Zimbabwe: Sanctions and Solidarity

PASSOP demonstration in Cape Town. CC license: SokwaneleZimbabwe is currently the subject of sanctions designed to pressure Robert Mugabe and his colleagues to cease human rights abuses and remove other barriers to democratization in the country. Yet despite some recent positive developments — such as the appointment of independent commissions on human rights, elections, and the media — the future of democracy in Zimbabwe remains highly uncertain.

Hardliners in Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) are still resisting sharing authority with Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) officials in the government. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) continues its mediation efforts, but the parties remain stalemated on “outstanding issues.” Most significantly, while day-to-day political violence has dramatically decreased, the government hasn’t systematically dealt with the culture of impunity, and the potential for more violence remains. There has been no progress at all on security reform. With new elections predicted for next year, most likely without completion of a new constitution, Mugabe and his partisans retain the capacity to ramp up repression — and the will to do so.

In this context, the debate on sanctions has been highly contentious, full of strong language for and against but not much clarity on the specific measures in place and their impact, intended or otherwise.

The violations of democratic rights used to justify the sanctions have been well-documented. However, the fact that they’ve been imposed only by Western powers has undermined the international legitimacy of these measures. Even those who support sanctions have pointed out that Western countries have not imposed similar sanctions on other regimes guilty of similar offenses. President Mugabe and his defenders have even contended that sanctions are illegal as well as illegitimate. Zimbabwe’s civil society has been divided on whether sanctions are appropriate or not.

Sanctions can refer to a wide variety of international measures penalizing certain actions in order to alter behavior. Any country has the sovereign right to determine its foreign policy toward another country, according to its own laws, with sanctions option occupying the middle ground between diplomacy and war. To determine whether such measures are legitimate or effective, it’s essential to look at their content, implementation, and impact.

Sanctions are only one of several policy tools. Both supporters and opponents of sanctions in Zimbabwe exaggerate their importance. The international community, at both the global and regional levels, has other means at its disposal. The key issue is not only when to lift or relax sanctions, but also how much support Western countries will provide for economic recovery, and what role Zimbabwe’s African neighbors will play in this process.

Sanctions in Practice

The current sanctions differ in several respects from previous sanctions against the white-minority regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. They are aimed at abuses by a specific political faction rather than at a system entrenched for generations. And they are explicitly defined as limited and “targeted” rather than as comprehensive.

Even so, today’s debate features the same wide gap between rhetoric and reality that characterized previous debates. Thus Great Britain and the entire United Nations imposed presumably comprehensive sanctions on white-minority Rhodesia after its unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. But British and other world leaders clearly understood that South Africa, the Portuguese colonial regime in Mozambique, and even British oil companies undermined strategic components of sanctions, such as the ban on oil imports. Sanctions against Rhodesia became a decisive factor only after 1975, when Mozambique became independent and closed its transit routes to Rhodesia. And it was in part the tacit threat of sanctions from South Africa that finally induced Ian Smith to enter into negotiations for transition to majority rule.

Though labeled comprehensive, those sanctions were actually not. Similarly, today’s sanctions are labeled as targeted, but no one, not even the governments that adopted sanctions, investigated to what extent they are actually affecting the intended targets.

No government has imposed comprehensive trade or investment sanctions on Zimbabwe comparable to those that anti-apartheid activists demanded, and partially achieved, against the South African apartheid regime, or to those that the United States still imposes on Cuba. Yet hard-line Mugabe supporters try to give the impression that the existing measures have massive negative effects on the Zimbabwean economy. In fact, the European Union and the United States are still among Zimbabwe’s largest trading partners. EU-Zimbabwe trade totaled $561 million in 2008, the last year for which full statistics are available, second only to the dominant role of South Africa with $2.6 billion in trade with Zimbabwe. China followed with $267 million and the United States with $197 million.

