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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Peter Hain answers your questions

Foreign office minister Peter Hain took your questions on the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Read his answers below.

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Steve Calder, United Kingdom. Twenty three years ago my father was killed in a similar incident to that of Mr Olds during the Rhodesian War. That incident was the catalyst for separating my family to three continents and years of hardship and struggle for my Mother. To prevent more of this what hope can Britain offer those in Zimbabwe who want a peaceful resolution to this conflict.

Peter Hain MP. It is precisely to prevent such tragic events occurring again that Britain is so determined to help prevent Zimbabwe descending into complete chaos. What is vital for Zimbabwe is that the violence is stopped immediately, the tension reduced and that the government provides leadership into a free and fair election that will take the country into a stable and prosperous future. We are doing everything possible to persuade the government that this is the only course of action. We have spoken to the Commonwealth, the UN, the European Union, the Organisation of African Unity and other African leaders. Everybody that we have spoken to shares our concern and have tried to impress upon the Zimbabwean government the need to end violence and restore stability as soon as possible.

Andu_wa_andura, Burkina Faso. What right have you to insult President Robert Mugabe?

Peter Hain MP. I have not insulted him. I have no quarrel with President Mugabe personally. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s I demonstrated for an end to the Ian Smith white regime. I was delighted when President Mugabe won the elections in 1980. What I have done is to speak up when it has been necessary to do so. Zimbabwe is potentially one of the strongest African economies. Instead, it has been reduced to crisis by economic mismanagement and bad governance. Britain wants to assist Zimbabwe. But we cannot do so when there is a refusal to enter into dialogue. Instead of accepting the hand of friendship, the Zimbabwean government has sought to demonise Britain and provoke an unnecessary quarrel. It has been necessary to speak out against certain incidents and against the violence that has occurred in Zimbabwe. As an old friend of Zimbabwe, we cannot turn our backs on Zimbabwe and let these events happen without comment.

Steve, Australia. I have family in Zimbabwe. My brother has a British passport, but his wife and daughters do not. If it came to evacuation, would you consider evacuating his whole family?

Peter Hain MP. What I want to say at the outset, Steve, is that we are doing everything we can to prevent the situation deteriorating to the point where evacuation is necessary. We are talking about people whose home is in Zimbabwe and who do not want to leave. They want to be valued members of Zimbabwean society and carry on contributing to their country. It must be right to continue to do what we can rather than admit defeat for Zimbabwe.

Tim Roll-Pickering, United Kingdom. Do you wish to see Robert Mugabe put on trial for his current actions as was attempted with General Pinochet?

Peter Hain MP. What we want is to see President Mugabe, who in the early years of his government did much to benefit his country, do the right thing by Zimbabwe and its people. We want to see him do everything in his power to end the violence and tension in Zimbabwe and to give his people the free choice of who governs them. What happened in Chile and, for example, in Kosovo cannot be compared with the current situation in Zimbabwe.

Luke Dealtry, United Kingdom. Do you not think that the successive high-profile condemnations that have been made by Britain are doing little more than playing into the hands of Robert Mugabe, as he seeks to demonise the UK and suggest alternative motives for the UK's statements?

Peter Hain MP. It is important to stress that this is not an argument between Britain and Zimbabwe. The violence and disrespect for the rule of law in Zimbabwe should be a matter of concern to the whole international community. That is why we have sought to engaging with the international community in speaking to President Mugabe. It is true that the Zimbabwean government has sought to characterise this episode as the old colonial power seeking to interfere. He is wrong. But that does not mean that we should not exert what influence we can to speak up for what is right: an independent judiciary and respect for the rule of law as well as a free and fair democratic choice.

Líam Pennington, United Kingdom. What I am seeing on the television news is a racist leader carrying out a form of brutal ethnic cleansing on the white people of his country. Although things are never as clear cut as we would like, do you not agree that Zimbabwe is being ruled as I have described above, and will the British Government be doing something stronger than just talking about it, before it gets worse?

