The United States and human rights NGOs have sought to raise
international awareness of the genocide in the Darfur region of
Sudan and spur international action to address the situation. This
effort is warranted but should not distract from the ongoing crisis
in Zimbabwe, which has also caused great suffering and a large
In a ruthless, seven-year campaign to maintain political power,
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has targeted his opponents for
abuse, legal harassment, and economic punishment. At the same time,
he has used his authority to reward allies and elicit support from
the police, the military, and other key groups. These policies have
resulted in a precipitous economic decline, political repression,
and humanitarian crisis rivaling that in Darfur. Recent attacks on
opposition party leaders have drawn worldwide attention. The United States should strengthen its
existing sanctions on Zimbabwe and press other nations and
international organizations to ratchet up pressure on Mugabe and
History of a Crisis
Spurred by a decades-long civil war and economic sanctions, the
government of Rhodesia accepted a series of agreements in 1979 that
led to the establishment of the Republic of Zimbabwe. Robert
Mugabe, one of the leaders of the Zimbabwean independence effort,
became Zimbabwe's first prime minister in 1980 and president in
1987. He has been the country's sole leader since it gained
In its first decade, Zimbabwe achieved steady economic growth
while pursuing efforts to recover from the civil war and provide
education, health care, and other governmental services. But by the
mid-1990s, inflation, unemployment, and growing political
repression led to discontent, protests, and the formation of the
first major opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change
(MDC), in 1999. The MDC achieved its first major victory when its
campaign managed to defeat a constitutional amendment that would
have "legalized the president's continued rule, made government
officials immune from prosecution, and allowed uncompensated
seizure of white-owned land for redistribution to black farmers." The MDC
capitalized on this victory by winning nearly half the seats of
parliament in the 2000 election despite numerous efforts by
Mugabe's ZANU-PF party to influence the election in its favor.
Stung by the first substantial challenge to his power in 20
years of ruling Zimbabwe, Mugabe has employed increasingly brutal
tactics to intimidate and undermine the political opposition.
According to the State Department 2006 Human Rights Report:
The ruling party's dominant control and manipulation of the
political process through intimidation and corruption effectively
negated the right of citizens to change their government. Unlawful
killings and politically motivated kidnappings occurred. The state
sanctioned the use of excessive force and torture, and security
forces tortured members of the opposition, union leaders, and civil
society activists…. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and
detained journalists, demonstrators, and religious leaders; lengthy
pretrial detention was a problem. Executive influence and
interference in the judiciary were problems. The government
continued to forcibly evict citizens and to demolish homes. The
government continued to use repressive laws to suppress freedom of
speech, press, assembly, movement, association, and academic
freedom. Government corruption and impunity remained widespread.
High ranking government officials made numerous public threats of
violence against demonstrators.
According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, there were 368
incidents of torture from January through November 2006, over 500
politically motivated assaults, and 11 politically motivated
abductions/kidnappings. Other, specific examples of political
repression include these:
- Both the presidential election in 2002 and the parliamentary
elections in 2005 were deemed "neither free nor fair" by
international observers and resulted in President Robert Mugabe's
and the ruling ZANU-PF party's continued political domination of
Zimbabwe. Election observers reported numerous incidents of
intimidation and abuse against opposition supporters.
- The government launched Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out
Trash) in May 2005. The operation was ostensibly intended to remove
illegal housing settlements but, in reality, operated as a program
of political intimidation and retaliation against poor, urban
supporters of the political opposition. Over 700,000 people lost
their homes or livelihoods due to Operation Murambatsvina.
- Earlier this year, the government imposed a blanket ban on
political rallies from February 20 until May 20. On March 11, government
troops arrested dozens of MDC members and severely beat opposition
activists who attended a Save Zimbabwe Campaign prayer meeting.
Those injured included MDC leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur
Mutambara, and one man was killed. Zimbabwean police also stormed the offices
of Zimbabwe's labor movement, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade
Unions, and harassed and assaulted staff while seizing documents,
files, and videotapes. British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Andrew
Pocock called the latest political attacks "ghastly and
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned
Mugabe's regime as "ruthless and repressive." U.N. Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon criticized the attacks as violations of "the basic
democratic right of citizens to engage in peaceful assembly" and
called on "the authorities to allow peaceful assembly and to
provide a space for the exercise of legitimate political rights."
