Opinion & Columnist

Current anti-sanctions compaign ill-timed

guest column:Willard Chinhara

It is not surprising that the sanctions issue is also the unfinished business of the September 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA) between Zanu PF and the MDC formations. Although the parties to the GPA had about five years (2009-2013) to implement the provisions of the ill-fated GPA, whatever their shortcomings, it is safe to argue that the on-going anti-sanctions campaign is untimely because the processes of national dialogue and international engagement are still in their infancy.

This argument is neither for nor against the removal of sanctions, but the main objective is to set forth the logical equilibrium of the whole issue.

In simple terms, sanctions can be defined as punitive measures usually taken by several nations, together and at times one country, designed to put pressure on another country in order to force it to change its policies and actions or as a means to rehabilitate that country.

There are, however, various forms of sanctions, mainly comprehensive and targeted or smart sanctions. Comprehensive sanctions simply refer to wholesale or non-discriminating sanctions and are more austere than targeted or smart sanctions.


Thus, targeted sanctions can lessen the negative humanitarian impacts on innocent civilians associated with comprehensive sanctions. Targeted or smart sanctions are meant to focus their impact on leaders, political elites and segments of society believed responsible for objectionable behaviour, while reducing collateral damage to the general population and third parties. However, the Targeted Sanctions Consortium (TSC) argues that “targeted sanctions have unintended consequences, including increases in corruption and criminality, strengthening of authoritarian rule, burdening neighbouring States, strengthening of political factions, resource diversion and humanitarian impacts.”

There are various types of targeted sanctions. According to the TSC, composed of more than fifty scholars and policy practitioners worldwide, the following are some types of targeted sanctions with varying degrees of discrimination:

Individual/Entity targeted sanctions (for example travel ban, assets freeze; most discriminating)

Diplomatic sanctions (only one sector of government directly affected)

Arms embargoes or proliferation-related goods (largely limited impact on fighting forces or security sector)

Commodity sanctions other than oil (for example diamonds, timber, charcoal; tend to affect some regions disproportionately)

Transportation sanctions for example aviation or shipping ban; can affect much of a population)

Core economic sector sanctions (for example oil and financial sector sanctions; affect the broader population and therefore are the least discriminating of targeted sanctions)
Since the year 2001 to date, Zimbabwe is said to have been under targeted sanctions imposed not by the United Nations (UN), but by the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU) who are the major players.

Historical context

In view of the sanctions concept, it is expedient to give an overview of the general history of sanctions as applied during the 20th and 21st centuries. During the 20th century, unilateral and autonomous sanctions were not as prevalent as they appear to be in the 21st century. According to Margaret Doxey, while both the League of Nations Covenant and the UN Charter directed sanctions at the unlawful use of force, in the UN context sanctions have also been linked to the defence of human rights. Prior and during the Cold War, sanctions included those of the League of Nations against Italy from 1935 to 1936 and the UN sanctions against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1966 to 1979 and an arms embargo against South Africa since 1977 until May 1994 when democratic elections were held. These sanctions were usually comprehensive in nature.


Quoting several authoritative scholars, Daniel W Drezner submits that the origins of smart sanctions lie in the explosion of economic statecraft that started with the end of the Cold War. The UN Security Council (UNSC) voted for economic sanctions twelve times in the 1990s; between 1945 and 1990, the UN had only employed sanctions twice. “According to Hufbauer, Schott, Elliott, and Oegg (2007), there were nearly as many sanctions episodes after end of the Cold War as there were during the first 90 years of the twentieth century.

The most high-profile cases were comprehensive UN sanctions imposed on Iraq, Haiti, and former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. It is worth observing that, in the end, all three sanctions episodes generated at least moderate concessions. Obviously, military statecraft was also used in all three cases, but Rogers (1996) argues that economic sanctions played a crucial supporting role in determining the outcomes.”

