In Zimbabwe, the idea of sanctions has far-reaching consequences because the topic has over the past two decades been embroiled in partisan politics. Albeit political, sanctions are in most cases the precipice of economic deterioration. In essence, the argument is not really a political one, rather it is an economic one. The longer sanctions remain in place, the harder it is going to be to dig the country out of economic despair. At the very least, we should agree on that as the citizenry.

In October 2021, The UN Special Rapporteur visited Zimbabwe on a mission to determine the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. From the 18th  to 28th  October 2021, Alena Douhan examined the impact of unilateral sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights in Zimbabwe and on people’s right to development. She concludes that sanctions, including secondary sanctions, and different forms of over-compliance by foreign banks and companies have had a significant impact on the population and the Government, exacerbating pre-existing economic and humanitarian challenges. She recommends lifting unilateral sanctions in line with the principles of international law; avoiding de-risking policies and over-compliance in accordance with the due diligence rule; and engaging in meaningful structured discussions on political reform, the rule of law and human rights. This piece will look at the key issues outlined in the Report of the Special Rapporteur.

The History of sanctions in Zimbabwe

In December 2001, the United States of America enacted the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which was amended in August 2018. It imposes restrictions on Zimbabwe regarding multilateral financing unless it makes certain reforms. For over 20 years, the Act has mandated the United States to vote against extending loans, credit or guarantees to the Government of Zimbabwe, and against any cancellation or reduction of debt to the United States or any international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

In March 2003, the United States introduced sanctions on 77 individuals, blocking property and interests in property of the individuals listed, and of any other person (legal or natural) determined to be associated, owned or controlled by the individuals included in the sanctions list. The United States expanded the list of individuals in November 2005; in July 2008, it broadly extended the sanctions to cover, inter alia, any senior official of the Government of Zimbabwe, spouse and dependent children, or anyone deemed to be supporting the Government.

The United States Office of Foreign Assets Control also designated various key entities, including two national banks. Shortly after the constitutional referendum of 2013, the Office of Foreign Assets Control reauthorized certain bank transactions, and later de-listed two banks, in February 2016. The United States currently lists 83 individuals and 37 entities.

In February 2002, the European Union introduced “restrictive measures”, which included an arms embargo, the freezing of funds and assets, travel bans and prohibitions regarding equipment used for internal repression. The first European Union sanctions listed 79 individuals, including cabinet members and senior officials of Robert Mugabe’s Government, and any entities associated with them. It expanded the list in February 2004 and in 2011 to a peak of 163 individuals and 31 entities.

In March 2013, the European Union progressively suspended most of its sanctions until reaching zero active individual cases by February 2020. It also re-engaged with Zimbabwe under the Cotonou Agreement.

In March 2002, Switzerland banned the sale and transfer of arms and related materiel for internal repression and imposed a financial flow and asset freeze on 20 individuals. It gradually expanded the list of individuals to include 203 physical persons and 40 entities by 2009.

 In 2020, Switzerland joined the European Union in removing all listed individuals, while retaining the asset freeze on one entity and a prohibition on goods susceptible to being used for internal repression. In November 2002, Australia imposed an arms embargo, a travel ban, and an asset freeze and restrictions on provisions of assets, 8 of which were eased in 2012 and 2013, following the constitutional referendum. It currently lists six individuals and one entity.

In September 2008, Canada added its own sanctions programme by issuing an arms embargo, asset freeze and travel ban on 177 individuals, including their associates and family members, and entities owned or controlled by them. The sanctions programme also covered senior officials considered to undermine human rights and four entities.

In 2020, Canada indicated that it would keep sanctions in force until there were positive shifts in Zimbabwean policy that resulted in improvements in human rights, democracy, freedom and the rule of law. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland imposed their own sanctions, including an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze, shortly after leaving the European Union. The list currently includes four individuals, who are also listed by the United States, and one entity.

The Impact of sanctions on Zim so far

Zimbabwe has experienced an economic downturn since the mid-1990s due to the adverse impacts of the IMF economic structural adjustment policy, 13 climate-related droughts, economic mismanagement and civil unrest. In 1999, IMF and the World Bank suspended adjustment financing to Zimbabwe, restricting access to key developmental loans. In 2001, official development assistance reached a 20-year low of $160.2 million as external debt reached 2.485 per cent of the gross national income, a level not seen since the early 1980s.

For Zimbabwe, lost revenues reportedly exceeded $42 billion from 2001 to 2019.

Zimbabwe historically relied on foreign trade to sustain its economy. It last registered a trade surplus in 2000, at $155 million, representing approximately 74 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Overall production increased 1.44 per cent in 2001 after a shortfall in previous years. However, sanctions targeted various entities in key productive sectors of the economy, including mining, manufacturing, tourism and agriculture, which made it challenging for Zimbabwe to rely on its trade and industry to promote growth.

During the first decade under sanctions, the country’s trade balance spiralled to -23.8 per cent, in 2010, and has stayed negative since then.