Despite international criticism, the political attacks
continued. Mugabe responded to foreign critics by telling them to
"go hang" and threatened to throw Western ambassadors out of the
country for interfering in its internal affairs.
These latest incidents of repression follow years of
mismanagement by Mugabe's government that have left the country in
When Mugabe assumed leadership of Zimbabwe in 1980, he inherited
well-developed manufacturing and mining sectors, a competitive
agricultural sector, a thriving tourist industry, and sound
infrastructure. The country has rich mineral deposits of asbestos,
chromite, coal, copper, diamonds and other gems, gold, iron ore,
nickel, and platinum. To solidify his hold on power, Mugabe has
pursued a number of policies over the past decade that have
crippled the Zimbabwean economy.
Seizures and Redistribution of Farmland.
Considered the breadbasket of Africa only a decade ago, Zimbabwe is
now unable to feed itself and regularly appeals to international
programs for food aid. Zimbabwe's agricultural success resulted
from its modern, large-scale commercial farms. These farms were
largely owned by white Zimbabweans, many of whom supported the MDC.
Beginning in 2000, Mugabe's administration began forcibly seizing
commercial farms owned by white Zimbabweans. The stated aims of
this program was to redistribute land to black Zimbabweans, but
most of the land ended up in the hands of Mugabe's supporters.
According to the Department of State,
Implementation of the government's ongoing redistribution of
expropriated, white owned, commercial farms substantially favored
the ruling party elite and continued to lack transparency. Top
ruling party officials continued to hand pick multiple farms and
register them in the names of family members to evade the
government's one farm policy. The government continued to allow
individuals aligned with top officials to seize land not designated
The land redistribution program has effectively destroyed
Zimbabwe's commercial agriculture sector. Large farms were broken
up into smaller, less profitable plots and given to individuals
with little experience in farming. Production plummeted. Production
of tobacco, previously the largest export crop, fell from 2 million
kilograms in 2000 to 60,000 kilograms in 2006. Production of corn, the
country's primary grain, has fallen sharply since 2000, and the
U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Zimbabwe will produce
just 850,000 tons of corn this year, less than half of its domestic
Irresponsible Monetary Policy and Rampant
Inflation. Inflation has exceeded 1,000 percent since
April 2006, and the country now has the highest rate of inflation
in the world. In March 2007, Zimbabwe's inflation rate rose to
1,729 percent, and the International Monetary Fund
predicts it will top 4,000 percent by the end of the year. Inflation
has impoverished the working population, whose wages have not kept
pace with the rising costs of basic necessities like food, cooking
oil, and clothing. Doctors and nurses have been on strike seeking a
pay raise of nearly 9,000 percent. Teachers staged a work slowdown
despite a raise of 300 percent in January and succeeded in winning
a 400 percent raise in February. Some workers find that their daily wages
are taken up by bus fare to and from work. Yet, as noted by
The Daily Telegraph, "It takes only a few weeks for
the value of every pay rise given to civil servants to be wiped
out. But the bankrupt regime can only cover the cost of further
wage rises by printing money-which fuels inflation still further
and creates pressure for yet more pay increases." Local governments cannot
meet budgets or provide basic services, and with prices soaring,
businesses are unable to afford raw materials.
Disastrous Economic Policies. Zimbabwe maintains an
official exchange rate of Z$250 to US$1, but the unofficial
exchange market trades at Z$7,000 to the US$1 or even lower. Zimbabwe's
government ran a deficit of 43 percent of GDP in 2006, and the
economy shrunk by over 7 percent in 2005. The government maintains
subsidies and price controls for key commodities, including
gasoline, bread, agricultural seeds, fertilizer, and other basic
goods, and for favored sectors of the economy. The government recently
announced that all prices are to be frozen from March 1 to June 30
and that anyone raising prices will be arrested and punished. As a result
of these policies, Zimbabwe has experienced persistent shortages of
foreign exchange, fuel, and food. Black markets, which can evade
the price restrictions, have flourished.
In addition, Mugabe has seized or encouraged his supporters to
impede businesses owned by political opponents and threatened to
nationalize entire sectors of the economy without compensation.
This process is already underway. In 2006, Mugabe announced that
the government intended to expropriate 51 percent of all mines
without providing any compensation. In an effort to clamp down on
private mining, the government arrested as many as 20,000 miners in
late 2006 and early 2007. Most recently, Mugabe announced plans for
the government to take control of Zimbabwe's diamond mines.
