Seanad debates

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Adjournment Matters

Situation in Zimbabwe.

9:00 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I raise this matter relating to the Government of Zimbabwe in the full knowledge that Ireland has a proud tradition of resisting oppression in Africa and has often raised its voice in this regard independent of other nations, particularly regarding the oppressive regime in South Africa in the 1980s. This is something we have rightly trumpeted and we now have an opportunity to influence a regime that may not be equally oppressive but is particularly obnoxious and objectionable. It would be timely if the Government took a lead in opposing what is happening in Zimbabwe, in particular by denouncing the dictatorial regime of President Mugabe and its actions.

It was particularly welcome that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, was first out of the traps when what has been happening in Zimbabwe came to light. He spontaneously stated in New York, I believe, that he condemns the situation there and that was an act of courage. It is useful that Ireland, with its anti-colonial record can make such statements because we punch above our weight in this area. However, I do not think we are doing enough. It is not enough for the Minister to merely publicly assuage the feelings of pressure groups that are rightly antagonistic towards Mr. Mugabe and then say the job is done.

A long-term job is needed on the regime in Zimbabwe. It was not democratically elected, Mr. Mugabe fiddled the vote in his favour and got the result he wanted. This is bad enough but the use of the regime to oppress the people of Zimbabwe makes it incumbent on us to raise our voices in strong protest. Loudspeaker diplomacy is useful sometimes to put external pressure on President Mugabe but it is now appropriate for the Government to support those African governments that oppose his regime, though they may be doing so behind the scenes while appearing to be friends of President Mugabe.

It has reached the stage that we must use two approaches on Mr. Mugabe. One is to support those who quietly oppose his actions while supposedly his friends and the second is to publicly expose him for the dictator he is. One would have to have had one's head in the sand not to have seen what has been happening in Zimbabwe recently and not to realise that serious protests are merited.

It is not entirely clear what happened to the leader of the opposition when he was taken into custody recently but it is clear he was brutalised, tortured and taken into custody for political reasons. A demonstrator was shot dead and we all know that oppression is the order of the day in Zimbabwe. There is no freedom of the press, no right of assembly, people are frightened of free speech and we must ask what should be done at this stage.

The demands of Amnesty International are reasonable and should be taken into account. It has asked the Government to request that the international community launch an immediate investigation into the recent killings and violence, to demand an end to further state torture and violence, to ensure the protection of human rights defenders and see that key human rights such as freedom of association and assembly are restored in Zimbabwe. This is the minimum that should be asked and there are other, stronger opinions which maintain that, as torture is a breach of international law, the leaders of the Zimbabwean Government, particularly President Mugabe, should be made answerable to an international court if these allegations, which appear to be true, are proven.

It is unacceptable for the Government to make piecemeal gestures and action is incumbent upon us and the Minister, though this is not meant as an accusatory statement. I particularly applaud the Minister for his fine record in this area and it is incumbent upon him to use the goodwill he has fostered in Africa to put pressure on the Mugabe regime.

10:00 pm

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Senator Ross is an independent and outspoken Senator and I do not disagree with anything he has said so far in this debate. Ireland is outspoken and committed to stopping the outrage that is occurring in Zimbabwe. We are to the forefront internationally and in the EU in seeking to bring about changes in attitude, habit and behaviour in the Zimbabwean regime.

The Government takes the political, economic and human rights situation in Zimbabwe most seriously. There are, unfortunately, no signs that the Zimbabwean Government is willing to change the destructive policies which have brought the country's economy to its knees, nor is there any sign of democratic reforms.

The indifference of the leadership to the people's plight is unfortunately all too clear. We have seen an increase in repression in recent years, with large-scale arrests of peaceful demonstrators becoming common. Recently leading opposition activists have been shamefully ill-treated in police detention. The unapologetic attitude of the country's leadership to these incidents is a worrying sign of the culture of impunity for human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. These attacks on well-known public figures are part of a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation and violence. There is real concern that when high-profile people are publicly targeted, crimes against ordinary Zimbabweans may routinely go unpunished.

Police actions in recent weeks have effectively denied Zimbabweans the internationally recognised rights of freedom of speech and of assembly. The ill-treatment of those in custody infringes both UN human rights standards and those standards which African governments have signed up to, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The EU Presidency has made several strong statements on behalf of the European Union condemning the ongoing violent suppression of the rights of freedom of opinion and of assembly. Resident EU embassies in Harare are continuing to monitor the situation closely. My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, issued a statement earlier this month on behalf of the Government, condemning the disgraceful actions of the Zimbabwean police. He urged the Zimbabwean Government to cease suppressing the basic fundamental rights of its people and suggested that a new approach, which includes dialogue between all political forces, is needed to resolve Zimbabwe's serious political, social and economic problems.