Sanctions facilitated deindustrialization, as key agriculture, mining and manufacturing companies were barred from selling their products in the United States and European Union markets. The economic contraction went from -3.1 per cent in 2000 to -17.7 per cent in 2008. Thousands of workers were forced out of employment in the formal economy, and multiple local companies closed down. This nurtured the expansion of the informal sector as a method of resilience, estimated at 94.5 per cent in 2014 and 75.6 per cent in 2019.

Foreign direct investments were affected as investors avoided risks, given the negative perceptions about the economy and the country’s governance. This led to increased unemployment, estimated at 94 per cent in the formal sector by the end of 2008,17 and to a significant loss of qualified professionals. From 2000 to 2008, the gross national income per person fell by 35 per cent.

There was a significant loss of public revenue, which was critically undermined by consistently high inflation that surged from 56 per cent in 2000 to 599 per cent in 2003 and over 230 million per cent in 2008.

 This fuelled the collapse of the public system and resulted in the inability of the Government to provide essential services, with serious ramifications for people accessing essential livelihoods and humanitarian needs, including food, water and sanitation, education and other public services.

Humanitarian impact

Unilateral sanctions decimated the economic performance of the country, thereby aggravating the humanitarian situation and consequently adversely impacting access to basic rights, including life, food, water and sanitation, health and education, and the rights of Zimbabwean residents, migrants and refugees.

Poverty has increased sharply as a result, undermining efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 1, ending poverty in all its forms everywhere. With the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) adding to the problem, a survey by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency and the United Nations Children’s Fund showed that almost half of the population was in extreme poverty in 2020.

Access to food

Agriculture has historically ensured rural livelihoods. It currently represents approximately 14–17 per cent of GDP and employs and provides income to approximately 60–70 per cent of the population. However, sanctions imposed on key farms and agricultural companies and the general decline of agricultural investments have resulted in poor production levels since the early 2000s, especially as regards cereals such as maize, sorghum, millet and others.

While droughts, cyclones and other environmental hazards influenced the decrease in food production, unilateral coercive measures also had a determining impact. Food insecurity has remained a key concern since 2001, both in terms of accessibility and affordability. The proportion of food insecure people increased from 29 per cent in 1995 to 58 per cent in 2003, 21 and measured 42 per cent in 2016, according to government estimates. It worsened further, to 8.6 million people or more than 60 per cent of the population, at the end of 2020.

The estimated undernourishment of the population was 42.2 per cent in 2005, which increased to 51.3 per cent in 2017, resulting in the worst malnutrition rate in 15 years, with 30 per cent of the rural population requiring food assistance. In 2020, the food insecure population increased to 2.4 million people, up from 2.2 million in 2019, with global acute malnutrition levels increasing from 3.6 per cent in 2019 to 4.5 per cent in 2020.

The agricultural sector’s inability to borrow funds or perform bank operations has rendered it incapable of properly retooling, buying spare parts and reagents, maintaining equipment and infrastructure, or investing in better plant and machinery technology. Foreign partners are also reluctant to sell seeds, equipment and spare parts directly. The main agricultural bank of Zimbabwe, Agribank, could not finance the sector adequately with credits due to its listing under United States sanctions from 2003 to 2016.

Regarding the impact on the country’s agricultural infrastructure and the ability of people to fulfil their right to food, current government data indicate a decline in the number of functional tractors to 6,000 in 2021, against a national requirement of 40,000. The lack of adequate supplies of vaccines and other essential drugs also impacted animal health and food exports, as well as the ability to produce food autonomously and carry out adequate disease control measures. There were also reports of a general lack of cold storage infrastructure and limited availability of adequate packaging to facilitate exports. Functional irrigation schemes served only 206,000 hectares due to inadequate maintenance and rehabilitation. Cereal and horticultural production declined significantly between 2000 and 2021.

Access to water and sanitation

Unilateral sanctions also contribute to the deterioration of the water and sanitation infrastructure, resulting in the reduced accessibility of clean water and sanitation services for the majority of the population, in addition to a reduction of effective sewage systems and disposal, waste management and fire services. This has accelerated disease epidemics, such as cholera and typhoid (notably in 2008 and 2018) with an estimated combined death toll of over 3,000 people, and has placed more than 100,000 people at risk.

Although public spending on water and sanitation has increased over time, it is estimated that less than half of the population currently has access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. Only 29.5 per cent of the population was able to access safe drinking water in 2020, compared with 33.2 per cent in 2002.

In 2019, 77.1 per cent of households lacked access to improved sources of clean water, with disparities in rural (67.9 per cent) and urban (97.3 per cent) areas. According to the 2012 national population census, 25 per cent of households lacked access to toilets, with a higher prevalence of open defecation in rural areas. In 2019, national open defecation rate stood at 21.7 per cent in 2019, especially in rural areas, which improved from 44 per cent in 2014.