Land expropriation, obviation of property rights, and
unrealistic price controls and exchange rates have led the economy
to contract every year since 1998 and by 34 percent overall between
1998 and 2005 in constant terms. Per-capita GDP has fallen by 38 percent
over that period, from $675 to $422. An estimated 30 percent of
Zimbabwe's population lived in poverty in 1999; today, over 80
percent are believed to live in poverty. Direct foreign investment
is non-existent, and the unemployment rate exceeds 80 percent.
Humanitarian Disaster.Mugabe's economic and political
policies have had a dire effect on the people of his country. Most
immediately, the government land redistribution program has
devastated agricultural production, and Zimbabwe, which once
exported food crops, is now dependent on international food
assistance to avoid starvation. Five million Zimbabweans received
food assistance in the first quarter of 2006. According to the U.S.
Agency for International Development, "In November 2006, more than
3,000 [metric tons] of food was distributed to at least 500,000
people [by the World Food Programme and its partners]…. The
Zimbabwe vulnerability assessment estimates that about 1.4 million
rural people will not have sufficient entitlements with which to
access adequate food during the peak hunger period…." UNICEF
estimates that up to 2 million people are vulnerable to
starvation. Worse, numerous sources report that food
aid is being distributed by the Mugabe government to reward
supporters and punish those who support the opposition.
The government's Operation Murambatsvina demolition of informal
housing and markets directly rendered 700,000 urban Zimbabweans
homeless or unemployed. Fully 70 percent of the urban population
may have lost shelter or employment. In addition, over 2 million
(more than 15 percent of Zimbabwe's population) are believed to
have been indirectly affected from loss of customers, employees, or
The government told those affected to "return to their rural
origins," even though most had no such home to which they could
return. Indeed, many had initially become homeless when the
government sanctioned the seizure of commercial farms. Reports
indicate that forced eviction continued into December 2006.
Zimbabwe, which once had one of the best health care systems in
Africa, now has the world's lowest life expectancy at less than 37
years-a drastic fall from the life expectancy of 62 years in
estimated 42,000 women died from childbirth in Zimbabwe in 2006,
over 40 times the figure in the mid-1990s. According to UNICEF, one
in four children are orphans. Zimbabwe also has a significant HIV/AIDS
problem; the disease infects an estimated 18 percent of the
population. Most Zimbabweans are unable to afford medical care or
are unable to obtain medicines due to the lack of foreign exchange,
strikes by doctors and nurses, and shrinking incomes.
In addition, the lack of resources has forced the government to
abandon vital public services. Power is erratic in parts of the
country due to strikes over pay and an inability to maintain
generators. Harare's sewage treatment plant broke down in January
2007, causing 50 percent of the city's raw sewage to be dumped into
the main reservoir. As a result, cases of cholera are rising.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that over 3 million
Zimbabweans-a quarter of Zimbabwe's entire population and a
majority of the working age population-have chosen to flee the
country for neighboring South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and
Mozambique. This refugee population is equivalent to
the number that have fled the Darfur region of Sudan and is
actually much higher as a percentage of the population. It has also
imposed a substantial burden on the other countries in the region.
Botswana has built a fence along the border in order to stem the
flow of Zimbabweans and tightened border checks on people seeking
to enter Botswana. South Africa has been struggling to cope
with an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans believed to be in the
country and deported an average of 12,000 Zimbabweans per month in
The situation in Zimbabwe ranks among the world's worst
government-created humanitarian disasters. Tragically for the
Zimbabweans still in the country and those who have been forced to
flee, the world has failed to give the situation as much attention
as it has to other crises. As noted by the Financial
The persistence of the crisis has dulled international senses to
the looming danger that it could yet get far worse. South African
and other regional leaders remain reluctant to weigh into issues
that Mr Mugabe has cleverly manipulated around race. And there are
signs in Europe of weakening resolve to isolate his regime. The
United Nations has itself dropped attempts at promoting a more
orderly post-Mugabe transition. It is time to end the hand-wringing
and start constructing incentives for change.
Recent media attention following the assault and arrest of
opposition party leaders has shaken this complacency and focused
the world's attention on Zimbabwe. The U.S. should take advantage
of this moment to increase pressure on Mugabe.