Peter Hain MP. I cannot agree that this is ethnic cleansing. What we are seeing in Zimbabwe is not a question of black v. white. Black farm workers have been hit by the land invasions and violence too. More black members of the opposition have been killed than white: 8 in the past few weeks and over a hundred more hospitalised. This is about the right of any Zimbabwean to hold opposing views to the government and challenge them in free and fair elections. Britain does not hold a view on who should win the Zimbabwean elections - that must always be a matter for the Zimbabwean people. But we cannot stand by and watch the intimidation and killing of opposition supporters, whether they be black or white. Some people are demanding that we impose stronger measures on Zimbabwe. The opposition in Zimbabwe have agreed with us that suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, cutting aid to the poor or imposing sanctions would only increase tension, further isolate President Mugabe and reduce the chances of persuading him to put and end to the violence and hold free and fair elections. We want to look for ways of exerting positive influence and encouraging others to do the same.

Jason Ward, UK. Why does the UK continue to feel special responsibility for Zimbabwe? Why should the UK government be any more involved in this conflict than say the French or Italian governments?

Peter Hain MP. As an old friend of Zimbabwe, with historical connections going back many years, Britain feels especially strongly that Zimbabwe should be given the chance to realise its true potential. But others, too, have shown their concern for events in Zimbabwe. The European Union has unanimously condemned the violence. The Commonwealth has called for calm and offered technical assistance and observers for the election. The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has telephoned President Mugabe to express his concern at recent events. And, increasingly, President Mugabe's fellow African leaders are doing the same.

Jack Barner, USA. Does it make sense to you that 4500 individuals own 70% of prime land in Zimbabwe?

Peter Hain MP. I am the first to admit that the Colonial, racist legacy of the past has created inequalities in Zimbabwe. That is why we contributed £44 million between 1981 and 1996 to land redistribution programmes. But we cannot support the current policy of land invasions, land seizures and giving land to friends and officials of the government which is then not even farmed. We do, however, stand ready to continue support for a land reform policy. But it must be one that genuinely contributes to poverty alleviation is transparent, cost effective and takes place within the rule of law. Until those principles are accepted, there can be no question of supporting the government's land policy. Quite apart from this possible future official help, we are currently considering a number of proposals for land resettlement put forward by NGOs and civil society in Zimbabwe.

Nickola, Zimbabwe. I am a third generation Zimbabwean and I love my country. I think that there are a lot of us who do not hold Britain responsible for our current situation. What I would like to know is, what solution, if you have any, can be implemented in order to ensure the elections do take place (as this is vital under our current circumstance) and do you have any realistic ideas that can be used to solve the land issue?

Peter Hain MP. It is vital for Zimbabwe's future that free and fair elections take place in Zimbabwe - whichever party wins. The Commonwealth has offered assistance to help ensure that this happens. They and the EU have also offered election observers to show full transparency and give everybody the confidence that they are fully free and fair. But only the Zimbabwean government can ensure that this happens. I hope that they realise the importance for Zimbabwe's future that they do so. On land, as I said in a previous answer, Britain is prepared with other international donors to help fund a land reform programme, provided that it is genuinely aimed at helping the rural poor and is done in an atmosphere of calm and within the rule of law. The Commercial Farmers' Union also support a land reform programme. In these circumstances, there is no reason why the principles agreed at the Land Conference in 1998 cannot be implemented through discussion, not violence. President Mugabe agreed with Robin Cook recently to send a delegation to London to open dialogue on land reform and on all other issues affecting Zimbabwe. That delegation will come to London on 27 April and we hope that that dialogue will continue to enable a sensible policy on land eventually to come to fruition.

Craig Henderson, Zimbabwe. What approach to land reform will Britain be prepared to support at next week's ministerial meeting in London?

Peter Hain MP. I have covered the British government's approach to land reform in previous answers. Next week's meeting will, I hope, establish Britain's willingness to help beyond all doubt. That offer has been on the table for a very long time. This meeting is part of a dialogue on this and other issues at a high level. One meeting will not solve all the problems on what is a very technical issue, but I hope that the Zimbabwean government will talk to us frankly and honestly and show a genuine commitment to make progress.

