UN Envoy Urges the US to Lift Sanctions Against Zimbabwe

Last week, Alena Douhan, a United Nations special envoy on unilateral coercive measures, urged the US to lift sanctions against Zimbabwe. Douhan suggested that the sanctions have amplified the ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, challenging many aspects of their society. AP News reports that after her two-week investigation, Douhan argued that, although the sanctions are only against the Zimbabwean elite, they have exacerbated “the pre-existing economic and humanitarian crisis, inhibiting the building of essential infrastructure and international and inter-institutional cooperation.” Advocating for the dissolution of the impasse between the two nations, Douhan states that this two-decades-long economic blockade must be urgently abolished. Instead, she encouraged the nations to open a “structured dialogue” on political reform to enable a new approach to restore democracy in Zimbabwe.

In response, the US embassy said that Washington will only lift sanctions once it “determines sanctioned individuals have stopped undermining democracy, violating human rights, or facilitating corruption.” State Department spokesman, Ned Price, added that the sanctions do not target the civilians, but rather the historically corrupt leadership of the nation. In response to Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s speech commemorating “Anti-Sanctions Day,” US Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) who serves on the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relation tweeted that he was not persuaded by the anti-sanctions “rhetoric.” In contrast, many members of the international community have voiced their support for abolishing these sanctions. The East African reported that the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and other African nations released “strong-worded solidarity messages” in response to the conversations of the week. Additionally, China has joined African countries in urging the US to lift sanctions, claiming that they are “illegal and unilateral.”

The call for reform in Zimbabwe, highlighted by Douhan, was necessary and perhaps overdue. Though Price reports that the sanctions are only against 83 individuals and 37 entities, they have had devastating consequences on the political agency of the government of Zimbabwe, and in turn, the people. Preventing access to food, safe drinking water, medicine and sanitation materials, education, and employment, the sanctions have had a shocking economic ripple effect. It is disappointing to see the rigid and inflexible responses of the US. The current approach has a 20-year track record that demonstrates its inability to confront the highlighted issues. International partnership is a critical step in the restoration of Zimbabwe’s economy and overall democratic governmental functioning. Lifting sanctions is certainly not a fix-all, but perhaps it is the first step in inviting Zimbabwe back into the international conversation.

According to the US Department of State, the sanctions were first introduced by the US Department of the Treasury in March 2003, following extreme violations of human rights under the authoritarian rule of former President Robert Mugabe. To incentivize the protection of civil rights, democracy, and economic development, the US imposed visa and financial sanctions on selected Zimbabwe elite, including those involved in politics, economic management, and the military. Furthermore, the sanctions were against selected companies affiliated with the state. The list of sanctioned individuals and entities is reviewed and edited annually; The East African reports that at its peak, they were expanded to include approximately 250 individuals associated with Mugabe. The sanctions included banning the exchange of defense items, non-humanitarian government assistance, and visas. Additionally, the sanctions block Americans from engaging in transactions with people or government-linked institutions.

Zimbabwe is at a critical turning point. If the nation continues on its current trajectory, Douhan’s findings suggest that it could have devastating consequences for the citizens of Zimbabwe, particularly those living in poverty, women, children, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups. However, with increasing international attention, perhaps there is hope for a new era of political, social, and economic reformation for the nation. Douhan proposes that the first step lies in lifting US sanctions and rethinking what the development of Zimbabwe should look like.


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