In addition to prohibitions on arms sales, the limited measures in place include asset freezes and travel bans targeted at specific individuals and companies owned by them. The EU, for example, cites “persons who bear a wide responsibility for serious violations of human rights and of the freedom of opinion, of association, and of peaceful assembly.” The U.S. Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (ZDERA), calling for measures later implemented by President George W. Bush, specified “individuals responsible for the deliberate breakdown of the rule of law, politically motivated violence, and intimidation in Zimbabwe.”

Implementation of these measures, however, has been neither transparent nor precisely targeted. As of March 2010, the list of persons targeted by EU sanctions includes 197 individuals and 31 companies. The U.S. list, last updated in November 2008, includes 132 individuals and 54 companies. Although these lists exist on the web, no documentation explains the process for deciding which individuals or companies are candidates for inclusion. Moreover, lists from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the EU do not match up.

Some of those on the lists are appropriate targets of sanctions, such as Mugabe himself and officials directly responsible for violence such as war veteran leader Joseph Chinotimba, Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, and Zimbabwe Defense Forces Commander Constantine Chiwenga. But others clearly should not be there, such as former Minister of Health Timothy Stamps, who is on the EU list even though he retired in 2002. Stamps was responsible for the innovative and successful Zimbabwean health policies of the 1980s and early 1990s before the Mugabe government imposed cuts that devastated the system, at the insistence of international financial institutions. Other questionable additions to the EU list are people like Peter Chigoka, whose management of Zimbabwe cricket may be dubious on multiple grounds, but who can hardly be considered responsible for politically motivated violence. And including journalists, such as Judith Makwanya of Zimbabwe Broadcasting and Caesar Zvayi, of The Herald, however sycophantic their support of the regime, hardly seems consistent with advocacy of freedom of the press.

The lists seem to include all prominent government and party officials, without documenting their involvement in human rights abuses or opposition to democracy. Even if such a broad targeting mechanism were appropriate at one time, which is doubtful, it became clearly inappropriate with the establishment of the government of national unity over a year ago, in February 2009. The implementation of the agreement forming that government contains many flaws, and some ZANU (PF) hardliners are determined to sabotage it. But it’s counterproductive to indiscriminately identify all ZANU (PF) officials as complicit in those actions.

A 2008 executive order by President George W. Bush, renewed in March 2009 and 2010 by President Obama, made sanctions more inflexible. The new sanctions refer not only to persons meeting the original criteria but to “senior officials of the Government of Zimbabwe,” as well as to state-owned companies. One result has been the blockage of assistance to companies such as Agribank and ZB Bank, which supply financing for Zimbabwe’s small-scale farmers. And even though many officials of the current unity government have not been added to the U.S. list, the wording of the executive order still reflects a counterproductive rigidity in Washington policy circles. When Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai’s delegation met with Obama in June 2009, for example, Zimbabwe Minister of Tourism Walter Mzembi, an advocate for reform within ZANU (PF), was barred from the meeting, even though he is not on the U.S. sanctions list.

This less-than-discriminate “targeting” undermines the credibility of the sanctions within Zimbabwe and the southern African region, and casts doubt on the motives of the countries implementing the sanctions. In practical terms, the targets can easily evade serious consequences by doing their business in South Africa or Asia. The failure to win over regional public opinion through an open process significantly weakens the impact of the measures and allows defenders of ZANU (PF) to dominate the debate. Instead of changing behavior, poorly implemented and explained sanctions provide ZANU (PF) with a convenient scapegoat to divert attention from their failure to implement agreements.

International Financial Institutions

Current sanctions include a U.S. congressional mandate that the United States vote against loans or debt cancellation for Zimbabwe by international financial institutions (IFI) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the African Development Bank, unless the president determines that Zimbabwe has met certain conditions or waives this provision.

Since the formation of the unity government, relations between Zimbabwe and the IFIs have thawed. Significantly, the IMF has restored Zimbabwe’s voting rights and granted a $510 million support facility for the economic crisis, while the World Bank is managing a multi-donor fund to support recovery. But economic support for Zimbabwe is still far from adequate.

