Zuma and the debate on the Zimbabwe sanctions: to lift or not to lift?

As noted last week, Zuma’s visit to the UK gave plenty of things for the media to talk about: from his sex habits, marriage arrangements and the British’s empire mentality. But there was much more. Zuma used his visit to ask Gordon Brown to support the lifting of Zimbabwe sanctions; this is, the “travel bans and asset freezes imposed by the EU and the US on Robert Mugabe and his allies” and still in place, and which serve, he argued, “only to divide the already fragile power-sharing government in Zimbabwe”. This generated an interesting debate on The Guardian, regarding the usefulness of sanctions in the Zimbabwean case. Thus, last Wednesday Blessing Miles-Tendi wrote an article titled “Zuma’s right on Zimbabwe”, in which he supported the lifting of sanctions and argued that these “are not only internally divisive but iniquitous and obstructive to democracy”. You can read the full article here.
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South African president Jacob Zuma. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP (via The Guardian)

This article prompted Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, to response, witing a letter in which he argued: “Blessing-Miles Tendi blames the EU targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his cronies for the failure of last year’s power-sharing deal to bring about the hoped-for political transformation in Zimbabwe. That is absurd. The evidence that Zanu-PF continues to violate the agreement is overwhelming. In the past year MDC activists have been killed and abducted. Legislators and journalists have been arrested on spurious charges. Repressive media laws remain in place. Illegal invasions of commercial farms continue. Zanu-PF continues to use its control of the army, police and security sector to persecute its opponents. Just this week journalist Andrison Shadreck Manyere was arrested for filming political detainees outside a courthouse and union leader Gertrude Hambira fled the country fearing for her life after her offices were ransacked by police. Easing EU sanctions now will simply reinforce the repression in Zimbabwe.”

Continuing the debate, yesterday Miles-Tandi responded, with what I consider to be and extremely insightful criticism of the limitations of how human rights discourse is applied in political crisis, and especially, regarding Zimbabwe. Here are some excerpts:“Porteous either failed to comprehend my article or he is in the habit of making kneejerk responses, because nowhere do I make the assertion that sanctions are the sole reason for the failure of the “power-sharing deal to bring about the hoped-for political transformation”… My argument is that sanctions must be lifted in order to rob Zanu PF of a key propaganda and negotiating plank, which it has used to weaken internal opposition and as a pretext for the non-implementation of democratic reforms… However, the most disconcerting aspect of Porteous’s response is not its misrepresentation of my views but that it shows how, for four reasons, the human rights movement remains intellectually ill-equipped to deal with Zanu PF…

First, Porteous… does not stop to ask whether targeted sanctions have had any effect in deterring Zanu PF’s human rights violations. Sanctions have been in place since 2002, but Robert Mugabe still stole the 2002 and 2008 presidential elections. Sanctions did not dissuade the Zanu PF government from violently seizing white-owned commercial farms… carrying out Operation Murambatsvina…Journalists, the opposition and civil society have faced untold repression under the EU sanctions’ watch…

Second, Porteous’ insistence on the maintenance of sanctions that clearly do not have the desired effect reflects how the human rights movement lacks ingenuity in confronting Zanu PF’s human rights violations…For a decade, we have isolated the Zanu PF government, attacked its excesses and applied targeted sanctions. Zanu PF has only become more belligerent and its human rights abuses have worsened…

Third, the human rights movement has struggled to deal with the problem that the very same actors, such as the EU, that it has urged to maintain sanctions on Zimbabwe do not apply the same human rights standards everywhere and are themselves gross human rights violators. This is a very important shortcoming because external attempts at protecting the human rights of a given populace are undermined if they are accompanied by selectivity and hypocrisy. …

Fourth, the human rights movement has not fully appreciated the sophisticated nature of Mugabe and Zanu PF. Zanu PF has invested sustained intellectual labour in attacking the idea of human rights…The human rights movement in Zimbabwe and internationally has failed to articulate a compelling defence of the validity of human rights in the country. As a result, intellectual space has been ceded to Zanu PF’s public intellectuals.

In my opinion this constitues an excellent summary of the shorcomings of the current approach to the Zimbabwean crisis – shortcoming that only reinforce Mugabe’s position. This situation in Zimbabwe continued to be tense, with a fragile national unity government, harrasment of activists and politicians, and continued power-abuses from ZANU-PF. But sanctions, in place since 2002 do not appear to have made the situation better, rather the opposite, as Miles-Tandi argues, giving ideological ammunition to Mugabe’s camp. What Human Rights activist sometimes forget – something that directly results from the very nature of the Human Rights discourse – is that politics is often a messy affais, that calls for compromises, and that in order to exert any change you need to have leverage of some sort. Undoubtedly, complying with the international Human Rights framework gives you a certain degree of leverage, and wins you international support from Western powers. But in many cases – such as Zimbabwe – this is not enough because on the national sphere this discourse is confronted and over-powered by Mugabe’s interested use of anti-imperialist rhetoric.

A more fruitful approach then will be, as Miles-Tandi suggests and I agree, to adopt a more flexible political position – instead of a manichean “you-either-fully-comply-with-human-rights-requirements-or you-will-be-considered-a-pariah” approach, which highlights the double standards existing in the international sphere (see Afghanistan). Following this, the international community’s best chance may be to rely on Zuma to act as intermediate in making ZANU-PF comply with the powersharing agreement. Understandably, there is a reticiency to do this, given the failure of Mbeki’s “constructive engagement” policy. Nevertheless, there appears to be a certain, albeit slight, change in South Africa’s foreign policy towards Zimbabwe as this SAIIA article notes:“Zimbabwe remains South Africa’s most immediate foreign policy challenge. Zuma’s more cordial relations with Morgan Tsvangirai, his tougher stance at the November 2009 Maputo SADC Summit and his replacement of Mbeki as mediator by Charles Nqakula, Mac Maharaj and Lindiwe Zulu later that month heralds, for some, a definite break with the past, although it is early days.”
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Photograph: Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images (via The Guardian)
Furthermore, as the “Blue Lines” section signals in the latest Africa-Confidential (here, no suscription required), Zuma’s team “has made some headway in negotiations on political and security issues” and “is searching for leverage with Mugabe, suggesting that sanctions could be quickly reimposed if pledges are not kept” (a much more interesting dynamic than keeping the sanctions). Sanctions on Zimbabwe, this article continues, are in fact “under review: its voting rights at the IMF have been restored. The IMF and the World Bank are working on a plan to tackle its arrears and speed up disbursement for the short term recovery programme – despite the United States’ and Britain’s veto on loans. That too may change after some diplomatic clodhopping. Last year, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that it was up to the MDC to decide when sanctions were lifted. Since then, Premier Morgan Tsvangirai has written to EU leaders calling for a general review of sanctions and Finance Minister Tendai Biti has asked the EU to lift sanctions on eight specific companies; it quickly complied. However, the last set of sanctions – the targeting of ZANU-PF officials and their business friends – is likely to stand for many months yet.”

It is therefore clear that the stand-off in Zimbabwe has been paralysing for the country’s situation, and that a new something needs to be done. And that the sanctions, in place since 2002 have not worked. It does not therefore seem such a crazy idea then, to give it a go at trying new ideas, like lifting the sanctions…

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