With the US election over and Joseph R. Biden the victor, Biden should make human rights a priority of his upcoming presidency, at home and abroad. Biden has pledged to prioritize human rights in his foreign policy.
Governments across the globe, including Zimbabwe, are also contemplating the implications of a Biden administration for their countries. On November 7, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa posted a congratulatory message on Twitter, saying he looked forward to working with Biden to increase cooperation between Zimbabwe and the United States. Mnangagwa’s foreign affairs minister, Sibusiso Moyo, expressed in his congratulatory tweet the next day that, “Zimbabwe hopes to continue finding common ground, worthwhile and mutual alliances with the American people.”
As a US senator in 2001, Biden co-sponsored the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which paved the way for the US to impose travel and economic sanctions on individuals (and their associates) responsible for the deliberate breakdown of the rule of law, politically motivated violence, and intimidation in Zimbabwe. These targeted sanctions have been imposed since 2003 on select individuals in the ruling ZANU-PF government and companies known to facilitate human rights abuses, undermine the rule of law, and engage in looting public resources for personal or political gain.
Some of the companies sanctioned include Mbada Diamonds, Marange Resources, Sakunda Holdings, the military-run Zimbabwe Defence Industries, and ZANU-PF linked companies such as M&S Syndicate and Jongwe Printing and Publishing Company.
The fact is that a reset of relations with the US government, and the removal of targeted sanctions is unlikely to happen simply because there is a new administration in the US. Zimbabwe authorities should carry out substantial, credible reforms, end abuses, end corruption, and open up democratic space.
The reforms should include, in line with section 210 of the Zimbabwe Constitution, the establishment of an effective and independent mechanism for receiving and investigating complaints from members of the public about security services misconduct and to remedy any harm caused by such misconduct.
Since coming to power in 2017, the Mnangagwa administration has made several calls for the US government to remove sanctions on senior government officials in Zimbabwe. President Mnangagwa and top government officials have sought to blame their failure to revive the country’s battered economy and attract foreign investment on “sanctions,” an umbrella term used to deflect criticisms of the government’s poor performance.
Ahead of Zimbabwe’s July 2018 national elections, the ruling ZANU-PF party, in its manifesto promised a ‘new dispensation’ for Zimbabwe, from being a pariah state to a new era of hope in which people’s aspirations are fulfilled. But even though President Mnangagwa has repeatedly voiced his commitments to human rights reforms, his administration remains highly intolerant of criticism, peaceful dissent, and free expression. The Zimbabwe government has not carried out the promised reforms that could lead to the removal of targeted sanctions.
In January 2020, US Senators Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chris Coons, member of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, said in a statement: “It is important that the United States communicate to the people of Zimbabwe that our sanctions programs are aimed at deterring human rights abuses, public corruption, the undermining of democratic processes or institutions, and political repression in Zimbabwe. They are not aimed at the Zimbabwean people.” The senators added that while the targeted sanctions have been in place, the United States has continued to invest in humanitarian and development aid for Zimbabwe, spending more than US$2 billion over the last 10 years.
In an October 23 interview with the Voice of America, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Brian Nichols, said, “I think it’s important to stress that the United States does not have sanctions against the economy or people of Zimbabwe. Our sanctions target those who engage in corruption, violate human rights, and undermine democratic processes in Zimbabwe. In fact, our sanctions have only 83 individuals and 37 entities, that is to say companies or organizations linked to those people that have either committed human rights abuses or engaged in corruption.”
Nichols further stated that the Zimbabwe government should carry out the reforms necessary for the US to lift the targeted sanctions. “We have consistently pressed the government of Zimbabwe to implement the necessary political, democratic and economic reforms consistent with the international human rights obligations to provide Zimbabwean citizens the prosperity, security and wellbeing that they deserve,” he said. “If those things happen, there would be no need for sanctions.”
Instead of implementing credible human rights reforms, the Zimbabwe government in recent months appears to be rapidly sliding backward to its previous history of unbridled disregard for human rights. During Mnangagwa’s presidency, there has been a steady increase in serious human rights violations committed by the security forces, including violent attacks, abductions, torture, and other abuses against the opposition and civil society activists.
These abuses have been committed with impunity as no security force personnel have been arrested or prosecuted for their alleged involvement, including in cases of abductions and torture. Last year alone, suspected state security agents abducted and tortured over 70 critics of the government.
In mid-January 2019, the security forces used excessive lethal force to crush nationwide protests that had been triggered by President Mnangagwa’s sudden announcement of a fuel price increase. During demonstrations throughout Zimbabwe, the security forces fired live ammunition, killing 17 people, and raped at least 17 women. The previous year, on August 1, 2018, post-election protests over delayed election results erupted in Harare and resulted in widespread violence.
President Mnangagwa then set up an international panel, the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry, which found that 6 people died and 35 others were injured as a result of actions by the state security forces. Some of the commission’s recommendations, which have yet to be implemented, include ensuring that those responsible for abuses are held accountable and setting up a special committee to compensate families of those killed or for lost property.
Zimbabwe authorities need to reform the security forces so that they completely end their involvement in partisan politics, and ensure that they act professionally, in a rights-respecting manner. For the past serious human rights violations – including arbitrary arrests, torture, murder, and rape - the government should order prompt investigations and carry out their recommendations. This includes recommendations those from the Motlanthe Commission, including prosecuting security force members involved, in accordance with national law and international standards.
Zimbabwe authorities should not pin their hopes on improved relations with the United States under the incoming Biden administration. Rather, they should focus on fully implementing the provisions of Zimbabwe’s Constitution that guarantee protection of human rights and do more to improve the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. If President Mnangagwa fulfills the promises he has made about human rights and respect for the rule of law, it will pave the way for Zimbabwe’s re-engagement with the US and other concerned governments.