Strengthen and Expand U.S. Sanctions. The U.S. has been
strongly critical of the Mugabe regime. For instance, Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice called Zimbabwe an "outpost of tyranny"
during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee. The U.S. has suspended all
non-humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe in response to Mugabe's repressive
policies, but the U.S. does provide food aid and disaster relief,
HIV/AIDS funds, and assistance for democracy promotion. It is a
legitimate question whether these funds can achieve their objective
while Mugabe is in power-a key example being the allegations of
politicized distribution of food aid. The U.S. should reconsider
all assistance to Zimbabwe that is open to manipulation or
distribution by the government.
The U.S. has also imposed targeted sanctions against top
Zimbabwean officials and "those who formulate, implement, or
benefit from policies that undermine or injure Zimbabwe's
democratic institutions or impede the transition to a multi-party
democracy" since 2002 and prohibits the sale of military items and
services to Zimbabwe. Since 2003, the U.S. has added to the
list of Zimbabwean individuals and entities whose assets owned or
held in the U.S. are frozen by executive order; currently the list
includes 128 individuals and 33 entities. President Bush extended
these sanctions and restrictions for a year on March 1, 2007,
I took this action to deal with the unusual and extraordinary
threat to the foreign policy of the United States constituted by
the actions and policies of certain members of the Government of
Zimbabwe and other persons to undermine Zimbabwe's democratic
processes or institutions. These actions have contributed to the
deliberate breakdown in the rule of law in Zimbabwe, politically
motivated violence and intimidation, and political and economic
instability in the southern African region.
Following the crackdown on MDC leaders, State Department
spokesman Tom Casey indicated that the U.S. was considering
additional sanctions. One way to enhance the targeted sanctions
would be to apply the travel ban, which currently extends only to
spouses, to the families of Mugabe and others subject to existing
sanctions and to extend the restrictions to more individuals in the
Zimbabwean government. Another option is to adjust current
sanctions, which permit U.S. importers and exporters to trade with
Zimbabwe on most goods, to prohibit trade with Zimbabwe on selected
items that benefit Mugabe, his associates, or his policies.
Unilateral trade sanctions are usually ineffective but can send an
important political signal.
Push for Stronger International Sanctions.
Although the European Union has a travel ban and asset freeze in
place on 125 Zimbabweans, Britain has announced that it plans to
urge other EU members to adopt stronger sanctions on the Mugabe
regime. According to Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, "The
Zimbabwean Government's continued brutal treatment of the
opposition and recent actions show its total disregard for
international law and the will of the international
community…. We must look urgently at ramping up the pressure
on these individuals." The U.S. should support this effort.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have
suspended lending to Zimbabwe for non-payment of arrears. The U.S.
should oppose any effort to reinstate Zimbabwe as long as Mugabe
remains in power.
The U.S. and the U.K. should also seek travel restrictions and
other sanctions on Mugabe and his supporters in the United Nations
Security Council. South Africa, which currently serves as president
of the Security Council, rejected the possibility of considering
the situation in Zimbabwe in the Security Council. According to the
South African Ambassador to the United Nations Dumisani Khumalo,
"We truly regret what's happening in Zimbabwe, but it's not the
matter that belongs to the Security Council." But the U.K. takes over
the presidency in April and the U.S. assumes the presidency in May.
Both countries should use this position to place the situation in
Zimbabwe on the Council's agenda.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett announced on March 14
that the U.K. wants "the United Nations Human Rights Council to
look into the situation in Zimbabwe urgently, and will be pushing
for this in the coming days." Hopefully, such action will take the form
of a resolution condemning the government's abuses or a special
session focusing on the situation in Zimbabwe. Such an action would
signal that, despite its profoundly disappointing performance thus
far, the Human Rights Council can overcome its weaknesses to
address human rights crises. The U.S. should support efforts to have
the U.N. Human Rights Council take up the human rights violations
occurring in Zimbabwe.
Press African Nations to Condemn Mugabe. Mugabe
has been under severe criticism for years, mostly from Western
countries, for mismanagement of his country's economy and human
rights violations. However, this pressure has had little effect
without support from Zimbabwe's neighbors. Indeed, Mugabe routinely
rejects such criticism as "imperialist" or "colonial" intervention
in Zimbabwe's affairs-a message that resonates in Africa.
