House debates

Monday, 26 March 2007

Private Members’ Business

Human Rights in Zimbabwe

3:18 pm

Photo of Jennie GeorgeJennie George (Throsby, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the House:

condemns the Mugabe Government in Zimbabwe for the brutal bashings in police custody of Morgan Tsvangirai and other leaders and supporters of the Opposition Party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC);
expresses concern at the ongoing threat of violence as evidenced by the additional vicious beating of MP Nelson Chamisa in recent days;
notes that the Mugabe Government has clearly abandoned the rule of law and tolerates no dissent;
expresses its concern for the safety of former Australian passport holder Mrs Sekai Holland and her Australian husband Jim Holland, and urges the Australian Government to use its best endeavours to intervene to have Mrs Holland released from custody and safely transported out of Zimbabwe for urgent medical attention; and
calls on the Australian Government to have the Mugabe regime’s actions brought before the UN Security Council and if appropriate, the International Criminal Court, and calls on Zimbabwe’s neighbours, particularly South Africa, to take action in support of human rights in Zimbabwe.

I thank members of parliament for their support of my motion, which highlights and condemns the ongoing brutality and repression being perpetrated by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. This regime has driven the country into economic ruin, with inflation running above 1,700 per cent, unemployment close to 80 per cent and shortages of food, fuel and foreign exchange. Two-thirds of the maize crop, the country’s staple food, has been wiped out by a drought and now the country is on the brink of widespread famine. Morgan Tsvangirai describes the Mugabe regime as being ‘under siege because so many people are hungry’. ‘Desire for change has never been so strong,’ he stated.

Morgan Tsvangirai and Sekai Holland are among the leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change. People have been brutally assaulted in the most recent crackdown on political dissent in that country. The recent bashings occurred after a peaceful protest prayer rally was crushed by riot police. Sekai Holland’s plight reveals the barbarity of the Mugabe regime. She was arrested and beaten after she had gone to the police station to inquire about the wellbeing of arrested colleagues.

Sekai Holland studied and lived in Australia, returning to Zimbabwe with her Australian husband, Jim Holland, back in 1980. I know Sekai as a strong, principled and outspoken woman, passionate in her support of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, a noted anti-apartheid activist and supporter of the rights of our Indigenous peoples. Her strength and convictions would no doubt place her in the forefront of the protest movement in that country.

Sekai was set upon by 16 men and a woman in the police station, which left her with three broken ribs, a broken arm, a broken leg, a fractured knee and multiple bruises and lacerations. Her husband said:

How she withstood that, I have no idea. She passed out several times, I am told. But she refused to be cowed, she refused to cry.

Sekai, together with another activist, Grace Kwinjeh, attempted to leave Harare to get urgent medical treatment but both were stopped at the airport and returned to police custody at their hospital beds. It was only after a court order that they were allowed to leave, and both are now recovering in a Johannesburg hospital.

I want to place on record my thanks to Mark Lynch, the Australian consul, and his staff for their support and assistance. No doubt that enabled Sekai, her colleague and also her husband to eventually leave the country. I understand that Mark Lynch travelled to the airport with the group. Jim Holland said of these bashings:

The regime tried to beat Sekai into submission and has totally failed and she knows now that she has won.

Sekai’s fighting spirit and optimism is typical of the strength of the resistance that is occurring in that country to Mugabe’s repressive regime.

Australia should use the international system to deal with reprehensible dictators like President Robert Mugabe. Labor has urged our government to condemn the actions of Mugabe in a motion to the United Nations General Assembly and to make formal representations to the African Union regarding the persistent oppressive behaviour of one of its member states. We believe neighbouring states like South Africa must and should play a more proactive and constructive role.

Labor also support a referral by the United Nations Security Council of Mr Mugabe to the International Criminal Court. Although Zimbabwe is not currently a signatory to the ICC statute, a Security Council referral would enable prosecutors to begin investigations into Mr Mugabe’s human rights violations. This would ensure that President Mugabe and members of his regime would risk arrest and trial if they were to leave Zimbabwe. It would also ensure that a post-Mugabe government could have the former President indicted and held to account under international law.