In this new era of the unity government, despite its faults, continued political restrictions on IFI dealings with Zimbabwe, such as those stated in U.S. legislation, make no sense. These institutions instead need to work constructively with the energetic efforts led by Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister Tendai Biti, to turn around the economy and bring relief to long-suffering Zimbabweans. Fundamental to this effort would be relief of the nearly $6 billion in international debt that has depressed economic growth rates by two-thirds. An official debt audit and a new framework for debt contraction and management — all based on transparency and accountability — are essential.

Zimbabwe’s structural adjustment program in 1990, supposedly homegrown but crafted along standard World Bank lines, negatively affected social services and the economy more generally, sparking social struggles and eroding Mugabe’s legitimacy in the eyes of Zimbabweans. While ZANU (PF) must take responsibility for the economic mismanagement, corruption, and political repression that followed, the IFIs share the blame for launching Zimbabwe’s spiral of decline from its status as a model for the region. They should also take responsibility for supporting rather than hindering recovery.

From Sanctions to Recovery

Lifting sanctions on hardliners who continue to impede Zimbabwe’s democratization would be a mistake. It would be seen as a signal of impunity for future as well as past abuses. But keeping the current list as is would also be a mistake, reinforcing the incorrect premise that ZANU (PF) is homogeneous. Current sanctions, which do not take into account diverse views within Mugabe’s party, should be reviewed with more precise targeting and consistent implementation.

Such a review, including all the countries that adopted sanctions, should include a detailed evaluation of the criteria for inclusion on an agreed list of targets, investigation of the reasons for including specific persons and companies, and transparent and wide disclosure of the process and the results. The intended effect should be not only more credible implementation. It should also be aimed at gaining more support from Zimbabwean and international public opinion, with convincing documentation for every name included on the list. The list should also be updated regularly. For instance, the current list does not reflect the rapid growth and strategic importance of the diamond industry in eastern Zimbabwe, the well-documented human rights abuses by the Zimbabwean military, or corruption and illegality in assignment of contracts. The government awarded new mining rights in 2009 to two South African companies, Mbada Diamonds and Canadile Mining, which were established in collaboration with former Zimbabwean military officers and are embroiled in controversy both in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Yet there is apparently no process for investigating whether or not they should be added to the sanctions lists.

Those sanctions that remain after the review should be matched by equally prominent policy measures to support economic and social recovery in Zimbabwe, as well as continuing support for civil society. They should also urge southern African governments to consider parallel if not identical measures for effective pressure to remove obstacles to democratization.

There must also be strong and well-publicized positive measures to meet humanitarian needs and to support economic and social recovery. In fact, this is now the official policy of Zimbabwe’s donors, including those countries imposing sanctions. But the consolidated UN appeal for 2009, which included $722 million for critical needs, raised only 65 percent of the total required. The 2010 appeal, released in November 2009 and calling for $378 million, had raised only $12 million by late March 2010, despite positive reports from the previous year on collaboration among donors, private agencies, and working-level Zimbabwean government officials.

While this gap can partly be explained by slow budget and disbursement processes, it also contradicts the donors’ own judgment that support is “time critical.” Donor countries should give much greater priority to substantive action to support both humanitarian and development needs in Zimbabwe.

Southern African Responsibility

Actions by Western countries may have some influence. Southern Africa, however, is the most decisive component of the international community for the future of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s neighbors, particularly South Africa and Botswana, are the most severely affected by its ongoing crisis. South Africa hosts the largest number of Zimbabwean refugees, estimated at over one million. The political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, accompanied by xenophobic violence against refugees in South Africa, is the major threat to peace in the southern African region.

To their credit, SADC countries are engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. SADC helped negotiate the Global Political Agreement (GPA) that led to the formation of the unity government last year. With South Africa in the lead, SADC is also the guarantor of this agreement. South Africa is Zimbabwe’s leading trading partner and has greater economic leverage than any other country. Yet while Western countries have overemphasized largely ineffective sanctions, South Africa and its SADC partners have also faltered, failing to ensure full implementation of the GPA. The impact of diplomacy has repeatedly been undermined by a stance of “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil,” carried over from the period of President Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy.”

