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Statement by the UK Prime Minister on CHOGM

Statement by the Prime Minister on CHOGM

The Prime Minister Tony Blair made a statement to Parliament today on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that took place Australia, from 1-4 March.

Read the statement by Mr Blair in full below.

[check against delivery]

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that took place in Coolum, in Queensland Australia, from 1-4 March. In doing so, I want to pay warm tribute to Prime Minister John Howard, and the Australian Government, for the excellent arrangements for the meeting; and to John Howard personally for his patient and skilful Chairmanship.

I also want to record how much the presence of Her Majesty The Queen meant to all the Heads of Government, in this her Jubilee Year. It was an opportunity for us all to reflect on her remarkable contribution to the Commonwealth over the past 50 years. I shall be pleased to join Her Majesty for the Observance Service to celebrate Commonwealth Day on Monday 11 March.

Mr Speaker, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was due to take place last Autumn. It was postponed because of the atrocious terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September.

It was therefore entirely fitting that one of the major items of business at this week's meeting was the adoption of a Commonwealth Plan of Action on Terrorism. This focuses on how to help Member States, particularly smaller states, fulfil their international obligations in fighting terrorism, including those provided for by UN Security Council Resolution 1373.

Commonwealth Heads of Government also adopted the Report of the High Level Review Group established at the previous Heads of Government meeting in Durban in 1999. This:

broadens the remit of the Commonwealth's Ministerial level watchdog, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, beyond the overthrow of democratically elected governments so that it will in future be able to examine crises other than those provoked by a coup d'etat;
strengthens the good offices role of the Commonwealth Secretary General; and
streamlines the Secretariat's structure.
Heads also established a High Level Expert Group to report on globalisation to the 2003 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nigeria.

Mr Speaker, the High Level Group Report, and the Plan on Terrorism, are covered in the Coolum Declaration which was agreed by Heads of Government at the Conference. I have arranged for a copy to be placed in the Library of the House.

Mr Speaker, these are useful developments, which strengthen the Commonwealth as an organisation committed to promoting democracy and good governance, economic development, and tolerance and racial harmony among its members. It is all the more deplorable therefore that one of those members, Zimbabwe, should have a President and Government that are so clearly violating these core Commonwealth values.

The current crisis in Zimbabwe was extensively discussed. The violence and intimidation unleashed by President Mugabe in his desperation to prevent an opposition victory in next weekend's Presidential elections is totally unacceptable.

So is the way in which he made it impossible for EU Observers to monitor next weekend's elections, obliging them to withdraw from Zimbabwe so that they could not document the abuses of the election campaign. And there is no doubt about those abuses. Those who are witnessing the campaign and who are still in Zimbabwe, detail horrific acts of violence and intimidation.

President Mugabe pretends that the current crisis has been prompted by the issue of land reform rather than by his determination to stay in power whatever the verdict of the electorate. This is nothing more than a pretext. Successive British Governments have made clear their commitment to supporting land reform in Zimbabwe.

My Right Honourable Friend the Foreign Secretary repeated this commitment at the Abuja meeting last September. Indeed since independence Britain has provided over £40 m specifically for land reform, and more than half a billion in development assistance. But our efforts and those of the wider international community - including the UN Development Programme - have been thwarted by the political intransigence and corruption of President Mugabe and his government.

Make no mistake, Mr Speaker, if President Mugabe had wanted an orderly and just land reform programme at any stage in the past few years, we would have been keen to work with him. He did not. Instead he has used the land reform issue as an excuse for undermining Zimbabwean democracy.

And more than this, his actions have now provoked a grave economic crisis in a country which has the potential to be rich and successful. This is a tragedy for all Zimbabwe's people. The victims of Mr Mugabe are not primarily white; they are the ordinary black citizens fed up with years of decline and corruption.

President Mugabe's behaviour was denounced by a very large number of Commonwealth countries at Coolum. And let me make clear, Mr Speaker, that this included outspoken and courageous condemnation by African leaders who understand very well that the damage President Mugabe is doing harms not only Zimbabwe but Africa as a whole. Despite President Mugabe's propaganda, this is not an issue that divides the Commonwealth on racial lines; not one that divides Africa from the other Commonwealth members.

Although there was a strong current of criticism running at Coolum, decisions need to be unanimous. In a body representing over 50 separate nations there was no realistic prospect of a consensus for suspending Zimbabwe from Commonwealth membership in advance of the elections this coming weekend.

But we did agree a statement on Zimbabwe that expressed deep concern about the violence surrounding the current election campaign, and called for free and fair elections. This statement makes provision for Zimbabwe's suspension, if the report of the Commonwealth Observers currently in Zimbabwe is adverse.

If the Observers' report does indeed find widespread evidence of intimidation and violence, the fudging will have to stop. The credibility of the Commonwealth itself is at stake. The procedures laid down in the Harare Commonwealth Declaration and the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme are clear, and action must follow, up to and including suspension. Let me add, Mr Speaker, that it is a remarkable tribute to the strength of democracy in Zimbabwe that the opposition retains a chance of winning these elections at all. Again, let us be clear. If they do win, President Mugabe must accept the result and hand over power.

Mr Speaker, the Coolum meeting provided an opportunity for me to meet a number of African leaders to discuss the New Partnership for African Development. We need to work with Africa, through the G8 and through a wide range of international organisations, to grasp this opportunity for a new start, and new hope, for Africa. On aid, trade and conflict I believe we have a real chance for progress, with commitment and leadership on both sides. We will continue to make this a major priority of British policy.

Coolum also allowed me, Mr Speaker, to meet the Heads of Government of Commonwealth Caribbean countries. We discussed ways of developing the United Kingdom's relations with them, and ways of helping them confront the challenges they face, particularly in countering drugs and terrorism, and in the economic and trade fields. There will be a further opportunity to develop this dialogue at the meeting of the UK/Caribbean Forum in Georgetown, Guyana, next month.

Finally, I co-hosted with John Howard the Commonwealth Sports Lunch, where we looked forward to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester this summer and then in Melbourne in 2006.

Mr Speaker, I wish to conclude with thanks to My Right Honourable Friend The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary for the work he did in preparing for the Coolum meeting, particularly in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. It was a great sadness that, for personal reasons, he was unable to attend the meeting itself. I wish also to record my thanks to My Noble Friend, the Baroness Amos, for the valuable role she played at Coolum.


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