns that a number of people manage to enter illegally, but I do not have those figures. I shall seek to find them, write to my noble friend and put a copy in the Library.
Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister not understand that what so concerns the House and public opinion is that diplomacy seems to be producing a conspiracy of silence combined with ineffectiveness?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I well understand the concern being expressed in the House, but we also need to understand that the people of Zimbabwe and people in other African countries feel that Britain let them down. I have travelled to many of those countries and have been on national radio taking questions from people about the situation between Britain and Zimbabwe. They feel that at the point when black Zimbabweans needed help this country preferred to support white Zimbabweans who had stolen their land. That runs very, very deep. If we do not understand that, we fail to understand the power that Mugabe has in raising the temperature and portraying Britain always as a colonial power looking backwards rather than forwards.
Lord Elton: My Lords, the Minister has illustrated clearly the difficulties that we have as the principal actors against that regime. Is it not therefore relevant that the Question refers to church schools? There are many Churches and many black Churches in Africa who do not have that handicap. Will the Government facilitate in any way that they can the transfer of information and views between black African Churches so that they come to bear on black African governments?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, of course we have worked with the Churches and other NGOs. We have sought to support the Solidarity Peace Trust, for example, and other NGOs working in this area, to bring the situation to the attention of African governments. But I have to say that the bulk of the black population in African countries fails to see the logic of what we are trying to do now. That is why it is so difficult for South African leaders to come out and speak more passionately in public in the way that they do in private about what is going on in Zimbabwe.