Sanctions and over-compliance obstructed access to credit for local companies and the local government was no longer able to borrow funds for water infrastructure. The local government noted that over the past decade, waterborne disease outbreaks occurred during almost every rainy season, infecting thousands and killing hundreds.

Access to health

In general, the provision of primary health care is delegated to municipal councils through polyclinics and rural health centres, which focus on maternal, neonatal and child health. Prior to sanctions, these facilities were, to some extent, supplied with medicines, ambulances and qualified personnel. In the 1990s, it was estimated that 85 per cent of the population had access to health care.

The structural economic and social challenges inherited from the late 1990s were aggravated by unilateral sanctions and the isolation of the country, especially during the first decade under sanctions, exacerbated by the consequences of over-compliance. As a result, the public health system collapsed. Total health expenditure fell from 10.8 per cent of GDP in 1996 to an average of 7 per cent to 8 per cent in the period from 2005 through 2013. Vacancy rates in the health sector were consistently high throughout the period under sanctions, reaching 69 per cent for doctors; 61 per cent for environmental health technicians; over 80 per cent for midwives; 62 per cent for nursing tutors; over 63 per cent for medical school teachers; and over 50 per cent for other health personnel, including pharmacy, radiology and laboratory services. Recent data on vacancy rates indicate figures as high as 89 per cent for midwives, 64 per cent for government medical officers and 49 per cent for nursing tutors. Most provinces have less than 10 health professionals per 10,000 people.

Disease-related mortalities have remained more or less stagnant. For over 20 years, the leading cause of death in the country has been HIV/AIDS; in 2019, other major causes were tuberculosis and lower respiratory infections and neonatal conditions. Nonetheless, HIV prevalence and AIDS-related deaths significantly declined from 2010 to 2020.

Additionally, stocks of medicines, vaccines and other essential drugs have been routinely deficient throughout the period37 while about 70 per cent of essential medicines are manufactured in third countries, especially in India. To meet the demand, the Special Rapporteur was informed that most hospitals have pharmaceutical manufacturing units for compounding simple formulations such as glycerine-ichthammol, gentian violet and silver sulfadiazine cream.

In 2002, WHO reported that 73 per cent of essential drug stocks in health facilities located in peripheral areas were severely depleted. The trend continued through 2008, with reductions in stocks of essential drugs and vaccines ranging between 29 per cent and 58 per cent for vital items and 22 per cent and 36 per cent for all essential categories of items under the 2008 essential medicines list.

With hyperinflation and the lack of foreign reserves, the availability of essential drugs remained deficient. In 2014, only 42 per cent of them were reportedly available in hospitals; injectable antibiotics were the least available, at 31 per cent.

The lack of credits and low revenues have prevented Zimbabwe from developing and extending its medical system to guarantee its overall accessibility. While infants are guaranteed free access to medical care, a substantial number of adults are unable to pay the relevant fees.

Access to education

The loss of State revenue and the cumulative impact of over-compliance measures have directly impacted the delivery of quality education. Numerous testimonies explained the challenges faced by teachers and school staff related to reporting to work, due to transportation and accommodation costs, which contribute to the high vacancy rates in the sector. The average dropout rate increased from 6 per cent in 2000 to 9 per cent in 2005 for grades 1 to 6, with boys accounting for the majority of those who dropped out of school prematurely. In 2009, the primary school completion rate stood at 82.4 per cent.

Is there a legal basis for the imposition of sanctions?

The Special Rapporteur considers that the state of national emergency announced by the Government of the United States on 7 March 2003 in its Executive Order 13288 as the ground for introducing sanctions against Zimbabwe, and repeatedly extended, does not correspond to the requirements of article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, such as the existence of a threat to the life of the nation, the limiting of measures to the exigencies of the situation, a limited duration, and the absence of discrimination, as referred to in the communication of human rights experts of 29 January 2021.

The Special Rapporteur is concerned that existing unilateral targeted sanctions as a punitive action violate, at the very least, obligations arising from universal and regional human rights instruments, many of which have a peremptory character, including procedural guarantees and the presumption of innocence with a view that the grounds for their introduction do not constitute, for the most part, international crimes or comply with the grounds for universal criminal jurisdiction. The designation of family members of listed individuals contradicts the prohibition on punishment for an activity that does not constitute a criminal offence and constitutes collective punishment prohibited by international human rights law.

The Special Rapporteur underlines that the listing of the majority of high-ranking State officials, and the possibility of designating property or companies that they own or control, affect nearly all economic sectors. Imposing high fines on companies and banks for dealing with designated individuals or the property those individuals control, based on payments in United States dollars, results in increasing reputational risks and de-risking by the United States and third-country nationals or companies as part of over-compliance.

 The Special Rapporteur recalls that “targeted sanctions” cannot, in practice, be isolated from the negative consequences on Zimbabweans of secondary sanctions, civil and criminal penalties for circumvention of sanctions regimes, de-risking policies and over-compliance. The cumulative effect of these is an important factor undermining the capacity of the Government of Zimbabwe to exercise its duty to maintain the functioning of critical infrastructure, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.