Ian Cooper, United Kingdom. You played a prominent and commendable role in the campaign to end dictatorship in Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Does your support for sanctions against these former regimes not contrast sharply with your refusal to take decisive action against President Mugabe and ZANU-PF?

Peter Hain MP. What I campaigned against for many years in South Africa and Rhodesia was an entrenched racist system which brutally disempowered and disenfranchised the majority of the population. This is not the situation that we are seeing in Zimbabwe today. Political intolerance within a majority-rule system needs to be tackled in a different way. I very much hope that this can be done through dialogue and persuasion - from Britain and the rest of the international community.

Miles Davies, United Kingdom Is England still selling arms to Zimbabwe?

Peter Hain MP. Our Labour Government feels very strongly about the indiscriminate selling of arms to allow the repression of people in internal and external conflicts. When this Government came to power in 1997 it immediately announced a new policy that no arms would be sold which we judge could be used for internal repression or external aggression. It was also instrumental in getting the whole of the EU to adopt a similar policy. All applications for export licences in respect of arms are now rigorously tested against these criteria. That goes for Zimbabwe as well as every other country. On 9 February, the Prime Minister announced a further tightening of these controls for all countries involved in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which includes Zimbabwe. The one exception is for spare parts covered by contractual obligations entered into under licences agreed by the previous government, which are extremely difficult to revoke. But we are confident that no new licences will be granted under this Government for any arms which could be used either for the repression of people inside Zimbabwe or by Zimbabwe in the DRC or any other conflict outside the country.

Adam Duguid, United Kingdom. Why doesn't the U.K. break off diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe in order to send a clear signal of disapproval of what Mugabe is doing?

Peter Hain MP. Breaking off diplomatic relations is very much a last resort, because it takes away all possibility for dialogue between countries. That would not be a useful course of action in this case. The only way to persuade the Zimbabwean government to take action against the violence, end illegal farm invasions and hold free and fair elections is through persuasion and dialogue. The isolation of Zimbabwe would do nothing to achieve this.


In recent months Zimbabwe's beleaguered president Robert Mugabe has accused Britain of everything from causing its crippling fuel crisis to setting ''gay gangsters'' on him

His supporters have invaded some 750 white-owned farms with his blessing and are warning of a ''bloodbath'' if the land is not handed over to blacks.

London has already drawn up contingency plans for evacuating some 20,000 British passport holders if the situation worsens.

The problem of land reform lies at the heart of the tensions between the two countries.

There are only 70,000 whites left in Zimbabwe, around 0.6% of the population. Yet white farmers still own 70% of the most fertile land.

British settlers began moving blacks off their farmland when they started arriving in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, in the 1890s.

About half the population were shifted onto barren communal properties - often in drought-prone areas.
zimbabwean farming family
Land distribution has long been a divisive issue
The land issue was a major cause of the guerrilla war which led to independence in 1980.

Relations started deteriorating in 1997 when Mr Mugabe announced plans to grab around 1,500 farms.

He said Britain should foot the bill for compensation because Rhodesian colonists had stolen the land from blacks in the first place.

But Britain refused, pointing out that much of the land redistributed since 1980 had ended up in the hands of government officials rather than the poor.
President Mugabe
President Mugabe's popularity is on the wane
In February, Mr Mugabe held a referendum to try to secure constitutional changes giving him another 12 years in power and allowing the confiscation of white-owned land.

When he was defeated, he encouraged the occupation of hundreds of white-owned farms by veterans from the Rhodesian War.

Peter Hain, the British foreign office minister, has said Britain is ready to advise on proper land reform instead of the present "pistol to the head" seizures.

Both London and Harare stand to lose if relations deteriorate further.

Around 7% of Zimbabwe's imports come from Britain which in turn takes 11% of its exports.

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See also:

10 Mar 00 | Africa
Why Zimbabwe distrusts the UK
10 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Blair 'tightens' Zimbabwe arms sales
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