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Ending sanctions? Slowly Does it

JAPAN and Portugal are leading the push to lift at least some of the so-called sanctions against Zimbabwe, now that the MDC has a say in government.

Late last month, a meeting of like-minded partners — made up of the USA and European Union (EU) countries plus Canada, Australia and New Zealand — went so far as to “commend the reform efforts undertaken by the transitional government”, and both Sadc and the AU are pushing to end Zimbabwe’s isolation. The question then is: how should it be done?

The package of sanctions took a long time to come. In the 1980s when Robert Mugabe’s troops were committing the infamous Gukurahundi genocide in Matabeleland, there was no move to punish him; instead he was awarded honorary degrees at American and British universities and, not long after, the Queen gave him a knighthood. Without a whimper from the world community, Mugabe was able to nationalise the press as early as 1981, and proceeded to create a one-party state in all but name.

Human rights were already in a bad way by the time his land grab started in 1999, and the stolen elections of 2000 and 2002 that began the move to sanctions were not much different from earlier polls. Given this long history of oppression, it would be rash to engage with Mugabe until we are sure that the man and his willing band of killers and co-accused have stepped aside to the point where they cannot take back power once money flows to Harare.

For more than 40 years from 1963, South Africa lived under increasing global isolation because of its policy of apartheid. But in 1990, when FW de Klerk released Nelson Mandela and unbanned the ANC, the Australians came up with a system to bring Pretoria out of the cold. In Canberra, foreign minister Gareth Evans proposed a gradual lifting of what were real sanctions, a slow removal layer by layer until the world could be sure of what he called “irreversible change” in South Africa.

The Evans plan was perfect and won endorsement from Washington, the Commonwealth and the ANC. First, the people-to-people sanctions that banned South African Airways from a host of destinations were scrapped and, one by one, the other measures fell away, until finally an arms embargo dating back to 1963 was lifted after the 1994 elections that brought Mandela to power. At last, a democratic South Africa was able to trade, borrow and send its sporting teams around the world. Zimbabwe needs a similar approach, with gradual reengagement.

 Sanctions against South Africa were tough, though not as harsh as those imposed on Rhodesia in 1966 by the United Nations after Prime Minister Ian Smith declared independence from Britain without allowing a vote by the black majority. By contrast, what President Mugabe refers to as “sanctions” hardly fit the bill. Under the current ban, the president, his ministers and advisors and their families cannot travel to most Western countries. Their bank accounts are frozen and trade is not allowed with companies under control of Zanu PF and its leading members.

It is also difficult for a government steered by Mugabe to buy weapons or borrow money. However, there are no sanctions applied by South Africa which is Zimbabwe’s biggest trade partner. Likewise, most of the larger economies including China, India, Malaysia, Brazil and the oil-rich Middle East are open to Harare, but in reality they won’t lend or extend credit to a regime that — having trashed itself — has nothing to left to trade.

The new finance minister, Tendai Biti, has asked the world to help him bring Zimbabwe back to life, but what he really needs is charity: an injection of aid that will resurrect the transport system, power supply and public service. The lopsided deal that has given some power to the MDC and put Biti in charge of treasury is a far cry from “irreversible change”. Under the constitution, President Mugabe still has the power to call a fresh general election any time he likes. And at Zanu PF meetings around the country, party hacks have been telling their followers to prepare for such a vote.

Think back to last year’s presidential poll, the farce of June 27 when Morgan Tsvangirai was forced to pull out because the level of violence was so high that the MDC could not hold public meetings without its members being attacked and even killed by army, police and the state militia.

Mugabe still controls the police, army, judiciary, TV, radio and all daily newspapers. He has three decades of expertise when it comes to violence and stolen votes and there is every reason to believe his party would like to take back parliament where the MDC now has a majority.

What Zanu PF doesn’t have is the money to run an election on its own terms. But with financial resurrection, the old guard could seize control, and they know from past experience that Sadc, the AU and even the UN would do little or nothing to stop them. This is why President Barack Obama was right in February to extend the US sanctions, and why the world must not move too fast.

Much better a cautious approach that would put money into programmes under direct control of the MDC; demand the privatisation of state media; create space for public debate; fund a rapid retrenchment to trim the armed forces; support programmes that reduce Zanu PF’s hold on power; spread voter education; and work towards a free and fair election.

Crucially, there is no need to remove the personal bans against more than 200 of Mugabe’s closest allies so that, once again, they can shop in New York or quaff champagne in France. If they want to help rebuild the country, let them do it in Zimbabwe. The measures must stay until these people are no longer in a position to harm the nation and its people.

So what about rewards for good behaviour? It would be easy to divide the targeted people into different categories, with the worst offenders on one chart, lesser culprits on the second, and families of that second list on a third. Those in the last group might be allowed a week-long visa to visit one or two countries at a time.

The not-so-baddies could be granted entry if they convince their host that they need to visit London, Perth, Miami etc, to perform a task vital to the new government. We might also ask them to get a supporting letter from Prime Minister Tsvangirai.

That would leave the first list with people like Mugabe, his military chiefs and those who are linked with crimes against humanity like gukurahundi, political murder, abduction and, of course, torture. When a new government really is in charge, when Mugabe and those who have destroyed Zimbabwe do not even have one finger on the levers of power, only then should all the measures be dropped and Zimbabwe can retake its place in world. A rapid move based on what is so far little more than cosmetic change could just bring more suffering. Slowly, slowly, freedom will come. Let’s not kill it in delivery.

Geoff Hill writes for the Washington Times.


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