By Dr Alex T Magaisa
CONTRARY to the common belief that sanctions can bring about the desired goals of compelling the government to promote democracy and human rights, they are in fact missing the intended t
Instead, they are hitting the poor, disempowering civil society and consequently threatening the democratic process.
It is important to go beyond the basic political assertions and consider comprehensively whether or not the sanctions regime has itself become a threat to human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe.
The question of whether sanctions work has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate over the years. While some studies indicate that there is a general impression that they have worked successfully only in a minority of cases, sanctions nonetheless remain a key foreign policy tool of various states across the world.
The theoretical basis of sanctions is that they compel the government of the target country to change its approach in relation to certain problematic issues.
In recent years sanctions have been variously used against a number of states for allegedly violating human rights. It is believed that the pressure of sanctions would compel the government to change its conduct and attitude towards certain issues – that the loss of certain privileges could persuade or force them to change their ways.
Alternatively, though this aim is less pronounced, the effect of sanctions might cause the citizens to demand change from their government.
There are a number of types of sanctions – economic, diplomatic, etc. In recent years there has been increasing use of targeted sanctions also known as “smart” sanctions – whereby certain individuals or organisations within a country are specifically targeted using for example, travel bans, asset-freezing, etc.
Theoretically, the idea of smart sanctions is to avoid punishing the general citizens of a country for the wrongs of a few individuals in government. This distinction between smart sanctions against selected individuals and general sanctions against the country is in effect, very hard to sustain. Either way, it is the general citizens that suffer, while the intended targets escape the effect of the sanctions because they have the power and opportunities to do so.
The sanctions regime in relation to Zimbabwe is said to be characterised by smart sanctions against specific individuals in government and those implicated in human rights violations. The sanctions involve travel bans and freezing of assets of certain specified individuals almost all of whom are connected to the government or the ruling party.
The influential European Union, the US, Australia and New Zealand have been at the forefront of the targeted sanctions policy.
The US passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which introduces certain conditions for assistance and effectively provides the basis for sanctions. The list of targeted individuals is reviewed and amended from time to time.
A question arises as to whether these sanctions actually work as intended, that is, whether they affect only the targeted individuals or the impact extends more generally across the country. In other words, how smart are the smart sanctions?
At some point, the EU issued a statement in which it argued that the sanctions were not targeted against Zimbabwe as a country, but specific individuals and therefore could not be seen as detrimental to the Zimbabwean economy.
The government on the other hand persistently blames sanctions (and drought) for the country’s economic malaise. To be sure, it is generally accepted that the primary causes of the crisis in Zimbabwe are internal, both man-made and natural, and it is somewhat an exaggeration to blame the sanctions regime as the exclusive cause for the country’s troubles.
Zimbabwe’s economic breakdown did not happen overnight as a result of sanctions. Nonetheless, notwithstanding exaggeration, we cannot dismiss outright the fact that sanctions have had a negative effect on the economic conditions in Zimbabwe.
While they are not the primary cause, there is nonetheless some substance in the view that they have contributed to the demise in recent years. Why is this so, when the smart sanctions specifically target named persons?
In my view, the effect of targeted sanctions goes beyond the individuals caught in the net. The fact that the leadership of a country is targeted has a ripple effect on the country as a whole.
The targeted sanctions have an effect on how others deal with the country as a whole. Consequently, it is arguable that the image of the country that is led by people who have been targeted by sanctions, would also suffer in the court of international public opinion.
An analogy is where a company’s directors are banned from doing certain things in the market. It is likely to affect the way the company as a whole is viewed in the market.
Who would wish to deal with a company whose directors are banned from certain activities? The line between the company’s leadership and the company is blurred. The shareholders also suffer even though the bans are intended to target the directors. It is a nightmare for shareholders where rules and practices make it hard to remove the directors.
Zimbabwean travellers know only too well that even though travel bans to certain countries were imposed against specific individuals, the experience of every other person at the border post of those countries or applying for a visa is a nightmare. Similarly, companies may also find it extremely hard to get lines of credit where the country cannot access them. So in effect, smart sanctions can be tantamount to sanctions against the country as a whole.
Consequently, the problem is that it is the weak members of the society that are hard-hit by the effects of the sanctions. Democracy cannot flourish in poverty. It needs stable economic foundations.
