THIS article analytically explains President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s problems in governing Zimbabwe from a realism analytic lens using the dual framework of international law versus international relations. It focusses on how the banning of opposition protests and concomitant human rights abuses after imposing a de facto state of emergency and suspension of the constitution has irreparably damaged his regime at the domestic and international platforms.
International law and international relations have long been concerned with the ways in which states interact with one another, and both fields have traditionally built their theories on the twin assumption of state sovereignty and non-intervention, most notably embodied in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.
The Mnangagwa administration depicts the struggle between legal positivism and political realism; that is the supremacy of politics over law. Like realism in international relations, rationalism in comparative politics concentrates on “means-ends” calculations and how they affect political outcomes.
The current crackdown by Mnangagwa and his authoritarian regime critically places politics without law at the heart of his governance architecture. This narrative drowns his fake postulations and mantras on “Zimbabwe is open for business” and “new dispensation” which have become in practice open for renewed violence and deception.
But realism engages in methodological nationalism, whereas rationalism — as it is deployed in comparative politics — engages in methodological individualism. For realism, the ontological unit of analysis is the state as a unitary actor from which the models and explanations for events and political outcomes in international relations are derived.
For rationalism, the ontological unit of analysis is the individual, whose strategic interaction forms the basis of political explanation. The difference between the two perspectives thus resides in their focus on states and individuals, whereas the common affinity of the two perspectives is their emphasis on the utility-maximising of the units of analysis.
Like the polarity of law and power (which is the case with Mnangagwa’s authoritarian resurgence) in the fields of international law and international relations, rationalist and structuralist accounts of politics have created a polarity between structureless agents on the one hand and extreme rational choice and agentless structure on the other extreme structuralists.
To address the problems in Zimbabwe, there is need to construct an empirical model. If the norms contained in the international human rights regime such as respect for fundamental civil and political liberties; freedoms of expression, assembly, petition, freedom from torture as enshrined in the Zimbabwe constitution are important — as legal proceduralists, neoliberal institutionalists and liberal-republicans argue — then there ought to be a positive relationship between international law of human rights (rights in principle) and the protection of human rights (rights in practice).
The problem with Mnangagwa, just like former president Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF in general, is that under them we have rights in principle as enshrined in the constitution, but in practice citizens are abused with impunity. Impunity appears to be a government policy in Zimbabwe, from Rhodes to Mnangagwa without a break. Mnangagwa has failed to make a distinction between his administration and prior regimes. Two years into his deceptive rule, the world has clearly seen that there is nothing new about it.
International human rights law expects that all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time, but the Mnangagwa regime has dismally failed the test and consequently framed itself as a norm-violating and rogue outfit that requires international censure. The most probable explanation on why both Mugabe and Mnangagwa got away with their transgressions could be understood using the realism analytic framework in international politics.
Strict realists make six assumptions about the world: states are the primary and most powerful actors in the international sphere, the world is anarchic. Since there is no power over states and no state may command another, there can be no order in international relations. States seek to maximise their security power, realists perceive the world as having limited resources that are evenly distributed and so they see states as primarily focussed on maximising power and security, states behave rationally in their pursuit of power or security and that there is utility in the use of force. These tenets explain the Harare regime’s crackdown on the opposition and human rights defenders with impunity.
It is important to note that there is a major division within the Realist School regarding how states measure the maximisation of power. Under classic realist theory, states seek to make absolute gains in their power. Under this view, a realist state does not care whether other states gain in the same transaction as long as the state that is acting makes a gain in power. This explains the cycle of impunity associated with Zanu PF regimes both under Mugabe and now under Mnangagwa.
Neo-realists argue that states seek relative gains. In this view, states will want to know whether they will benefit more than other states based on the existing power structure. Based on these assumptions, realists tend to view the world as a series of prisoner’s dilemmas. The classic prisoner’s dilemma involves two suspects arrested for a crime. The suspects agree in advance not to say anything. The police interrogate them separately and offer each leniency in return for a confession. If neither suspect co-operates, they will only face a light sentence for a lesser included offence.
If both suspects confess, they will go to prison for the full crime though they will get some leniency for their co-operation. If only one suspect confesses that suspect will be left off, while the other gets the maximum sentence for the full crime. The best overall outcome for both suspects is when both choose not to confess. For each individual the best outcome is to confess, while the other sticks to their agreement not to say anything. If either suspect believes the other will cheat by confessing, it is in their interest to also cheat and confess.
Unless the two suspects are incredibly committed to their agreement this prisoners’ dilemma should tend to end in both suspects confessing to protect themselves against worst possible outcome and possibly obtain the best outcome.
The basic idea from the prisoner’s dilemma can be translated into the international relations sphere. For example, States will follow the Third Geneva Conventions (which protects prisoners of war and wounded soldiers) as long as they believe other states will also comply. Yet if one state suspects or knows that another state is violating the Third Geneva Convention, the other state would be motivated to break the treaty.
While realism may explain certain choices made by states in the international sphere and thereby illuminate conduct (particularly economic and military conduct), it has difficulty explaining the acceptance by states of international human rights in such as self-centred and power focused world as understood by the realist theory.
The problems are two-fold; realists must find some benefit for states in agreeing to and complying with international human rights norms and other norms of good governance and even if such a benefit could be found, realists would need to show why there would be a strong incentive to cheat under the prisoner’s dilemma. Therefore to address the problems in Zimbabwe, the international community should make it very expensive for Mnanngagwa and his cabal to abuse human rights. The culture and cycle of impunity should have consequences and human rights trials are possible deterrent measures.
Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.