Analysts observe that measured in terms of cost, sanctions imposed against Iraq were, by far, the most comprehensive in history. It is estimated that Iraq lost between US$175 billion and US$250 billion in possible oil revenues from the sanctions. Further, the price for a family’s food supply for a month increased 250-fold over the first five years of the sanctions regime. It is estimated that the sanctions caused a minimum of 100 000 and up to 227 000 excess deaths among young children from August 1991 to March 1998. In view of these fatalities, Mueller and Mueller concluded that “economic sanctions may well have been a necessary cause of the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history.”

However, according to Daniel W Drezner, Madeleine Albright — the US ambassador to the UN at the time — provided the defining sound bite for this culpability in May 1996. In a 60-minute interview, she said that even if the sanctions had killed half a million Iraqi children, ‘‘the price is worth it.’’ Conversely, humanitarian groups ranging from the Red Cross to the Human Rights Watch questioned the ethics of comprehensive trade sanctions. It is in this light that multiple UN agencies started to voice concerns about the UNSC’s implementation of comprehensive sanctions. Daniel W Drezner submits that then UN Secretary-Generals Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan both labelled sanctions a “blunt instrument” and asked whether the suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups was a legitimate means of exerting pressure on political leaders.

In view of criticism of the severity and fatalities of comprehensive trade sanctions, the idea of targeted sanctions emerged. Thus, in moving forward with the anti-sanctions campaign, it is important to avoid confusing comprehensive trade sanctions with targeted sanctions. It is also important to note that the UN has been somewhat antipathic about the idea of sanctions. Hence, we have a proliferation of autonomous and unilateral sanctions by nations and regional groups.

Pan-African solidarity

Daniel W Drezner argues that from a social science perspective, the perceived failure of the Iraq case seemed damning. The Iraq sanctions were an extreme outlier in terms of cost to the target — Iraq’s GDP was cut roughly in half. If sanctions this costly failed to yield concessions, then the entire sanctions enterprise could be called into doubt. Thus, the Pan-African solidarity is not a political misnomer, but there is total absence of sincerity in Africa’s anti-sanctions advocacy. SADC and the AU have all failed to deal with the root causes of Western sanctions.

The GPA of 2008 and the resultant Government of National Unity of 2009-2013 failed to yield a permanent solution to Zimbabwe’s internal and external dilemmas. In these circumstances, it is unfortunate that Africa pretends that there is nothing endogenous about the socio-economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe.

Polarized national psyche

Every country under the sun has a polarised national psyche. However, at the present moment, Zimbabwe’s national psyche is polarised beyond the point of reconciliation due to man-made ethnographic complexities and ideological differences. On the one hand, there is a generation of people who, on the political scale, believes in democracy and federalism. This generation considers sanctions as a valid political tool for a regime change agenda. It should be noted that historically, some form of loose pseudo-federalism existed during the pre-colonial era when Zimbabwe had the “Munhumutapa Empire” and the “Ndebele Kingdom” for example.


On the other hand, there is a generation of the radical power elite made up of mainly the liberation war veterans, the military oligarchy and the comprador-bourgeoisie. This formidable generation, believes in political power monopoly and hold the view that sanctions are a form of illegal foreign intervention in a sovereign state. The majority of the people in the latter generation are nationalist pretenders and a huge national security risk.

The third generation, are fickle-minded plebeians who believe in anything and move with the tide of affairs. They are like a football which can be used by all contesting teams to make scores and they reside in the “Eighteen-Areas” of the less powerful teams’ goals. In the case of such a polarized national psyche, there is need for a holistic program of action designed by parties to the National Dialogue. Such a program should strive to make the dialogue process as transparent as possible to convince and educate polarized political constituencies that something constructive is happening.


In conclusion, it is imperative to emphasise that the untimeliness of the anti-sanctions campaign is vindicated by lack of convincing conditions for the removal of sanctions. The Pan-African solidarity against sanctions is necessary, but again Africa is caught up in the usual whirlwind of political rhetoric without adopting a pragmatic approach to resolve Zimbabwe’s domestic and international relations dilemma.