It seems to me that a sanctions regime that exacerbates the economic problems for the general citizens is akin to the much-criticised Operation Murambatsvina.
Like that ill-thought-out operation, it is based on the philosophy of “destroy first and build later”. The idea perhaps is that when people feel the pinch of the sanctions, they might take action to compel the government to change its ways.
But the fact is that economic suffering weakens civil society. People retreat from the mainstream and worse still, they begin to adjust and adapt to the conditions of hardship. It becomes normal to queue for bread, fuel and to consume rationed meals everyday.
For all the hardships of economic sanctions in Iraq in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein remained in power – Iraqi people simply adjusted. The same applies to Burma, where economic sanctions have been in place for some time, but the repressive regime has remained in power.
In addition, sanctions can have the effect of giving an opportunity for the government to extend and intensify its grip on the citizens. Resources become scarce, creating perfect conditions for manipulation of food as a political weapon.
Sometimes the government plays victim – arguing to its citizens that it is the victim of powerful Western states that hate the country. The government presents itself as the heroic saviour of the people against imperialists with the duty to guard jealously the country’s sovereignty.
Those who are exposed to other sources of information and therefore able to exercise informed judgement might dismiss the effect of such rhetoric as nonsense. But they also underestimate the effect of such messages on the general population, which is repeatedly bombarded with the same messages that they end up believing it is true.
The problem here is that sanctions give credence to the rhetoric that the problem is external – that the fight is about sovereignty. In the process the government can impose mechanisms to increase its grip and avoid the repercussions of further economic decline.
Instead of helping to reduce repressive laws, they are intensified and extended purportedly to maintain “public order and security”.
As we have seen, targeted individuals scarcely feel the impact of the sanctions as intended. In this increasingly globalising economy, vast opportunities have been opened in various parts of the world. It is therefore simple for individuals to evade sanctions.
In the case of Zimbabwe, besides African countries, China, Malaysia and other Far East countries have provided alternatives to the West.
After all, these days the suits, designer clothes and other luxuries are all manufactured in China anyway.
Even in the West, the use of corporate vehicles such as companies and trusts, enables the targeted individuals to hide their assets from the authorities. Experience has also shown that for certain occasions, the travel bans are easily circumvented. Therefore, while building a negative profile for the country, the sanctions have limited effect on the specific individuals.
Civil society is also weakened by emigration fuelled by economic collapse worsened by sanctions.
Zimbabwe has experienced mass emigration in the last five years. Some people have left for political reasons but arguably the majority are economic migrants even though in order to obtain the right to stay in the chosen countries, many often use the route of political asylum. The original causes of economic hardships they sought to escape from were largely internal but they have also been worsened by the sanctions regime and this has contributed to the migration.
Most migrants are the economically active who would have been active participants in the political process. Unsurprisingly, it is believed that a large chunk of opposition supporters and sympathisers are outside Zimbabwe but have limited influence on the democratic process since they cannot vote.
Many of the Zimbabweans in the diaspora are also busy attending to their economic needs and coping with survival in foreign lands to have active involvement in civil society activities.
In addition, the brain-drain that comes with migration increases the strain on the economy and delivery of social services.
To the extent that sanctions have contributed to economic meltdown, and therefore to emigration, they have also impacted negatively on civil society and the democratic process.
I have perhaps underestimated the impact of the sanctions and some might well argue that they are working very well, and as intended.
However, even those persuaded by the positive effect of sanctions could acknowledge that there is potential that sanctions might actually be counterproductive in some ways.
Admittedly, it is important to be critical of the government, but I also think that we should also avoid taking in everything without applying critical thought.
There are those who believe that cutting down all supply lines to Zimbabwe will push people to eventually do something about the situation. But how different are they then from the government that they criticise when it bulldozes people’s houses before promising to build new ones in the name of Operation Murambatsvina?
Even if democracy makes a return, it may be hard to sustain it where the economy has effectively ceased to function. Beyond the political parties vying for power and beyond the democracy that we seek, there is the economy which we must guard collectively regardless of political affiliations.
I do not think that even democracy itself would be worth the fight when there is no economy to talk about. In a nutshell, it may be time to seriously discuss the issue of sanctions before the whole economy is completely eroded.
* Dr Magaisa is a specialist in corporate and financial services law and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.