Almost one year into the presidency of Jacob Zuma in South Africa, policy remains hobbled by the lack of a plan B to deal with ZANU (PF) intransigence. Hopes aroused by the latest round of mediation have been dashed. SADC leaders are well aware that Mugabe and his colleagues are holding up progress, just as they were well aware of the waves of state-sponsored violence that reached their height during the 2008 election crisis. In private, SADC officials often criticize ZANU (PF). Before he was president, Zuma himself publicly rebuked Mugabe for failing to step down. But in public, with the exception of Botswana’s President Ian Khama, SADC leaders have failed to bring public pressure to bear on Zimbabwe’s leaders to implement their commitments. Strikingly, Zuma has even undermined his own diplomacy by echoing Mugabe’s talking points.

As mediators in Zimbabwe, SADC leaders have to avoid unproductive rhetoric, and South Africa has to avoid the image of a regional bully. But diplomacy without real pressure loses credibility. When diplomacy is thwarted, failure to strengthen it with other options not only evades the region’s responsibility to Zimbabwe. It also endangers the stability and damages the reputation of the entire region.

The unity government has resulted in real progress in Zimbabwe, mitigating the decade-long political and economic crisis. Political violence has declined, and the economy has improved. But these changes will not be sustainable unless constitutional reform is completed and unless fundamental political change is protected from the threat of violence from an unreformed security sector. Just as Western governments need to think beyond relying primarily on sanctions, so SADC governments need to think creatively beyond exclusive reliance on “quiet diplomacy.”

This does not imply, as defenders of “quiet diplomacy” often argue, a shift to the opposite extreme of “megaphone diplomacy” or intrusive mediator intervention. But the mediation process could be strengthened if SADC governments were also willing to proactively build public support for respecting human rights, the rule of law, and the illegitimacy of political violence. In particular, it is important to provide encouragement to the new human rights, electoral, and media commissions.

South African and other SADC leaders can also help focus the spotlight on abuses. In effect, although new elections may come next year or later, Zimbabwe is already in a “pre-election” period. SADC preparation should begin now. It should make use of existing SADC standards rather than waiting until increased violence is imminent. More broadly, the tone of debates in South Africa in particular can influence parallel debates in Zimbabwe. A case in point is the current debate on indigenization, where a new proposal to require 51 percent Zimbabwean ownership of companies raises real issues of economic inequality but also provides ample opportunity for elite corruption, demagogic rhetoric, and extra-legal actions.

There are also other formal mechanisms, such as the Kimberley Process (KP) for diamond certification, which may significantly affect the resources available to securocrat hardliners. SADC governments, which have leading roles in this internationally mandated process, should insist that this process go beyond technical details to fundamental issues of human rights and corruption. Abbey Chikane, the former chairman of South Africa’s Diamond Board, is currently investigating Zimbabwe diamonds as the KP monitor. Whether or not he certifies the diamonds from Marange, and on what grounds, will be a key indicator of whether SADC is willing to use the leverage it has to promote accountability in Zimbabwe.

Solidarity activists should not expect anything more than incremental changes from their governments. Activist groups both in Southern Africa and around the world, including Zimbabwean diaspora groups, should also take their own initiatives.

In 2008, dockworkers around the region set a precedent for vigorous action when they refused to unload an arms shipment from China to Zimbabwe in 2008, sparking support from broader civil society. Given how the public debate on Zimbabwe is still dominated by outdated and simplistic stereotypes, international groups should prioritize highlighting the achievements of the unity government as well as exposing continuing obstacles to democracy and economic recovery. Only a visible boost in people-to-people solidarity is likely to lead governments, from Pretoria to London and Washington, to adopt more effective policies.

The primary responsibility lies with the internal efforts of Zimbabwean democratic forces. But their chances of success will depend on whether those outside, both Zimbabwean and others, also take their responsibilities seriously.

Briggs Bomba, a Zimbabwean civil society activist, is director of campaigns for Africa Action. William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. Both are FPIF contributors and have recently returned from visits to Zimbabwe.