Dáil Motion on Zimbabwe; Opening Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern T.D.
The Government takes the grave political, economic and human rights situation in Zimbabwe most seriously.
Ordinary Zimbabweans are suffering desperately in a country racked by hyperinflation, reaching 8000% in September, and with unemployment now estimated at 80%. In rural areas, the economic crisis and government mismanagement have compounded the effects of drought, and many now depend on food aid. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans, including much needed professionals, have emigrated to neighbouring countries. The deteriorating economic situation, worsening poverty and increased migration are in turn having an impact on those affected by the HIV/AIDs pandemic. Only today I have received a briefing paper from Trócaire which strongly underlines the gravity of the situation.
There are unfortunately no signs on the ground that the Zimbabwean government is willing to change the destructive policies which have brought the country’s economy to its knees. In addition to the economic hardships, there are continuing reports of brutal repression of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and other civil society groups perceived to be challenging the Zanu PF ruling party. There is a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation and violence towards those who seek change in the country.
Outrages such as the ill-treatment of opposition activists and supporters in custody infringe not only UN human rights standards, but also those standards which African governments have signed up to, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.
Ireland and the EU strongly believe that African leadership is the key to encouraging progress towards economic and political stability. We support the talks between the government and opposition in Zimbabwe which are being mediated by President Mbeki under a Southern African Development Community (SADC) mandate. A review of Zimbabwe’s economy is also being undertaken by SADC Finance Ministers.
I understand that some progress has been made in the political talks, and that it is expected that they will conclude shortly. This is encouraging so far as it goes.
But implementation of any agreement reached will be crucial, and must bring about real policy change. The Zimbabwean people must have a chance to express their will without fear in the Presidential and parliamentary elections which are due to take place in March 2008.
Although the signs so far are very mixed, the EU places great priority on free and fair elections and the creation of a level playing field, and we hope to work together with African partners, including neighbouring countries, the African Union and SADC, to ensure that the elections are in line with newly-developed African best practice standards.
I would add that we would like to see real change take place in Zimbabwe as fast as possible. But in practice, while Europe and the rest of the world can add their voices and their weight to pressure for change, it is Zimbabwe’s own neighbours who have most influence.
Ireland stands ready to assist the Zimbabwean people in any way we can. Ireland has significant historic links with Zimbabwe, and our own national experience found expression in our support for the country’s decolonisation struggle in the 1970s.
The Ambassador and officers from the Embassy in Pretoria regularly visit Zimbabwe in order to assess the situation and meet with members of the 3,000-strong Irish community there.
Ireland is among those EU Member States which have most strongly condemned human rights abuses and urged political and economic reform in Zimbabwe. The Embassy of Ireland in Pretoria monitors allegations of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, and raises issues of concern with the Zimbabwean government at every available opportunity. The Secretary General of my Department raised Ireland’s concerns with Zimbabwean officials in Harare in June, and also had talks on Zimbabwe with South African officials in Pretoria. Ireland’s Embassies in the region have consistently highlighted our concerns and pressed our concerns. Ireland has also supported EU action to raise Zimbabwe in the appropriate UN human rights bodies.
Since 2006 Ireland has provided over €17 million to alleviate the hardships suffered by the people of Zimbabwe. This funding is focused on humanitarian assistance, mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDs, and is channelled through UN agencies, Irish and international NGOs, Irish missionaries, and local civil society organisations. Ireland does not give any direct funding to the Government of Zimbabwe.
The EU operates an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and a targeted visa ban against Zimbabwean leaders. But, contrary to what the regime would suggest, there are no sanctions against the Zimbabwean people. The EU is a major provider of aid to the Zimbabwean people, and this commitment to their welfare will remain in spite of government actions. The EU consistently uses political contacts with countries in the region to highlight concerns about Zimbabwe. Representatives of the local EU Presidency in each of the SADC countries have this year expressed to their host governments the concern of the EU and its Member States over the developments in Zimbabwe.
