24 Mar 2014

The Zimbabwe Sanctions Never Worked

The EU removed sanctions on some of Zimbabwe's elite this week. It should drop the rest as soon as possible. They have been a complete failure.

On 17th February, the European Union further pared down its list of Zimbabwean sanctions, suspending so-called 'targeted measures' against eight members of the country's political and military elite. Sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and his wife remained in place.

Since their imposition in 2002, EU sanctions have both expanded and contracted in size and scope, and have ultimately showcased EU foreign policy at its most ineffective and increasingly unjustifiable.

Sanctions against Zimbabwe have failed completely. That may seem like a bold statement, but the main thing militating against it is the awkward fact that to demonstrate a policy’s failure, one must first be able to articulate what that policy was intended to do. When it comes to EU (as well as US, Canadian and Australian) sanctions against Zimbabwe, that's not an easy task.

What's the point of sanctions?

Let's start by turning the clock back to 14 June 2004 when Tony Blair informed the UK House of Commons that: “these measures and sanctions…are of limited effect on the Mugabe regime. We must be realistic about that. It is still important that we give every chance to, and make every effort to try to help, those in south Africa − the southern part of Africa − to put pressure for change on the Mugabe regime, because there is no salvation for the people of Zimbabwe until that regime is changed.”

This was classic Blair, underlining several crucial aspects of his approach to Mugabe: the idea of "regime change", the missionary zeal to pursue "salvation", the pragmatism to recognise that sanctions are actually ineffective, and the conviction that it is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which holds the key diplomatic position. (Such statements, combined with what we already know of Blair’s foreign policy lend plausibility to former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s recent claim that the former British prime minister urged South Africa to assist military action to overthrow Mugabe.)

If we use Blair’s stated goal of regime change as the metric against which to judge the success or failure of 12 years of sanctions, there can be only one judgement: abject failure. British prime ministers have come and gone, and Mugabe has seen them one by one (five and counting). It is hard to imagine Mugabe leaving office, except at a time of his own choosing or when age and infirmity finally take their toll.

Furthermore, the inconsistently-enforced partial asset freeze and travel ban on Mugabe and his wife is hardly any easier to defend on the grounds that it does anything to foster democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights − which is the broader justification for the EU measures. Blair’s defence of sanctions suggested that they helped to support SADC-mediated change. But Mugabe has used the presence of Western sanctions to deft rhetorical effect at every opportunity, and SADC-mandated facilitators have repeatedly called for the removal of sanctions, seeing them as an obstacle to progress.

The US Ambassador to Harare was right to say last week that “sanctions don’t create potholes,” but this underplays the extent to which they have created diplomatic potholes into which opportunities for progress have often fallen.
Confused leaders?

The total failure yet curious longevity of the targeted measures demonstrate something about sanctions in general − namely the distinction between what we might crudely call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sanctions.

For sanctions to be ‘good’ they must form part of coherent, focused policies designed to achieve specific, feasible changes. But the measures against Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s worst human rights abusers and wealth-expropriators were never part of carefully-calibrated, coordinated, multilateral efforts to either change the behaviour of the Mugabe government or precipitate regime change.

For sanctions to change the behaviour of any state, they must also be uniformly and consistently enforced. But freezing assets in UK or US financial institutions and prohibiting London shopping trips was never going to exert influence over an elite which could effortlessly switch their shopping sprees and bank accounts to South Africa or Asia. And with a long queue of Chinese and other investors seeking access to Zimbabwe’s diamond wealth, the Mugabe government’s retention of political power and building up of personal fortunes could continue apace.

It is possible, then, that sanctions were an instance of Blair’s reach exceeding his grasp. But another way to see it would be as an example of a phenomenon Henry Kissinger described whereby “confused leaders…substitute public relations manoeuvre for a sense of direction.” Far from being a failed attempt at ‘good’ sanctions, this approach would see the sanctions as deliberately symbolic and aimed at appeasing a domestic audience keen to see their government "doing something" even though it may achieve nothing in practice.

A petulant symbol

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this whole sorry saga is the historical inconsistency and double standards it highlights. After all, arguably Mugabe’s most reproachable act as a political leader was the Gukurahundi − the brutal killing of an estimated 20,000 mostly Ndebele citizens − which was conducted seven years before his was awarded a knighthood in 1994.

We shouldn't doubt the good faith of the EU's commitment to democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe, but it is undeniable that this concern was much too slow in coming, and it is extremely regrettable (to say the least) that it was the plight of the country's white minority commercial farmers that first precipitated this shift.

Sanctions continue to fail because they are not fit for the purpose of changing the behaviour of Mugabe’s regime, still less for effecting the removal of that regime. That Blair conceded as much in 2004 should give pause for thought as we see the measures pointlessly extended for another year. They are now little more than a petulant symbol of Western disapproval for Mugabe himself.

It would be better by far to press the reset button, eliminate the measures entirely, and focus attention on the many excellent development projects funded by Western donors throughout the period of sanctions. Better still would be to support the efforts of civil society groups to pursue criminal proceedings against those guilty of human rights abuses. As we have seen, sanctions − the largely symbolic acts of disapproving Western nations − are unlikely to help in the pursuit of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

This article first appeared in Think Africa Press

Photo courtesy of Government of South Africa.

This is a guest post; views may not represent that of ECDPM


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