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Just as the United States is looking to tighten sanctions on the vicious regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, there is quiet momentum building to remove sanctions against another brutal dictator, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.  But arguments in favor of easing pressure on his ruling ZANU-PF at this time are flawed. In fact, removing sanctions now would arguably make matters worse for Zimbabweans’ hopes for a full return to democracy.

Mugabe and his cronies have been protesting ever since travel and financial sanctions were imposed by the U.S., EU, and Australia nearly a decade ago. Again last week Mugabe’s Justice Minister insisted that the sanctions were illegal and must be removed. The UN’s Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay visited Zimbabwe last week too and, after spending a grand total of 96 hours in the country, also called for sanctions to be lifted because they were probably hurting the poor. Such complaints from ZANU-PF and ill-informed UN officials can be easily dismissed.

In contrast, calls for lifting sanctions from other quarters, notably from highly respected opposition officials, should be taken very seriously. Finance Minister Tendai Biti and Education Minister David Coltart have each called for Western re-engagement and removal of sanctions.  While I have only the highest regard for both of these accomplished and well-intentioned men, I believe they are wrong on the sanctions issue.  Here’s why.

There are three basic arguments for lifting sanctions now, only one of which is serious.

  1. Sanctions are illegal.  I won’t pretend to understand the Australian or European legal case, but in the United States, financial sanctions are imposed via executive order of the President, under the authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), and are enforced by the U.S. Treasury.  Here is the original 2003 order signed by President Bush, along with instructions to block transactions by 77 designated individuals.  These provisions have since been amended several times and renewed by President Obama. Similarly, travel sanctions against most of the same people are imposed by the State Department which has wide discretion in visa matters. The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, legislation originally sponsored by then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, directs the U.S. Treasury to curtail aid and vote against new loans to Zimbabwe at the international financial institutions and could technically also be considered a form of sanctions. (ZDERA has long been an obsession of ZANU-PF, but in practice the Act is mostly beside the point. Zimbabwe put itself under IFI sanctions by failing to meet its loan repayment obligations beginning in the early 2000s, while ZDERA gives the administration significant leeway when to change course.) In any case, U.S. sanctions are on firm legal ground.
  2. Sanctions hurt the poor.  In a direct sense, this argument is silly. Despite ZANU-PF misinformation, sanctions are against specific individuals, not against the whole country. Even if you accept that the presence of sanctions is a disincentive to investors (yes, there is a compliance cost to ensure that you are not dealing with a designated individual), this effect must be weighed against what’s really hurting the poor. The stigma of sanctions on the country or the gross malgovernance and political repression of the regime? It’s not even a close call.
  3. Sanctions provide ZANU-PF with a scapegoat. This is essentially the core argument of Coltart, Biti and others.  As a fact, it is undoubtedly correct.  Mugabe and his ZANU-PF cronies frequently invoke sanctions as the cause of the country’s precipitous decline. Even if this makes no empirical sense, it does appear to have political salience inside Zimbabwe and no doubt some voters are swayed by such lies. But this alone does not imply that sanctions should be removed. Rather, such a change would be the right course of action only if there is a plausible case that denying ZANU-PF the sanctions excuse would: (a) fundamentally alter the political dynamics in the country and (b) make a transition to a post-Mugabe government more likely. I don’t see that either condition really holds.

Let’s think through what happens if the U.S. and its allies wake up tomorrow and cancel the sanctions. Would ZANU-PF stop blaming sanctions for the population’s misery?  Would the chances for a free and fair election improve? Would Mugabe’s incentive to retire increase? Would the junta around Mugabe be more likely to allow the MDC to campaign fairly, and perhaps win, an election? Would Zimbabwe be any closer to a real democracy? Unfortunately, the answer to all these questions is a resounding no.

The inescapable fact is that Mugabe has already lost three elections to the MDC, has refused to accept those results, and has since shown no indication that he’s ready for real reform. Why should we think that anything would change without sanctions? (Anyone who suggests Mugabe & Co. just need one more chance to show their good intentions should ask who is responsible for the disgusting 2008 election violence and where are they now? And what about the Matabeleland massacres?)

At the same time, there are potentially high costs to lifting sanctions.  The U.S. would be handing a major propaganda victory to Mugabe who would no doubt claim that even the evil West now accepts him. The MDC would be no stronger. And worse, from a policymakers’ perspective, the West would have gained exactly zero leverage. The probable outcome is that after another bloody and fraudulent election next year, we would have to fight all over again to clamp down on the very same people, while Zimbabwe would be no closer to escaping its nightmare.

Robert Mugabe and his circle have yet to show that they accept responsibility for their country’s precipitous decline, nor any interest in trying to put the country back on a democratic and prosperous path. Until they do—or they go­—sanctions should stay.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.