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Zimbabwe Opposition Figure Calls for Easing of Economic Sanctions; Not a Good Move

In a speech in Spain last week, Zimbabwean Prime Minister and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai made a plea to European leaders to ease what he called “restrictive measures” (i.e., economic sanctions) on his country.

Ironically, many of the U.S. and European sanctions were put in place in response to the arrest of Tsvangirai and his supporters by the Mugabe regime. The latest round of attacks, March 2007,  was not the first time Tsvangirai and his supporters were attacked by Mugabe. Regardless, Tsvangirai told the AFP that his country “is emerging from a political and economic conflict. One of the key things that we need to do is to expedite the EU’s rapid dialogue” as well as the easing of economic sanctions.

While outsiders can sympathize with opposition pleas to ease restrictions, it does not make sense to ease sanctions on the Mugabe regime at this juncture. While growing stronger, the opposition is still too weak.  The Mugabe regime still controls the secret police and the military; and Mugabe supporters in the government have failed to reform that country in any meaningful way, continuing to, among other things, wage a battle against what Mugabe said last month were the “bloody whites”.

As compared to the Iran or Cuba program, the U.S. maintains a rather fragile sanctions program against Zimbabwe – mainly against regime officials.  It generally prohibits U.S. persons, no matter where located, and any person located in the United States from engaging in any transaction with any person that the U.S. government finds (1) to be undermining the democratic institutions and processes in Zimbabwe; (2) to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support to these entities; (3) to be or have been an immediate family member of a sanctions’ target; or (4) to be owned, controlled or acting on behalf of a sanctions’ target.  There are other measures including the blocking financial transactions by specially designated nationals through U.S. financial institutions as well as denying visas.

Mugabe may have talked peace and democracy decades ago, and he and his supporters are not likely to ever allow freedom to take hold in that country.  The Mugabe kleptocracy rules with an iron fist, using the tools of state to crush, torture, and kill opposition figures.  There is no viable rule of law in Zimbabwe.   And it is not as if he does this without any support from the outside.  For example, the Chinese have been smuggling weapons to the regime for decades who, in turn, keeps weapons or sells them to unsavory types.  State sponsors of terrorism North Korea and Cuba have also meddled quite a bit through the years.

What is even more concerning than the human rights situation are the reports that the Mugabe regime may be allowing radical Islamist groups to find safe harbor in Zimbabwe.  Why bother with Zimbabwe?  Likely to use as a launching pad for attacks in South Africa or for fundraising.  For example, according to a 2005 Jamestown Foundation report, “[t]he possibility of a logistical link emerging between Islamist extremism and Zimbabwe has been the subject of a degree of speculation since 9/11. According to Kroll Associates, a prominent U.S.-based risk consultancy service, there is some evidence to suggest that diamonds procured from the DRC are being traded via Lebanese traders linked to al-Qaeda.”

Engagement with tyrants, in the end, will only empower them.  The opposition can use the current state of play to dig deeper roots.  And the U.S. should consider expanding or robustly enforcing current sanctions to further tighten the controls on the Mugabe regime, if not for human rights, then to advance U.S. interests in the war against radical Islamists.

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