ISSN 2330-717X

Zimbabwe’s Sanctions Standoff


A bold approach to the sanctions issue is necessary to refocus efforts on the actions needed to break the political stalemate in Zimbabwe before elections are held that otherwise threaten to be as violent and undemocratic as the 2008 round, argues the International Crisis Group.


The International Crisis Group briefing Zimbabwe’s Sanctions Standoff describes need for a nuanced approach distinguishing the various measures imposed by the EU, U.S. and other Western states. All parties claim to support ending sanctions but the issue is treated more as a political football than a problem to be resolved. Sanctioners argue reform deficits justify continuation. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party calls reform contingent on removal; the Southern African Development Community (SADC) says they exacerbate conditions; the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations argue removal would be more feasible if the Global Political Agreement (GPA) reached after the 2008 elections was kept to.

“President Mugabe and ZANU-PF manipulate the issue politically and propagandise it as part of their efforts to frustrate reforms and mobilise against perceived internal and external threats to national sovereignty”, says Piers Pigou, Crisis Group’s Southern Africa Project Director. “Supporters of sanctions have not connected individual measures adequately to the broader struggle for democracy, and they have never gained support for them from the region”.

Sanctions were introduced in response to political violence, human rights abuses and rule-of-law violations, as well as deteriorating democratic standards that followed the violent 2000 and 2002 elections. They include targeted measures against individuals and entities, like visa bans and asset freezes; restrictions on much government-to-government aid (though not humanitarian and some development help), as well as on access to loans and credits in international financial institutions; and arms embargoes.

The measures have generated a polarised narrative between those who argue that Zimbabwe is under a broad sanctions regime that is primarily responsible for its economic woes, and those who claim that they are limited, and ZANU-PF policies and practices are mainly responsible for economic disintegration. The gridlock reflects the broader paralysis that characterises Zimbabwe’s politics and underscores the necessity for key reforms to secure credible elections that must be held by June 2013.

Sanctions cannot be dealt with in isolation from broader challenges, but insistence that their removal requires virtually full implementation of reform has stymied exploration of innovative approaches. Those imposing them should make distinctions between the various types. In particular, they should do a comprehensive review of their impact; be more flexible on targeted measure when an individual’s travel involves legitimate government business; keep arms embargoes but make greater effort to engage the security sector so as to promote dialogue about its responsibilities; and seek to negotiate with SADC a suspension of the ban on much government-to-government aid linked to implementation of key election-related reforms and more vigorous SADC facilitation within an agreed timeframe.


The GPA signatories (ZANU-PF and the MDC) and the facilitator, SADC (with South Africa leading), should put realistic options on the table tying relaxation and eventual removal of all sanctions to a realistic reform agenda, as set out in the draft election roadmap and including monitored implementation.

“All that requires a degree of political commitment that has largely been absent”, says Africa Program Director Comfort Ero. “But if it can be summoned, there may yet be a chance to put in place at least the minimum conditions, including restraints on the security services, needed for genuine elections by 2013”.

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