With election season in full swing in Zimbabwe and political violence making a brutal comeback, the United States has said the country has done little to reverse the conditions that first led to the imposition of sanctions.
US state department officials reiterated that sanctions were not targeted at most Zimbabweans but at individuals who had presided over human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions and corruption.
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This emerged on Wednesday evening during a virtual press briefing on US sanctions policy and implementation in Zimbabwe, where the US department of state’s sanctions coordinator, James O’Brien, said the sanctions were designed to influence particular people to change their ways.
Zimbabwe’s ruling party has for years said the sanctions have hurt the country’s citizens, a claim O’Brien dismissed.
“Sanctions emphasise the rule of law and are focused on people responsible for human rights abuses and corruption,” O’Brien said.
“Typically what the sanctions do is forbid the person from travelling to the United States or using transactions with US banking institutions.”
The US and EU first imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe at the height of the country’s controversial land reform programme more than two decades ago that stripped thousands of white commercial farmers of their land.
The sanctions have subsequently been reviewed and renewed every year.
According to some counts, 12 white farmers were killed, while the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reported the murder, assault and rape of farm workers by former combatants of the country’s 1970s war of liberation that brought independence in 1980.
More than one million farm workers are estimated to have been evicted.
Critics say the land redistribution programme marked the rapid decline of the country’s economic and political situation.
In 2020, the Zimbabwean government announced a US$3.5-billion package to compensate white commercial farmers who lost their land, and last year began making the payouts.
“What we are doing with Zimbabwe is we are focused on people who profit from human rights abuses, corruption and antidemocratic actions,” O’Brien said.
“The country continues to have massive arrears to international financial institutions and the economy is deteriorating. That may be partly just poor policy choices but also corruption and economic mismanagement.”
Ahead of the 2023 elections, sanctions have become a running theme for Zanu-PF, in power since 1980, as it seeks to extend its rule. Zanu-PF has insisted for years that Zimbabwean activists have worked with the US to cripple the economy as part of what it says is a “regime change agenda”.
“We use sanctions to disrupt corrupt individuals, and other bad actors who undermine democracy,” said Jim Mullinax, the US director of sanctions policy and implementation.
“The ultimate goal of our sanctions is not to punish these individuals, but bring about a positive change of behaviour.”
The country has in recent years seen a deterioration of virtually every sector amid escalating food prices, power outages, poorly paid civil servants and high unemployment levels.
Despite the long-running stand-off between the two countries, the US says it remains “the largest provider of health and humanitarian assistance” to Zimbabwe.
The US says it has provided more than US$3.5-billion to Zimbabwe since the country’s independence in 1980, and points to this assistance to counter claims that the sanctions were imposed against all Zimbabweans.
Humanitarian agencies say millions of Zimbabweans require food assistance, with the US providing funding for international aid agencies working in the country.
But the US embassy in Harare has regularly been slammed by Zanu-PF for allegedly interfering with the country’s domestic affairs. It has accused the US mission of sponsoring discontent against the government.
“We are not involved in a comprehensive effort to close the Zimbabwean economy,” O’Brien said.
“We don’t sanction banks. We are not stopping certain kinds of transactions. Because of the depth of the problems and duration of the programme, there are probably a lot of companies who believe that doing business in Zimbabwe is just too difficult.”
Early this year, US President Joe Biden renewed sanctions on Zimbabwe, noting that “the actions and policies of certain members of the Zimbabwe government and other persons continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States”.
The renewal came as the Zimbabwean government upped its crackdown on members of the opposition and journalists, alongside the proposed amendments to laws critics say will stifle the work of NGOs and also snoop on private electronic communication.
“The idea is to be sure about what kind of behaviour we seek to change, and we need to be willing to change them [the sanctions] if they are not working,” O’Brien added.
Re-engagement between the two countries could still be far in the future amid the ongoing political violence and corruption, US officials contend.
“The Zimbabwean government must take meaningful, noticeable material actions that strengthen democratic processes, build its institutions and respect the constitution,” O’Brien said.
“We would also like to see condemnation of and prosecution of corruption and human rights abusers. Those are some of the things that will remove the country off the sanctions list.”