In October this year, EU Foreign Ministers expressed readiness to respond appropriately to tangible results from the SADC initiative and President Mbeki’s mediation. When the Council last discussed Zimbabwe on 19 November, I and my EU colleagues agreed that President Mugabe will hear a tough and clear message on the EU’s abhorrence of his policies at the EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon.
I would like specifically to address the issue of Zimbabwe and the EU-Africa Summit.
Ireland fully supports the EU-Africa Summit and believes that this is an important step forward for EU-Africa relations. It will mark the beginning of a new phase in the Europe-Africa relationship – reaching beyond the historic coloniser-colonised and donor-recipient relationships to form a true partnership of equals, allowing Europe and Africa to face common global challenges together: global challenges which range from development and governance, to climate change and energy, to migration and trade and many other issues. And of course we have to be aware that there are other major international players, notably China, with a growing interest in Africa. Europe cannot take its relationship and its role for granted.
The Joint Africa-EU Strategy, which will be adopted at the Summit, also places respect for human rights, freedom, equality, solidarity, justice, the rule of law and democracy at the centre of this partnership. This Government is firmly committed to all the principles and values on which EU-Africa partnership is based.
There is much of a positive nature to highlight at the Summit – and there are also country situations of common concern on the EU-Africa agenda.
These include the tragic situation in Darfur; the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia; the violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where appalling atrocities have been committed against civilians; and of course the situation in Zimbabwe. A consistent EU approach to all of these crises will give the lie to allegations from President Mugabe that EU policy is influenced by former colonial associations.
The Government regrets the fact that President Mugabe has been invited to Lisbon. We had urged that other options for Zimbabwean representation be fully explored. But it became clear that no alternative was possible. However, along with almost all EU Member States, we do not wish the EU’s relations with an entire continent to be held hostage to one country’s problems. The fact is that twenty-three (23) of the twenty-seven (27) Member States will be represented at Head of State or Government level in Lisbon, along with President Barroso and High Representative Solana. This includes, for example, Chancellor Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Balkenende of the Netherlands, two of the countries which share our serious concerns about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe and which cannot be accused of downplaying such issues internationally.
We do not believe that the correct response to the tragedy of Zimbabwe – or to other even more tragic situations on the continent – is to preach from a distance. . Rather, we believe that we should work in partnership with the fifty-three nations of Africa to strengthen our shared values, and to tackle African and global challenges together on the basis of those values. We believe that the Summit should be about the substance of the EU-Africa relationship rather than about attendance.
Irish links with Africa go back for decades to the work of our missionaries and charitable organisations, and Ireland has a long and continuing history of engagement with Africa. We have good relationships with many African states, which appreciate the similarities in our historical experiences. Africa is the focus of our rapidly increasing Irish Aid programme, and seven of our nine ‘Programme Countries’ are in sub-Saharan Africa. Ireland also has a distinguished peace-keeping record in Africa.
The Taoiseach’s attendance at the second EU-Africa Summit this weekend will be in keeping with this proud tradition of Irish engagement with Africa.
And, of course, the Summit will be the opportunity to highlight the depth of the EU’s concern in relation to developments in Zimbabwe.
We support the Presidency’s intention to ensure that governance and human rights issues in Zimbabwe are raised at the Summit. We welcome this opportunity to send a firm and clear message to President Mugabe. Indeed, to quote the Trócaire paper I mentioned earlier, the Summit represents “an excellent opportunity to highlight the serious nature of the crisis…[and] to press responsible parties to take strong action..”
The attention which the EU-Africa Summit has drawn to the situation in Zimbabwe is most welcome. But that focus, and the international pressure which it brings, must be maintained beyond the date of the Summit. The real issue here is the ongoing suffering of the people of Zimbabwe under this brutal and destructive regime, and we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from that issue.
The EU and Ireland stand ready to respond substantively to any positive change in Zimbabwe. I can assure the House that the suffering of the Zimbabwean people will remain a priority for the Government Ireland on the morning of 10 December, when the Summit is over, and into the future, until we see substantial and sustained change in that country.
In conclusion therefore, I would hope that all parties in the House can unite this evening around the Government’s motion.Top