Concerns that Zimbabwe had fallen off the United States radar, were laid to rest, Thursday, when Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Shannon Smith, told VOA’s Zimbabwe Service that its significance is the very reason her, and State Department colleague, Steven Feldstein, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, visited the country earlier this month.
“I went to Zimbabwe precisely because Zimbabwe is not falling off the radar. It does matter. It matters to people in southern Africa, it matters to people here.”
The United States Subcommittee on Africa, will next week hold a hearing on Zimbabwe, titled, ‘The Future of U.S.-Zimbabwe Relations’, with Smith among the list of contributors.
Despite this, however, Smith dashed any expectation that her visit signaled a possible thawing of relations between Washington and the Harare government of longtime leader, President Robert Mugabe.
“The relationship with the government of Zimbabwe is not fundamentally changing.”
The visit was standard diplomatic practice, Smith said, adding that they do the same with countries worldwide.
“We said while were there, we were not going to announce any major policy changes. We were there to talk to people, and we were happy to do that.”
An area of strain between the two nations for many years has been the imposition of restrictive measures, or sanctions, by then U.S President George Bush in 2001, over allegations of foiled elections and human rights violations. Zimbabwe has always insisted the sanctions, are punishment for taking away farms owned by whites.
Smith dismissed Zimbabwe’s claims that the sanctions were tanking the economy, saying that was a result of Zimbabwe’s poor investment climate as articulated by a World Bank survey. Smith insisted the sanctions are too targeted, and their impact, limited to only those who, “undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic process or institutions.”
“The U.S sanctions are aimed at fewer than 200-individuals and institutions in Zimbabwe, in a nation of over 13-million-people. They are very targeted.”
Asked if the U.S does not feel pressured to lift the sanctions, in the form of travel bans and arms and trade embargos, as many countries in the European Union are doing, Smith said no.
“We don’t feel pressured … the European Union obviously makes its own policy choices, but I think we continue to share with them the same fundamental goals of seeing a freer democratic Zimbabwe, that adheres to the rule of law and other standards.”
The administration of U.S President Barack Obama, recently extended the sanctions on Zimbabwe, citing lack of regard for democratic processes, which the U.S says, “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the US.”
While many US officials support the restrictive measures on Zimbabwe, some, like Republican senator Jim Inhofe do not. The senator from Oklahoma introduced legislation in 2010, aimed at reversing the sanctions law, or ZIDERA as it known, short for the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, citing progress during the shared period of government between the ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
That, however, and Zimbabwe’s efforts to force the lifting of all sanctions through petitions and court challenges, have failed.
Reactions to Smith’s no change in policy on Zimbabwe message, drew a mixture of both support and skepticism, with some citing deficiency in democracy as the main reason for maintaining the restrictive measures.
President Robert Mugabe for years has used every opportunity and platform to attack Washington for imposing targeted sanctions on his government saying they are responsible for the country’s economic woes.
“The imposition of the illegal economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, by Britain, the European Union and their American allies, is one such thing, that they sought to compromise the living standard of Zimbabwe, and subsequently destabilize the country,” said Mr. Mugabe.
ZANU PF ON SANCTIONS
Mr. Mugabe’s remarks are supported by his party’s former minister and politburo member, Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana, who says Harare will look to China and Russia for support.
“We are a peaceful country, living very well, there are no political prisoners, opposition parties are free to do what they want, I don’t see the reason why they are placing us under sanctions.”
But Obert Gutu, spokesperson of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party led by former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, hails Washington for staying principled.
“The leopard never changes its spots,” said Gutu, adding, “we are perfectly happy with the decision and the position taken by the Obama administration.”
Gutu’s sentiments are also echoed by advocacy director of the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Center, Jeff Smith, who says Harare’s human rights record is not improving.
“I think for a long time now US government officials have said its going to be an action for action policy, whereby the only instance our policy toward Zimbabwe would fundamentally change is if the government in Harare made positive improvements on issues related to human rights and good governance and respect for political rights.”
Hubert Humphrey fellow at Minnesota University, Gladys Hlatshwayo, believes that Washington’s stance is not surprising as Harare has failed to reform.
“Coming from a civil society background we are concerned by the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, particularly when you look at the abduction of Itai Dzamara, so we’d like to see a change.”
Human rights lawyer, Dewa Mavhinga of Human Rights Watch, argues that Zimbabwe’s government has an obligation to ensure its people enjoy their rights.
“What is happening has really mainly to do with Zimbabwe itself, because it has the prerogative, not even based on calls from the US, but in terms of its own constitution, to ensure that there’s human rights respect, governance, transparency, accountability and justice.”
On March 7, 2003, “as a result of actions and policies by certain members of the government of Zimbabwe, and its supporters to undermine democratic institutions and processes in Zimbabwe”, President George Bush issued an executive order imposing sanctions against specifically identified individuals and entities in Zimbabwe.
On November 23, 2005, President Bush issued a new executive order superseding the first executive order. President Barack Obama also issued subsequent executive orders on the same sanctions.
The executive order prohibits U.S. persons, wherever located, or anyone in the United States from engaging in any transactions with any person, entity or organization found to be “undermining democratic institutions and processes in Zimbabwe; have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support to these entities; be or have been an immediate family member of a sanctions target; or be owned, controlled or acting on behalf of a sanctions target. “
The European Union last year lifted a visa ban and assets freeze against members of Zimbabwe's ruling elite with the exception of President Mugabe and his wife, Grace, who remain blacklisted. The targeted sanctions were imposed in 2002.