Britain announced a “step change” in its policy towards Zimbabwe, promising to exempt a raft of President Robert Mugabe’s allies from personal sanctions.
By David Blair*
The measures, first imposed a decade ago, ban 112 individuals from visiting the European Union, while also freezing any assets they hold in European banks. The targets include generals, cabinet ministers, businessmen and officials, all of whom are blamed for masterminding political violence, which has claimed hundreds of lives, or looting
Zimbabwe’s shattered economy, which has impoverished millions.
Most of the targeted individuals will be taken off the list and, in principle, allowed to visit Britain and any other EU member state.
A meeting of EU foreign ministers agreed to take this step provided that Zimbabwe holds a “credible” referendum on a new constitution later this year. The restrictions will be eased regardless of whether Zimbabwe goes on to hold a free and fair presidential election in 2013.
Violence has scarred every poll in Zimbabwe for the last 12 years, with militias from Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party hunting down his opponents. At least 200 people were murdered before the last presidential election in 2008, with thousands more beaten, tortured or abducted.
The Foreign Office said that sanctions could be reimposed if the bloodshed were to recur. Mr Mugabe, 88, has promised to contest the next election after 32 years in power.
He currently appears as number one on the sanctions list – and William Hague, the foreign secretary, made clear that he would stay there. Sanctions on Mr Mugabe and a core of his closest aides will remain in place despite Monday’s decision. But more than half the names will be dropped from the list.
Mr Hague said this was justified by “concrete progress on the ground”.
“We have made clear that we would respond to a peaceful and credible referendum in Zimbabwe, due to take place in the Autumn, with a suspension of the majority of EU Restrictive Measures, but not including those on Mugabe,” he said.
This amounted to an “important step-change” in policy towards Zimbabwe, said the Foreign Secretary, with the aim of encouraging “reformers across the political spectrum”.
President Mugabe has formed a coalition with Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader who now serves as prime minister. A new constitution has been agreed that should make a free and fair election more likely.
But real power still lies in Mr Mugabe’s hands and economic recovery has been held back by his insistence on keeping a punitive law that compels any company owned by foreigners or white Zimbabweans to surrender 51 per cent of its shares.
Although no restrictions apply to trade or investment in Zimbabwe, Mr Mugabe has blamed sanctions for the country’s economic malaise. This propaganda line – however preposterous – has been widely believed. Western diplomats in Harare believe that lifting the restrictions would rob Mr Mugabe of his alibi.
These measures were first imposed at the request of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which helped compile the list of targeted individuals.
Today, however, Mr Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC, wants them to be lifted.
Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, said the measures had “passed their sell-by date” and become an “impediment to progress”. He added that yesterday’s decision struck the right balance between rewarding progress and maintaining the pressure on Mr Mugabe.
Some individuals have already been dropped from the sanctions list, including Patrick Chinamasa, the Zanu-PF justice minister. He played a key role in undermining the independence of the judiciary by personally hounding Anthony Gubbay, then chief justice, into resignation.