Once again, I thank members of parliament for the opportunity they have given us today to air our concerns in this very important forum. I hope the motion, discussion and commentary by other MPs today will provide comfort to Sekai and her colleagues in their ongoing struggle against the Mugabe government. (Time expired)

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

3:23 pm

Photo of Judi MoylanJudi Moylan (Pearce, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. Having spoken to a similar motion moved in this parliament by the member for Cook in November 2005 in relation to Zimbabwe, it grieves me to think that, as dire as the situation was then, it has since deteriorated markedly. The only consolation is that, since this motion by the member for Throsby was selected for debate today, the fourth point regarding the safety of Sekai Holland has thankfully progressed, and Mrs Holland has been successfully transported to South Africa and is now receiving treatment for the horrific injuries she sustained at the hands of the Mugabe government thugs. I wish Mrs Holland and her colleagues a speedy return to full health.

This motion also condemns the vicious beating of Nelson Chamisa MP in recent days. Many Australians have watched in disbelief at the reports of incarceration, horrendous bashings and torture of those who have dared to exert their democratic rights by forming and participating in an opposition party. The courage and determination of those few brave souls, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, all of whom have continued to pursue a democratic and accountable government, is an inspiration. We are all relieved at South Africa’s willingness to assist Mrs Holland and her colleagues.

Both our Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have actively called on the United Nations Security Council and the Human Rights Council to consider the situation in Zimbabwe. Further, representations have been made to key members of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to use their influence to persuade the Zimbabwean government to respect the rule of law and the political rights of its people.

This is not the first time the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have condemned the actions of the Zimbabwean government and called for international action. In 2005 the Australian government referred the actions of the Mugabe regime to the International Criminal Court but received very little, if any, support.

This unwillingness to act is very hard to fathom for a country that now has the world’s lowest life expectancy, the highest inflation and in excess of, I think, 1½ million orphaned children with AIDS. AIDS now kills an estimated 3,500 people a week in Zimbabwe. It is a human rights tragedy of monumental proportions and it is a disgrace that, so far, we in the democratic countries of the world have not been able to take action to prevent this ongoing tragedy as it unfolds before our very eyes.

I, along with the member for Throsby, would also like to acknowledge the work of the Australian diplomats in the region, particularly the Australian consul Mark Lynch, who have been assisting Mrs Holland and her colleagues. It is difficult to conceive that one of the model countries that makes up the great continent of Africa has fallen so far. This is a country that has made a smooth transition from colonial rule to majority black rule, strongly supported by Australia. It had a strong economy, a model health system, and not only did it grow sufficient food crops for its own consumption but it also successfully exported. It was said to be the food bowl of Africa.

Over the past 10 years Mugabe, in seeking power for power’s sake, has brought his people to their knees. Inflation runs at 1,750 per cent and gross domestic product has dropped to $A5 billion, almost half of what it was seven years ago. Ignoring the rule of law and legitimate democratic processes, this despot, Mugabe, has driven white farmers from their land and is now ruling through brutality and fear. These misbegotten policies have seriously eroded food production and employment opportunities. Some three million people are said to have left Zimbabwe, leaving essential services disastrously depleted and, for those remaining, unemployment—running at about sixty per cent—is a serious threat to personal financial viability.

If the international community has any genuine concern for the people of Zimbabwe, it will urgently join the Australian government and call for action by the United Nations. I thank the member for Throsby for moving this motion and for the opportunity to speak up for the people of Zimbabwe.

3:28 pm

Photo of Carmen LawrenceCarmen Lawrence (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have pleasure in supporting this motion. I think all of us are aware that the political and economic crises in Zimbabwe have been worsening at an alarming rate. As has already been said, it already has the world’s lowest life expectancy, at 37, and the highest inflation rate, at 1,700 per cent—dubious records. AIDS is rampant, malnutrition already affects around 40 per cent of the population, unemployment is at 80 per cent and apparently there are 4,000 more deaths than births each week. The International Crisis Group report is blunt: the policies, corruption and repressive governance of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party are directly responsible for the severe economic slide, growing public discontent and international isolation of the country.

