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Full Text: Lord Jonathan Oates opposes Zimbabwe’s bid to rejoin Commonwealth

The UK House of Lords on Thursday debated Zimbabwe’s bid to re-join the Commonwealth with some peers pressing the British government on what measures it was taking to block Harare’s re-admission. Below is the full speech of one them Lord Jonathan Oates.

My Lords, I have initiated this debate to emphasise the severe damage that would be done to the reputation of the Commonwealth, to the upholding of values of democratic and human rights within the Commonwealth and to the Zimbabwe people’s struggle against tyranny, if Zimbabwe were to be readmitted while its government remains in flagrant violation of the Commonwealth Charter and of the Commonwealth’s 1991 Harare Declaration.

Reports following the visit of a Commonwealth delegation to Zimbabwe on November 12th last year, strongly suggested that Zimbabwe was on course to be readmitted, possibly even before the General Elections, due this year.

Members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Zimbabwe – of which I declare an interest as co-Chair – also came to understand that the UK government was not minded to oppose readmission, because it did not want to be isolated on the issue.

I understand the government’s sensitivity given the UK’s deeply troubled history in Zimbabwe. However, ignoring the oppression faced by the people of Zimbabwe today does not atone for past oppression inflicted under colonial rule. On the contrary, it compounds it.

So I hope that rather than bowing to the pressure of others, our government is working with fellow member states to ensure that the core principles of the Commonwealth are not made a mockery of by Zimbabwe’s readmission, while being clear that if necessary, the UK will stand in defence of those principles – even if it has to do so alone.

At the conclusion of the Commonwealth visit, the Secretariat issued the following statement:

“Zimbabwe has made significant progress in its journey to re-join the Commonwealth family….This mission by the Commonwealth forms part of the broader membership process and we look forward to advancing this further.

It is not clear what progress they had in mind, as no further detail was provided to support this assertion, but all the evidence from independent observers points to the opposite conclusion.

Their statement was particularly puzzling as the Harare Declaration is unambiguous in asserting the Commonwealth’s belief in:

‘the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives;

Zimbabwe’s paramilitary regime believes in none of those things. And it is currently in breach of every single one of the principles of the Commonwealth Charter that relate to them. Far from making progress towards these principles, levels of repression are ramping up as elections approach.

Just thirteen days after the conclusion of the Commonwealth visit, a joint meeting of the APPG Zimbabwe and the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, heard in-person-testimony from a young Zimbabwean activist, Netsai Marova, who was arrested in May 2020 for taking part in a protest, along with fellow opposition activist Cecilia Chimbiri and opposition Member of Parliament, Joanah Mamombe. They were taken to Harare Central Police Station, from which they were abducted and subjected to torture and sexual assault

– I defy anyone to hear Netsai Marova’s harrowing testimony and to continue to support Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth while such abuse takes place.

While recovering in hospital, Netsai and her colleagues were charged with taking part in an illegal protest and later with faking their own abduction and making false allegations of sexual assault and torture.

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On 10th June 2020, five UN Special Procedures experts of the UN Human Rights Council issued a statement calling on the Zimbabwe authorities to “urgently prosecute and punish the perpetrators of this outrageous crime, and to immediately enforce a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ for abductions and torture throughout the country to ensure the effective protection of women against sexual violence, and to bring those responsible to account”. They also “expressed grave alarm over concerns this was not an isolated instance” reporting that “in 2019 alone, 49 cases of abductions and torture were reported in Zimbabwe, without investigations leading to perpetrators being held to account”.

Two years on, Joanah Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri continue to be harassed through the courts on these charges, despite their evident lack of merit. Netsai Marova managed to escape from Zimbabwe and was granted a scholarship by the Norwegian government under their students at risk program. Her life and those of her colleagues have been upended by the actions of the Zimbabwe state and they remain severely traumatised.

On the 1st of December last year, another youth activist and former leader of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, Makomborero Haruzivishe, spoke at an event in South Africa House, hosted by Action for Southern Africa, formerly the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

He laid out the gross abuse of human and political rights being perpetrated by the Zimbabwe regime, and the need for the world to speak out against them. Mr Haruzivishe, who is here with us today, has been arrested thirty-seven times over the past decade and was detained without trial for nearly 11 months in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

In March, last year, Parliamentary by-elections saw widespread violence unleashed against opposition campaigners across Zimbabwe. Open incitement to violence in a speech by Vice-President Chiwenga at a rally in Kwekwe, led the next day to an attack by ZANU-PF thugs on an opposition rally in the same city, leaving one opposition supporter dead and many more injured.

Every day, democratic space is closed down further. On December 23rd, the regime gazetted the so-called Patriotic Bill, which grants extraordinary repressive powers under the guise of ‘defence of sovereignty’ and imposes sentences of ten years on those who expose the nature of the regime to international audiences, while stripping them of their rights to vote or stand for election.

The same month, the draconian Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill, representing an all-out assault on civil society – in direct contravention of Article 16 of the Commonwealth Charter, passed in the lower House of Parliament. The new law allows the regime to designate NGOs as “high risk”, thereby allowing them to revoke their registration and remove or replace their leadership.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission continues to be packed with ZANU-PF supporters, including – extraordinarily – the daughter of former Vice-President Kembo Mohadi. ZEC continues to refuse to provide access to the full voters roll, while opposition rallies are regularly banned, and political repression only increases.

As we participate in this debate, the opposition’s deputy chairperson, Job Sikhala MP, languishes in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, where he has been held without trial since his arrest in June. At the time Mr Sikhala was acting as lawyer for the family of murdered opposition activist, Moreblessing Ali. Her brother, Washington, to whom we offer our sincere condolences, is also here with us today.

In response to Mr Sikhala’s detention, the Governing Council of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, stated on October 22nd last year, that it: “fails to understand how his detention in a maximum security prison could possibly be justified”; “is alarmed by allegations that Mr. Sikhala is being held in inhumane conditions”; and, “fails to understand the factual basis for the arrest of Mr. Sikhala ….”

It is now clear beyond doubt that the Zimbabwe government is intent on using violence, intimidation and the full power of the state to crush all opposition ahead of this year’s general elections.

I therefore urge our government and all Commonwealth member states to make clear: that Zimbabwe will only be readmitted to the Commonwealth when all political prisoners are released, prosecutorial harassment of the opposition ceases, and the rule of law, the Constitution of Zimbabwe and the principles of the Commonwealth Charter and Harare Declaration are upheld.

In a powerful letter written to his fellow Zimbabweans from prison this month, Mr Sikhala says this:

I understand you might be outside and I am inside but our suffering and pain is the same. We are all under attack….If I am killed…I am prepared to meet the fate in defence of values and principles I hold dearly; values of a free and open democratic society, exuding happiness, free of impunity and fear. What I know is that the world will not allow you to perish on your own dearest Zimbabweans…all outposts of democracy shall speak in defence of our people under siege.

That is Mr Sikhala’s hope and his faith. It remains to be seen if our government and those of other Commonwealth member states will live up to it.

If we do not, a clear signal will be sent to the vicious Zimbabwe regime that they can continue to violate the democratic and human rights of their citizens with impunity.

In such circumstances, the responsibility for subsequent events will lie heavily upon our shoulders and those of every member state which chose to stand aside – rather than to stand up – for the principles of the Commonwealth and the rights of its citizens.

I beg to move.

Jonathan Oates, Baron Oates is a British Liberal Democrat politician and member of the House of Lords. A past Chief of Staff to the former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg, he was previously the Director of Policy and Communications at the Liberal Democrats.