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US May Tighten Screws on Zimbabwe

As the international community steps up the pressure on President Robert Mugabe’s regime, American officials consider tougher sanctions.
By Fawzia Sheikh
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s declaration that the West can “go hang” for condemning state-sponsored violence against the opposition has done nothing to endear him to the United States administration.



The US government, which along with the European Union imposed sanctions against the Mugabe regime in 2002, is now considering further action.



The current political crisis began when Zimbabwe attacked pro-democracy demonstrators to stop them attending a prayer meeting on March 11 in the capital Harare. The ensuing violence led to the death of one opposition member and the arrest of dozens more, including Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other leading figures who ended up in hospital after being beaten in police custody.



The 83-year-old Mugabe, who recently threatened to expel western diplomats, has suggested that he might stay on as president until 2010, two years after his term officially ends. This has not only enraged his political foes but alarmed the international community including the US government, which has imposed a range of penalties on the country over the years because of Mugabe’s heavy-handed treatment of opposition parties.



“It’s always a hard issue when you try to balance the possible effect of diplomatic tools that you might have at your disposal - for instance, sanctions - and the effect they’ll have on the regime versus the effect that they may have on the population, which is already suffering,” US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters at a recent press briefing.



“So we’ll take a close look at what we might do to try to bring about a change in behaviour of this regime… we are working very closely with the EU as well as others on this. I can’t tell you that we’ve come to any final conclusions in that regard.”



McCormack noted that several options were open to the US.



At an earlier press conference, another State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said his government intended calling on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to address Mugabe’s escalating crackdown on the opposition.



Washington has expressed concerns about what is sees as the failure of the Human Rights Council to do a credible job over the past year, exacerbated by its almost exclusive focus on issues linked to the conflict in the Middle East, said Casey, adding, “And, frankly, with the council in session right now in Geneva, it would be hard to understand how they wouldn’t want to turn their attention to a serious case of human rights abuses and violations, as is occurring in Zimbabwe.”



Casey said the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Barry Lowenkron, intends to consult with the African Union on ways to push the Zimbabwean government to allow all its citizens and

opposition parties to participate peacefully in political demonstrations.



He noted that Chris Dell, the American ambassador to Zimbabwe, was refused an opportunity to visit Tsvangirai in detention, but he declined to comment on whether the US will recall its envoy, who he said was performing “a very valuable function” by supporting the rights of the political opposition and those who have been imprisoned and beaten.



Casey also said he was unsure whether the US could offer other kinds of humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe, whose economy is collapsing. The International Monetary Fund has warned that the country’s annual inflation rate of 1,700 per cent, the highest in the world, could hit 5,000 per cent by year end. Unemployment stands at around 80 per cent.



In 2002, the US froze the assets of Mugabe and 76 other officials deemed most responsible for the country’s crisis. It also imposed travel restrictions on them, and banned defence-related transactions with Zimbabwe as well as government-to-government assistance outside the humanitarian sphere.



Observers of Zimbabwean politics argue that years of American and EU sanctions are beginning to take their toll on senior politicians in the country.



“This is purely anecdotal, but from what I hear, a number of senior figures in Mugabe’s party are unhappy with Zimbabwe’s continued international isolation,” Tiseke Kasambala, a London-based researcher with the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told IWPR. “Many senior members of the party have business interests abroad, and the targeted sanctions have dented these interests. The economic crisis has also damaged their business interests in the country.”



Kasambala continued, “Of course there are a number of other key reasons for the tensions within ZANU-PF - one of them being the issue of Mugabe’s succession and the jostling for political power in the party. However, the targeted sanctions have also played a role in widening the internal rift.”



In a report published this month, the International Crisis Group, ICG, argued that the West should maintain the pressure on the Mugabe regime at this crucial time, increase support for democratic forces and be more precise about its conditions for lifting sanctions and ending Zimbabwe’s isolation.



The report, entitled “Zimbabwe: An End to the Stalemate”, recommended that the Southern African Development Community, SADC, the EU and the US should adopt a joint strategy with a clear sequence of benchmarks, leading to a genuinely democratic process in which the removal of sanctions and resumption of international aid to government institutions would be used as incentives at the appropriate time.



ICG added that this strategy should be in place by July, when Zimbabwe’s parliament is expected to have to choose between Mugabe’s plan to extend his tenure to 2010 by amending the constitution, or an end to his rule and a transition of power.



The ICG report also suggested closing loopholes in the current US and EU sanctions for the eventuality that Mugabe and his party fail to restore democracy. These would include applying sanctions to family members and business associates of those on the list of names, cancelling the visas and residence permits of the officials concerned and their family members, and applying the same sanctions to others.



But some observers such as Fred Oladeinde, president of the Foundation for Democracy in Africa, a Washington-based think tank, argues that sanctions have resulted in increased pain and suffering for the average Zimbabwean while the ZANU-PF elite continues to maintain a high standard of living. Moreover, he believes other African states are not doing their bit to prevent the listed “offenders” from travelling freely throughout the continent.



Zimbabwe’s neighbours have come under criticism by the West for their failure to intervene. The US ambassador to South Africa, Eric Bost, has expressed disappointment at SADC’s passive response to the plight of ordinary people, while Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer has slammed Zimbabwe’s neighbours for failing to apply more pressure on Mugabe.



As this crisis unfolds, other sources of friction have emerged between the US and Zimbabwe. The American government withheld funding to Zimbabwe for the fiscal year 2007 because of the country’s worsening track record on human trafficking. Zimbabwe is one of 12 countries being penalised by the US for failing to combat trafficking.



“Zimbabwe is a source, transit and destination country for women and children trafficked for forced labour and sexual exploitation,” according to a State Department report issued in September. “Large, well-organised rings may be involved.”



Trafficked women and girls are lured out of the country to South Africa, China, Egypt and Zambia with false promises of jobs or scholarships, the report said. It noted that Zimbabwe demonstrated progress in investigating trafficking cases, but that the government did not pursue prosecutions in cases that were identified.



The Zimbabwean authorities have rejected the US charges of complicity in trafficking.



Fawzia Sheikh, a former foreign correspondent in Uganda, writes on African issues in the United States for the IWPR Africa Report.