Criticism also has had little influence in the United Nations,
which is dominated by regional voting blocks and groups like the
Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77. These groups often act to
protect their members from scrutiny. Even countries from Latin
America and Asia are unlikely to support resolutions condemning
Mugabe or Zimbabwe unless some African countries sign on. Support
from African nations, which usually support one another in
international forums, is critical if proposals to apply pressure
from the United Nations and other international institutions are to
move forward. Without support from some African countries, efforts
to condemn Zimbabwe in the U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee
(Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), the Human Rights Council, and
other international bodies will likely fail.
In the past, African nations have demonstrated little interest
in confronting Mugabe, who enjoys continent-wide respect as an
elder statesman. The African approach is best illustrated by South
Africa's "quiet diplomacy" initiative aimed at resolving the
problems in Zimbabwe through negotiations and dialogue between the
MDC and the government. South Africa continues to champion this
initiative despite its ineffectiveness. There are signs, however,
that patience among African nations is eroding after the latest
crackdowns. In reaction to the arrests and beatings of MDC leaders,
South Africa urged the "Zimbabwean government to ensure that the
rule of law including respect for rights of all Zimbabweans and
leaders of various political parties is respected." Ghanaian
President John Kufuor, who holds the rotating chairmanship of the
African Union, was more critical, calling the situation in Zimbabwe
"very embarrassing" and stating that the African Union was doing
all it could to help.
The U.S. should work with individual African nations and the
African Union to prevent reflexive support for Zimbabwe and help
them recognize the necessity of holding Mugabe and his supporters
accountable for the suffering of Zimbabweans.
Prepare for a Post-Mugabe Transition.President Mugabe's
current term in office expires in 2008. Mugabe is reluctant to
leave office and recently proposed extending his current term to
2010 or even running for another six-year term in 2008. However,
support for Mugabe in Zimbabwe and within his own party is
declining rapidly, and several influential ZANU-PF party officials
are jockeying for the presidency. There are indications of unrest among the
broader population and within the armed forces, the police, and
ZANU-PF. This raises the possibility of Mugabe's ouster. Even if
Mugabe is able to remain in office, he is an elderly man of more
than 80 years and will eventually expire.
While the end of Mugabe's reign is long overdue, it will be no
guarantee that his successor will prove more willing to support
multi-party democracy or abandon the repressive economic and
political policies that have led Zimbabwe into its current crisis.
Mugabe's ouster or death could precipitate a chaotic period of
instability with dire consequences for Southern Africa. The U.S.
needs to have a plan in place to assist the transition of Zimbabwe
to the post-Mugabe era. The first principle of such a strategy is a
public statement that the U.S. will not recognize any successor to
Mugabe unless he or she is the choice of the Zimbabwean people in a
free and fair democratic election that permits participation by
citizens living outside of the country. Any transition authority
promising to facilitate such elections should be granted limited
time to accomplish this goal, and the removal of sanctions and
restrictions should be made contingent upon following through with
steps toward a free election and the adoption of economic reforms
necessary to alleviate the crisis. The U.S. should offer to assist
this process financially and logistically. The U.S. should
appropriate funds now so that they are available when needed to
address instability in Zimbabwe and assist in the process of
reintegrating refugees. It should also enter into discussions with
Zimbabwe's neighbors to develop a coordinated strategy.
For nearly a decade, President Robert Mugabe has abused his
authority to maintain his brutal stranglehold on power. He has
bankrupted and ruined one of the most robust economies in
sub-Saharan Africa. Political and economic repression under Mugabe
have precipitated a humanitarian crisis that rivals the genocide in
Darfur. While the United States has adopted targeted sanctions and
pressed for the U.N. and the African Union to confront the ongoing
crisis, little progress has been made.
But now attacks on opposition party leaders have focused
international attention on the situation. The U.S. should seize
this opportunity to strengthen sanctions against Zimbabwe, press
for condemnation of the situation in Zimbabwe by the United Nations
and the African Union, and achieve the adoption of international
sanctions targeted at Mugabe and his political supporters in the
Security Council. The U.S. should also begin to develop a plan to
assist the transition of Zimbabwe to the post-Mugabe era to
minimize the chaos and negative consequences for the region and the
people of Zimbabwe.
D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory
Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
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