Ireland will be among the countries making national statements on Zimbabwe when the UN Human Rights Council considers the situation there tomorrow. Our Ambassador to Zimbabwe, based in Pretoria, has been instructed to make our concerns known directly at the earliest possible opportunity and a special meeting of EU officials will take place on 4 April to discuss the European Union's policy on Zimbabwe. The EU has already put restrictive measures in place against the leadership of Zimbabwe and last month the Common Position on these restrictive measures was renewed until February 2008. These measures are designed to affect the Zimbabwean leadership without adding to the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe and any further action by the EU must fulfil these same criteria.

Ireland has participated fully in all EU discussions on Zimbabwe and we are one of the member states which are keeping the issue high on the Union's agenda. Our chief aim in doing this is to help the people of Zimbabwe secure a better future for themselves. In order to maximise the impact of our actions, the EU needs to generate support for change among our African partners, so they will use their influence with the Zimbabwean Government and with Mr. Mugabe directly. In recent days EU presidencies in the Southern African Development Community, SADC, countries have expressed to their host governments the EU's concern about the recent developments in Zimbabwe.

I share the revulsion of all in the House at the nature of the Mugabe regime. However, we will be most effective in mobilising the African support we need if we focus on policies rather than personalities. We must highlight how the policies of the Mugabe Government contravene the human rights standards on which Africa seeks to base its future development.

I hope the leaders of those countries most affected by Zimbabwe's problems, namely, its neighbours which are hosting millions of Zimbabweans who have had to leave the country, will speak out publicly. Many African leaders have already made statements in response to the latest developments in Zimbabwe. President Kikwete of Tanzania met with Zimbabwean Government and Opposition leaders in Harare earlier this month as part of a joint initiative with President Mbeki of South Africa to achieve better results through quiet diplomacy. Zimbabwe will be discussed at a SADC summit meeting in Tanzania on 28 and 29 March.

I am acutely conscious of the suffering caused by the dire economic situation in Zimbabwe and the need to provide support directly to the ordinary people of the country who are experiencing a living nightmare. Irish Aid continues to provide assistance for the people of Zimbabwe. In 2006, almost €8 million was provided through non-governmental organisation partners and UN agencies. A further €5.4 million has been allocated to date in 2007.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I appreciate the Minister of State's reply and I am aware of his good will on this issue. I also appreciate that the Government's policy appears to be to support African governments which wish to correct the inequities in the Zimbabwean regime. Is it Government policy that those responsible for state torture in Zimbabwe should be held accountable for their actions to the world community, possibly in court?

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Government policy in respect of Zimbabwe, Darfur or any other part of the world where there is flagrant disregard for basic human rights law, as guaranteed under the United Nations Charter, is that people should be held to account. This should apply to Mr. Mugabe, his Government and those who work under its direction and control, namely, the police and security forces and others engaged in actions of the type described by Senator Ross.

As Minister of State with responsibility for development co-operation and human rights, I have more contact with African leaders than my ministerial colleagues. I assure Senator Ross than on almost every occasion I have met leading figures from the African continent, including former President Chissano and current President Guebuza of Mozambique, the President and Prime Minister of Tanzania, and most recently, during a visit by President McAleese, the President and Prime Minister of Lesotho, I have raised this matter and urged those I have met to do more to apply pressure to the government in Harare, in particular, Mr. Mugabe. I have also discussed this matter with the former President of Zambia who has, with former President Chissano, attempted to influence Mr. Mugabe to take a different path.

All the entreaties and pressure points we have brought to bear on African leaders have not fallen on deaf ears. Unfortunately, however, the efforts of African leaders to act as intermediaries, as in the case of Mr. Chissano, are not having an effect. Many of the gentlemen in question have informed me that they have thrown up their hands in frustration because they cannot influence Mr. Mugabe or persuade him to change policy. It is a most depressing picture because the individuals in question are committed and know Mr. Mugabe extremely well at personal, political and diplomatic levels but are not making any progress.

Most recently, when I had the honour to accompany President McAleese on a three-country visit to our programme countries in Africa, I had a meeting with Nelson Mandela in the course of which Zimbabwe was raised. Unfortunately, even Mr. Mandela, a stellar figure on the continent of Africa and an example to many African leaders, did not express positive sentiments. Like many other African leaders, he felt rather depressed about the position in Zimbabwe and despite his friendship with Mr. Mugabe over the years, he did not believe he could change him. The picture is bleak and depressing.

Ireland is party to European Union restrictions aimed at hitting the Mugabe regime rather than its people. We will continue to raise the issue as best we can at every level. Initial reluctance by African leaders to criticise a fellow African leader has dissipated and they are trying their best. I would love to be able to say there is an easy, uncomplicated solution to the problem.

As Minister of State with responsibility for development co-operation and human rights, I would be pleased to consider the proposals made by Amnesty International, an excellent organisation with which I and Irish Aid have a strong working relationship. I will read its report on the position in Zimbabwe to determine whether the Government can fulfil its request. As Senator Ross correctly noted, Amnesty International is not always right but in this case it appears to have much in favour of its argument.

I again thank Senator Ross for raising the matter. He has proven again that he is a courageous and independent voice in the House.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.15 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 March 2007.