Guest column: Pearl Matibe
There is little justice and respect for basic human rights in Zimbabwe, still the European Union (EU) softened its sanctions regime.
In February, after egregious human rights abuses escalated beginning on January 14, the European Parliament debated on what to do about the country.
“Changing everything to change nothing, that sums up the sensitive situation after 37 years of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe,” began Ignazio Corrao Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in his speech during that debate.
Importantly, he said that it was difficult “to imagine anything worse; 40 years of blood, famine, and tyranny, but (President Emmerson) Mnangagwa has managed to pull it off”.
He said the security forces “have dirtied their hands with numerous deaths, injuries and rapes … opponents have been imprisoned, including nine-year-old children”.
Hurray, the European Parliament had Zimbabwe on its agenda. Substantially, more must be done to increase local understanding of EU capability, effectiveness, impact plus how distinct, divergent and external actors can help Zimbabwe to help itself.
After little change in its penalties to Zimbabwe, is it more blather and very little action?
EU arms embargo
In February 2002, the EU imposed a number of sanctions on Zimbabwe in response to an EU Council assessment that the country was engaged in serious violations of human rights, including violations of the freedom of opinion, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly.
The travel and financial sanctions included an arms embargo; restrictive measures.
In February 2004, the arms embargo was modified and renewed; a prohibition to grant, sell, and supply or transfer technical assistance related to military equipment — anything that might be used for internal repression.
It covered the sale, export and supply of arms, ammunition, military vehicles and equipment to Zimbabwe, as well as any associated financial and technical assistance.
The embargo has now been extended to February 20, 2020 — effectively, a prohibition to place assets and other resources at the disposal of those on the list.
For decades, Mugabe accused the West of using sanctions and restrictive measures as tools interfering with Zimbabwe’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Mnangagwa is no different.
On February 18, there was a decision to slightly lighten the sanctions that were about to expire; two people were taken off a list (of suspended sanctions).
There was a lot of concern about events in January and a crackdown on protestors in which a number of people were killed and many injured. A Wall Street Journal journalist asked the council why the step to lighten the pressure and whether the EU was concerned that the Mnangagwa government had been left with a clean break.
In response, Frederica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, at a Press briefing in Brussels after the EU Foreign Affairs Council told the Wall Street Journal and other journalists: “On Zimbabwe, there was a council decision to uphold the arms embargo, the restrictive measures against Zimbabwe Defence Industry, to uphold individual restrictive measures against Mugabe and (his wife) Grace Mugabe, to uphold suspended individual measures against Vice-President (Constantino Chiwenga), the commander of the Defence Forces and the Minister of Lands and Agriculture (Perrance Shiri) and to lift individual restrictive measures against the two individuals.”
Explaining, she said: “This decision was taken, in light of our objective, which is to encourage a commitment to uphold the rule of law and human rights as set out in Zimbabwe’s Constitution. We have seen a crackdown on demonstrations in January, just a month ago, as well as the disproportionate use of force by the authorities and that called into question this commitment. Now, the key question is to understand whether the old system has been dismantled definitely, or if it remains in place under different leadership, and obviously all decisions, as you know very well on listings, including new listings, can be swiftly adopted if the situation requires it, so we keep monitoring the situation very closely and stand ready to adjust our decisions accordingly.”
It looks good, sounds good, but the political bosses in Brussels did not deliver.
Consequently, the verdict on the effectiveness of the much-talked about EU sanctions is still out.
The view from Brussels
Although, on Monday February 18 the EU gave Mnangagwa a clean break, the EU parliamentary debate should keep him on his toes because a significant portion of MEPs made concrete presentations about his actions.
Problem one: Mass displacement
MEP, Mario Borghezio of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, said: “If you look at the escalation of repression against the opposition, it’s starting to make Mugabe look bad — 130 000 people fled across the border into South Africa in just one day.”
He pointed out that there is a serious humanitarian crisis, with the International Criminal Court needing to take action. Parliamentarians in the EU Parliament said: “The situation in Zimbabwe has reached an acute situation.”
One of 11 parliamentarians engaged in the debate said he wanted to draw attention to what has happened in the country following a wave of arbitrary arrests.
The resolution enjoyed a broad majority in the EU Parliament with another parliamentarian recognising that, “the final insult of high fuel prices was the final straw”, adding that “Zimbabweans have the courage to stand up to their government and that the EU needs to stand with them.”
Actually, if Sadc and the EU take soft action, Zimbabweans will transit in huge number into neighbouring states.
Problem two: Blame shifter
At least two MEPs had been election observers during the July 30, 2018 elections.