The spiralling inflation that I mentioned followed the decision by the government to print $230 million worth of Zimbabwean currency to pay international debts and sustain operations, with the obvious consequences. I mentioned that unemployment is between 80 per cent and 85 per cent, but poverty is over 90 per cent, and foreign reserves are almost depleted. Over four million persons are in desperate need of food. HIV-AIDS and malnutrition kill thousands every month and, to add insult to injury, the government-sponsored campaign to clear urban slums, as they call them, forcibly deprived more than 18 per cent of the population of homes or livelihoods and badly damaged the informal sector—the street-side stalls—the lifeline for many of the urban poor. Many of you will have read the story of the Gumbo family in today’s edition of the Australian.

There have of course been various parliamentary elections recently, largely flawed, with low voter turnout. They have strengthened Mugabe’s power and weakened the opposition even further. With the potential departure of Mugabe in 2008 looming on the horizon, there have been various commentaries on the already chaotic political climate being further exacerbated by the manoeuvring of members of the opposition and ZANU-PF in order to receive maximum benefits from the impending transition, a further tragedy for the people of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s ongoing crisis dates way back to 1965, when Ian Smith, the leader of Southern Rhodesia, unilaterally declared independence from Britain and imposed a white minority rule. As many of us will know, international sanctions and a guerrilla war followed. By 1979, that had claimed some 36,000 lives and displaced some 1.5 million people. The peace deal that was brokered saw the 1980 election won by Mugabe, with 57 seats out of the 80. Since then we have seen a gradual coercion of opposition and constitutional changes that have given Mugabe executive presidential powers and turned the country into a de facto one-party state with the consequences that we have seen. Recent years, too, have seen the forcible seizures of mostly white-owned land by so-called ZANU veterans. This has led to a crippling of the economy and to chronic shortages of basic commodities and services, especially since 2000.

Following the seriously flawed 2002 presidential election, Mugabe has increasingly resorted to using state machinery, war veterans and youth militias to intimidate, to suppress dissent, to gag the media and to systematically violate human rights. Those elections were denounced by international observers as neither free nor fair, but little was done about it by the international community. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth, following indefinite suspension—the only major action, it has to be said, by the international community. Repression has cast a shadow on all of the parliamentary elections. Morgan Tsvangirai has faced an on-and-off court trial on charges of plotting to assassinate Mugabe and sedition.

We have seen a recent escalation of violence against opposition figures, which we are commenting upon today. Around 50 activists were arrested at a public meeting in Zimbabwe on 11 March. Many of them were severely beaten during arrest, and some were reported to have been tortured while in police custody. We have all seen the images. Police indeed shot dead one of the activists, Gift Tandare, the youth chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly. Those tortured included Morgan Tsvangirai and NCA chairperson Dr Madhuku. There have been incidents of continuing police harassment of the political opposition and lawyers. Grace Kwinjeh and Sekai Holland were both tortured and prevented from seeking medical assistance in South Africa. They were prevented from boarding the air ambulance, their travel documents were seized and only subsequently have they been allowed to travel to get the necessary treatment. As we have heard, later Nelson Chamisa, the national spokesperson for the MDC, was also beaten by police— (Time expired)

3:34 pm

Photo of Dennis JensenDennis Jensen (Tangney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the motion. Robert Mugabe has gone from political prisoner to Prime Minister to President to dictator for life. I support the Prime Minister’s condemnation of the appalling attacks on opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and on Nelson Chamisa. They only serve to highlight the violence and terror that have been hallmarks of the Mugabe dictatorship for some years. According to Statesman’s Yearbook, the rule of law is so banished that international observers declared that the 2002 presidential poll:

... failed to meet international standards for a democratic poll.

It goes on to state that these elections:

... were preceded by violence against opposition supporters, the passing of a law limiting press freedom ... and the arrest of Mugabe’s main political rival on charges of treason.

Cronyism is rampant. The UK paid Zimbabwe £44 million to buy out white farmers. Only 70,000 Zimbabwean farmers benefited, as 400,000 hectares went to Mr Mugabe’s senior colleagues. He also put his political allies into the High Court after he lost the 2000 referendum.

President Mugabe threw white farmers off their land, at first giving them 35 days notice and then only seven days notice and no compensation. He gave much of that land to his loyal foot soldiers—to the terrible and incontrovertible detriment of the country’s economy and wellbeing. But that was not the only appalling decision Mugabe made with regard to the land. The Statesman’s Yearbook continues:

In 2005 the government began the mass demolition of urban slums, claiming it would improve law and order and prompt development.

Instead, it merely left around 700,000 desperate Zimbabweans homeless.

As the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, pointed out in this place last week, the economy of Zimbabwe has haemorrhaged so badly that there is barely a drop of lifeblood left. According to Statesman’s Yearbook, real output has dropped one-third between 1998 and 2003. Real GDP growth has been negative every year since 1999 and has almost halved since 1995. The real tragedy for Zimbabwe’s people is that it should be a rich country. It has gold, nickel, diamonds and many other materials. It had a vibrant manufacturing industry and a flourishing agricultural sector. The iExplore website concludes:

Under other circumstances, Zimbabwe would have one of the most diverse and best-performing economies on the African continent.

Instead, under the dead hand of a Marxist dictator, Zimbabwe’s economy is now in free-fall and many of its inhabitants are starving.

Ironically, on 16 December 1966 the UN Security Council, I believe for the first time in its history, imposed mandatory economic sanctions on a state; Ian Smith’s UDI regime. The international community, especially neighbouring African states such as South Africa, needs to put similar pressure on Mugabe. South Africa has been propping Mugabe up both morally and financially for some years. However, I welcome Tanzanian President Kikwete’s initiative to meet with President Mugabe and deliver a strong response to the current situation.

The Howard government has made strong representations to have the situation in Zimbabwe considered by the UN, especially the Human Rights Council. The Prime Minister has said that the UN must take action against this regime as it did against Ian Smith’s regime. However, what shook me to the core was to find that here in Australia there are those who, for partisan political reasons, are sheeting home the blame for Zimbabwe’s tragic woes not where the blame clearly resides, in its dictator, but in the imperialist West. Rob Gowland, the Sydney district secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, blames white imperialists for the trouble. He claims that land reform was effectively stymied because Britain and the US reneged on their— (Time expired)

3:39 pm

Photo of Kate EllisKate Ellis (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the motion put before us by the member for Throsby and also commend her for bringing this important issue before the Australian parliament and ensuring that we debate this very serious issue.

Zimbabwe has been beset with horrific ordeals under Mugabe’s 27-year brutal autocracy. Since 1999 the Zimbabwean people have experienced the horrors of extended food shortages, leading to starvation and malnutrition, internal conflicts, political instability and hyperinflation, which was last month officially reported at 1,729 per cent. Life expectancy is only half what it was 15 years ago and the economy has shrunk by 40 per cent since the turn of the century. The urban poor have had their shanty homes bulldozed, and a constant sense of fear of the government permeates across almost every part of society.

Zimbabwe is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, and sadly its immediate neighbours and the global community have not done enough to ease the suffering and hardship felt by its citizens on all fronts. I have no doubt that every member of this parliament today is appalled and horrified by what has happened in Zimbabwe, but sadly this alone does not help the Zimbabwean people. What we have to do here today is call for greater action.

Mugabe’s regime has attempted to brutally stamp out dissidents and all peaceful opposition and resistance in Zimbabwe. Actively opposing the horror and fear that saturates Zimbabwe lies the Movement for Democratic Change, which, despite the violent suppression and human rights abuses against its activists, has remained the loudest voice in the world calling for change.

A little more than a week ago, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Mr Tsvangirai, was arrested and savagely beaten, along with other activists, during a peaceful prayer meeting. This motion absolutely condemns the brutal bashings of Mr Tsvangirai and his colleagues whilst in police custody and calls upon the international community to take a similar stance. If the international community does not take action immediately, we will see more attacks on members of the Movement for Democratic Change and other innocent people in Zimbabwe, like the attacks against Mr Nelson Chamisa in recent days.

On 18 March, Mr Chamisa was assaulted mere hours before he was to fly to Brussels for a meeting with European parliamentarians. This brutal attack came just days after he was beaten unconscious by police officers. Doctors have been reporting increased incidents of violence over the last week or so. Citizens have been reporting severe head injuries and brutal attacks. The threat of violence is clearly an ongoing concern. It will not get better until this regime falls.

It is painstakingly clear that the Mugabe government has abandoned the rule of law and will tolerate no dissent. They have refused to grant democratic concessions to the people of Zimbabwe despite sustained peaceful calls for democratic change. On Tuesday, 20 March, Zimbabwe’s foreign minister threatened to invoke the Geneva convention in order to expel Western diplomats from the country. He has accused these diplomats of interfering in Zimbabwe’s domestic affairs and offering support to the government’s opponents, particularly to the Movement for Democratic Change. This is an unprecedented threat that has emerged from the Zimbabwean government and indicates its rapidly diminishing tolerance of opposing views.

President Mugabe presides over a regime that allegedly willingly bashed a 64-year-old grandmother in custody. This is a government which later denied that grandmother the right to leave for South Africa to seek medical treatment. We have talked in this motion about Mrs Holland, the secretary for the Movement for Democratic Change, another activist arrested during the prayer meeting on 11 March. Mrs Holland suffered devastating injuries, including a broken arm, a broken foot and three cracked ribs. According to her own reports, Mrs Holland was lashed more than 80 times by police officers.

Along with other speakers today, I am heartened by Mrs Holland’s recent transfer to South Africa and her intentions to continue her fight against this oppressive regime. I find her treatment absolutely revolting. I can but imagine how her family or any family in Zimbabwe can cope with these atrocities. I would also like to commend the Australian diplomats who visited her in hospital despite the ban on their offering support— (Time expired)

Photo of Gary HardgraveGary Hardgrave (Moreton, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Hardgrave interjecting

3:44 pm

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank my friend the honourable member for Moreton for his support. One of the issues raised with me constantly as the member for Fisher is the plight of people in Zimbabwe and the complete and total lack of democracy in that country. In my own street, we have a lot of people who have moved from Zimbabwe and South Africa. There seems to be a very large Zimbabwean community right around the Sunshine Coast. Coming through in their discussions with me is the fact that Zimbabwe has a government—a regime—which is absolutely brutal. The regime has no regard for the rule of law and no regard for human rights. It is a regime that is prepared to tear up the rule book and do absolutely anything to keep itself in power. This regime has been clinically brutal in its treatment of Africans, and its treatment of white Zimbabweans has been equally appalling.

It is always disheartening to see nations suffering civil turmoil and hopelessness as a result of a self-serving and oppressive dictatorship. Nations like Zimbabwe are technically wealthy countries, and it could show so much promise and could develop such prosperity if the country had a democratic system where the people of Zimbabwe, black and white, were able to democratically choose their government in the same way as people in this part of the world are able to. Leaders who resort to anything and everything to preserve their own positions are, unfortunately, blind to the needs of their people and to their responsibility as leaders. Sadly, Robert Mugabe is a thug. He is a dictator and, in my view, a criminal. The sooner we get Robert Mugabe before an international tribunal, the better off the world community will be. Frankly, what he has done is absolute savagery.

When you hear the stories coming out of Zimbabwe—the way that Zimbabweans, white and black, have been mistreated by this individual—you can only be appalled. That is why I am heartened that people on both sides of the chamber are standing up and being counted. The government and the opposition in this place will not tolerate what is happening in Zimbabwe. We will continue to speak out. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has spoken out. I think the Leader of the Opposition has, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs constantly has spoken out both before the international media and in international fora, including through the Commonwealth.

The government of Zimbabwe have claimed that the policies of their regime are supposed to be implemented for the benefit of the black population. They really ought to take a reality check because what is happening is exactly the opposite. What has occurred is that tourism has collapsed. Mineral and agricultural exports are faltering as a result of an unreliable, inefficient and dictatorial government. The ongoing land distribution problems have cut the legs out of the farming sector and created widespread food supply problems. Many of my constituents have had farms confiscated. They say to me that it is bad enough to lose a farm that they have had in their family often for generations, but hundreds of the black population who worked on and who received income from those farms for their family have also been made destitute and turned off as the so-called war veteran friends of President Mugabe march in and take over these highly productive farms and basically turn them into a wasteland which delivers absolutely nothing for the people of Zimbabwe.

The leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change are being arrested and beaten. Morgan Tsvangirai recently suffered that fate. Another high-profile incident was the bashing on Sunday, 18 March of Nelson Chamisa, who was at an airport and about to board a plane when he was set upon by two thugs who beat him with crowbars, cracking his skull. I want to place on record my admiration for the archbishop in Zimbabwe who has said that he is prepared to do whatever is necessary. Zimbabwe’s government is a blight on the world and it stands condemned.

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.