(Johannesburg) – The European Union (EU) should require tangible human rights reforms and free and fair elections before lifting targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said today. The EU is expected to review its policy toward Zimbabwe in the coming two weeks.

An EU Council decision on July 23, 2012, indicated that a peaceful and credible constitutional referendum would be an important milestone in preparing for democratic elections that would justify suspending the majority of EU targeted restrictions on individuals and entities.

“It would be premature for the EU to lift targeted sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and members of his inner circle simply for holding a referendum on a new constitution,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Removing or suspending the measures before Zimbabwe carries out any comprehensive rights reforms will give Mugabe and his party free rein to continue repression ahead of elections.”

The EU in 2002 began imposing travel restrictions and asset freezes on President Mugabe and about 200 senior officials from his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the former ruling party, as well as on some state-owned companies with close ties to the party.

In late January 2013, Zimbabwe’s political leaders reached agreement on a draft constitution that is likely to be presented for a referendum in March. General elections are expected later in the year. 

A new constitution is crucial but insufficient to ensure free and fair elections, Human Rights Watch said. The “unity government” of ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has not carried out reforms that are vital to prepare the country for credible elections that will meet international standards.

Oppressive laws remain on the statute books, and Zimbabwe’s highly partisan police force harasses and arbitrarily arrests civil society activists. Some government-owned companies subject to EU sanctions, like the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC), are mining diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe and providing unaccountable support to ZANU-PF.

A level playing field for all political parties requires robust enforcement mechanisms operated by independent and non-partisan institutions, such as the judiciary and electoral commission. These mechanisms should act to prevent violence, hold those responsible for abuses to account, and ensure equal access to the media by political parties and candidates, Human Rights Watch said. Credible elections will require not only laws and regulations consistent with international standards, but also independent and professional government institutions and civil servants responsible for delivering reforms.

EU sanctions on Mugabe and others should be kept pending tangible human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said. And companies like ZMDC should remain under sanctions until there is greater transparency and accountability to ensure that ZANU-PF cannot maintain, through these companies, parallel sources of revenue that could be used to undermine elections.

“If the EU wants to help create a sustainable rights-respecting environment in Zimbabwe, then it should hold off lifting or suspending targeted sanctions until after Zimbabwe holds credible, free and fair elections,” Kasambala said. “Such action would reaffirm the EU’s commitment to Zimbabwe’s political and economic well-being.”