Neena Gill of the United Kingdom Labour Party stated categorically that she had witnessed post-election violence, which put an end to her hopes “our condemnation has fallen on deaf ears. Facing internal power struggles, key actors find it easier to blame outsiders for the political and economic crisis they’re in as opposed to taking responsibility.”
With that said, she is keen to see how the EU will support dialogue between different stakeholders.
In an unsuccessful attempt to save his own skin, Mnangagwa is not admitting his wrongs.
Problem three: Old bad ways
The most profound statement came from Elmar Brock, MEP of the Group of the European People’s Party, underscoring that: “The government is told that if it is sensible it will be possible to organise the economic development that was necessary. But, of course, once the President saw that he’d lost the election he went back to his bad old ways and brought the country back into difficulties; with free elections not really being made possible, as the election observation said, and then the very day after the army repressed, brutally, demonstrations and the whole thing is continuing. Now they’ve taken over the opposition’s computers.”
Besides, often, the question has been raised around the world if Mnangagwa is like old wine in a new bottle, that neither can it be said it is the old bottle that is making the wine bad, but simply both have been old all along.
In the 1980s, three very significant additions were made to the EU; Greece, Spain and Portugal. Just a few years before this, all three countries had been dictatorships. The Baltic countries did not exist over a decade ago as they were under the Soviet empire — all are now part of the EU.
Today, some sceptics complain about the EUs effectiveness, mocking its ability to influence, yet many of these countries were behind The Iron Curtain.
Historically, the EU Council has upheld human rights and has frequently justified the imposition of restrictive measures in cases where government leaders, who established a brutal rule in a country, as in Zimbabwe, were targeted.
The EU can adopt sanctions to promote its values of “democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law” all of which are aligned to its core objectives.
Zimbabwe is a different country if you look back five years. The EU should be committed to the notion of political reconstruction for Zimbabwe.
In the court of public opinion, it is also yet to be seen how Zimbabwe’s media draws a verdict on government’s bad conduct. True, we could ask many questions including whether or not sanctions change the behaviour of targets, serve policy objectives or send a message to a range of actors.
Whether Mnangagwa has the political will to achieve respect for fundamental human rights may still be an open question to some, while yet others, have already drawn their conclusions, but it would be wrong to belittle the importance of what has happened at the EU.
The EU disclosed their awareness for a need for political dialogue and said it, together with the African Union (AU), must help rather than close their eyes like so many others.
Mnangagwa’s government should demonstrate a move to change its actions and views on human rights because Zimbabweans need a humane society.
Not all hope is lost
One straightforward way to bring respect for human rights in Zimbabwe is to invest in rights education for its children. Another is in increased national awareness campaigns to change societal perspectives towards fundamental rights of citizens.
The EU and the world at large must not intentionally close their eyes to what is there for all to see — what’s happening in Zimbabwe cannot be concealed. A clear international re-engagement path must be negotiated regionally and internationally. It is time to reassess the composition of approaches on the reform agenda.
The EU Parliament made it clear that what has remained the same in Zimbabwe is the disdain for human life and opposition suggesting that the AU be added as a topic of discussion at the next meeting of the EU executive body.
It hopes Mnangagwa’s government; security services and State institutions will respect democratic rules and protect “civilians from arbitrary detention is the duty of the new leadership in Zimbabwe”.
MEPs felt Mnangagwa is “betraying his promises to create a new Zimbabwe”.
Despite their colleagues condemning the excessive violence and intimidation by the Zimbabwean authorities, calling for the immediate release of all detainees, extension of the individual financial and travel restrictions associated with the human rights infringements, they are supportive of an inclusive national dialogue that can produce a roadmap to genuine economic, political and electoral reforms.
The EU Parliament is willing to help the country in its reform process.
Surely, the EU has learned the important lesson, not to be isolated; it is difficult to have weight in the trajectory the world is governing. It must be more policy creative on Zimbabwe.
Democratic and peaceful process to a solution
The eventuality of sustainable, transparent, inclusive change in Zimbabwe must be linked to its structural reform agenda.
For a peaceful outcome of the crisis, an enabling environment needs to be created for dialogue by a neutral mediator, with credibility agreed to by all stakeholders, with no military escalated deployments around the country; the military must be pulled out of all civilian spaces and life.
For far too long the people of Zimbabwe have suffered and everyone has a duty now to work towards peace and security in the country. The country needs to return to normalcy, decency, civility and build a thriving democracy.
As the EU upholds its common values, so must Zimbabwe affirm its common future. Without this national effort, normalcy is still a long way off.
Whatever happens in Zimbabwe, or does not, it will reverberate far beyond its borders to its regional neighbours.
It is a vital lesson.
Pearl Matibe has geographic expertise on US foreign policy, think tank impact, strategy and public policy issues. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe