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Unilateral Coercive Measures (UCM), also known as sanctions are defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as actions taken or orders that are given to force a country to obey International law[1] or in some instances applied against certain countries to achieve desired political and economic outcomes[2]. These encompass the imposition of economic embargoes, trade and financial restrictions, individual mobility restrictions and diplomatic isolation. It is important to note that these measures do not enjoy the blessing of the UN Security Council and are to that extent illegal. The common belief is rooted in the view that sanctions can compel a Government to bring about democracy, respect for the rule of law and human rights. A number of scholars have sought to dispute this claim by showing that a country riddled with sanctions is a traffic island or refuge for economically disempowered populations whose social, economic and political fabric becomes distorted and disjointed.  This is one of the outcomes of forced and punitive isolation which characterizes the Zimbabwe situation. The factual human rights expositions in this paper are informed by and  derive their authority from the  findings of the Baseline Survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission in early 2014 to determine what the real human rights issues in the country where and their attendant causes and effects.

2.    Background to Unilateral Coercive Measures against Zimbabwe

2.1.        The history of Unilateral Coercive Measures against Zimbabwe, dates back to the post land reform era in 2000. The land redistribution exercise called fast track land reform programme was intended to correct a colonial land holding imbalance but became a basis for a call for Zimbabwe to return to the rule of law by Western powers marshalled by Britain and the USA which indicated that it had been carried out in a lawless manner and in violation of the basic tenets of human rights and international law. A number of measures that qualify as unilateral coercive measures can therefore be either economic, trade related or those that stop financial aid to a country and all of these were visited on Zimbabwe. Some of these specific measures include but are not limited to the following:

2.1.1.   Suspension of budgetary support previously provided by the European Union and other Western powers leading to excessive deindustrialization and high unemployment, shortages of basic food and other life sustaining commodities such as medicines and the resultant brain drain.

2.1.2.   Imposition of visa bans and assets freezes on influential people and associates of government and the ruling ZANU-PF party by the United Kingdom, United States, European Union, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. This measure was intended to isolate, undermine and emasculate the capacity of those seen as architects of repression. The EU initially imposed visa bans and asset freezes on almost two hundred (200) ZANU-PF individual members, as well as a number of specified state owned companies.[3]Thirty five (35) people were removed from this list in February 2011 following a review whilst the restrictive sanctions on the others were retained and extended;[4]

2.1.3.   Restrictions on financial transactions involving specified individuals and entities intended to reduce their economic muscle and contribution to the economic development of the country;

2.1.4.   Prohibition of military support and technical assistance that could enhance the government’s so called repressive capacity. This restriction was imposed by the United Kingdom, United States, Norway and the European Union in 2002 as a response to the increase in political violence perceived to have been prevailing in Zimbabwe at the time.[5]

3.    Legislative Coercive Measures Imposed on Zimbabwe

3.1.        The United States of America (USA) passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) in 2001. The Act created specific conditions for qualified assistance thereby in a way facilitating sanctions. The USA introduced travel bans and freezing of assets against specified individuals thought to be responsible for creating the ‘lack of the rule of law’ in Zimbabwe. The bans covered mostly Executives in the Zimbabwean government and their families headed by the head of State and Goverment. In reality however, even the ordinary person had to present a much more concrete and plausible case to the USA embassy on application to qualify for an entry visa. Ordinary programmes which had hitherto been considered for support were abandoned as a result.

3.2.        Section 4 (1) of ZIDERA for example, empowers the US to veto Zimbabwe’s applications to multilateral lending agencies, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the African Development Bank (ADB), for finance or credit facilities, loan rescheduling and international debt cancellation. Section 6 (3) of the same Act permits imposition of travel bans and asset freezes on individuals who are perceived and/or regarded as being responsible for human rights abuses and undermining the rule of law

3.3.        On the other hand the European Union (EU), Australia and New Zealand also introduced what they called ‘smart sanctions’. These were also targeted at select Government officials and others of high standing thought to be responsible for creating and abetting the status quo in Zimbabwe.


4.1.        Loss of Foreign Direct Investments

The country has suffered serious economic loss in terms of reduction of investments from other countries especially foreign direct investment.  Investors are not keen to invest in what they perceive as risky economies which tend to be non-performing owing to the coercive measures. According to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe report of 2007, FDI increased from an average of US8 million in the 1980s to an average US$95 million in the 1990s. After the imposition of unilateral coercive measures, FDI suddenly declined to an average US$20.4 million.  A decline in FDI ultimately leads to a decline in the availability of foreign exchange. This in turn creates uncertainty in the economy and speculative behaviour causing hardships to the ordinary man and woman on the street whose socio-economic rights are affected negatively.

Withdrawal of bilateral aid to Government coupled with limited resources within the country has serious underpinnings on government capacity to provide basic services to the ordinary Zimbabwean. This has ultimately led to a decline of Zimbabwean people’s standard of living. Consequently the withdrawal of the multilateral financial institutions from providing Balance of Payments support to Zimbabwe had a demonstrative ripple effect as some other bilateral creditors and donors also followed suit by either scaling down or suspending disbursements on existing loans for both Government and Parastatals.[6]

4.2.        Impact on Social and Economic Rights

Although the international community has divided coercive measures into categories including what they term ‘smart sanctions’, the effects of these remain the same on the ordinary people. The enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights has been negatively affected in Zimbabwe by the unilateral coercive measures  whose effect has to a great extent destroyed the household fabric as a result of the mass exodus of people to the diaspora.

4.2.1.   Right to Employment/ Work

The massive closure of most industrial and commercial concerns in the country by multi-national corporations mainly in response to the imposition of Unilateral Coercive Measures in 2001 resulted in high unemployment through loss of jobs and the consequent brain drain and exodus by many people to the diaspora in search of better and survival opportunities. Demographic estimates have put the figures of those forced to emigrate at around three million people. This has been seen as a clear case of negation of the right to employment or work in one’s country of birth at the speed of lightning.

Most of these fugitives included the highly educated and not so educated who were all alike forced on to the great trek to neighbouring countries, mostly South Africa and Botswana where some were subjected to xenophobic attacks and killings and to the former colonial power Britain where they were subjected to racially motivated discrimination and other vices impinging on their rights and to other countries in search of employment. The few remaining industrial productive entities deliberately scaled down their operations in sympathy with decisions of the multi-national companies headquartered in Washington or London.

Family units were broken with the departure of the principal bread winner and consequently the most vulnerable groups, women and children have ended up being victims of the horrendous crime of illegal human traffic. The forced exodus of breadwinners has also resulted in the mushrooming of child headed households and high divorce rates. It is common knowledge that recently Zimbabwean authorities including members of parliament had to go out to rescue and bring back home more than 300 mostly young and middle aged women who had been trafficked to Kuwait for purposes of slavery, prostitution and cheap labour. These are heinous and sad developments which had not been heard of in the country until the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures started biting hard and infrinching the ordinary person’s right to dignity. In fact, the effects of these Unilateral Coercive Measures have generally overshadowed any governance issues that negatively impact on human rights such as corruption and resource mismanagement which one cannot rule out in a matrix of this nature.

4.2.2.   Right to Food, Clean Water and Sanitation

Zimbabwe was once considered as the bread basket of Southern Africa. This was largely due to the fact that the agricultural sector was well resourced with funding from the donor community. For instance, DANIDA once supported the sector in the late 1990s with up to US15.4 million[7] according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Report referred to earlier. The programme was suspended as a result of sanctions thus denying the country of the opportunity to maintain food security.

Programmes for the Agricultural sector aimed at enhancing forestry extension services; development of agriculture policy; marketing information systems; supporting irrigation schemes for small holders; provision of training to smallholder farmers; and direct support to farming households to assist them in income generating activities were also suspended as part of the unilateral coercive measures imposed on the country.[8] Moreover, the agricultural sector has been deeply constrained with the cash crisis as newly resettled farmers are struggling to buy equipment and input supplies for their crops leading to food shortages for the nation. Some irrigation schemes which had sustained the lives of a substantial number of rural people have been dealt a heavy operational blow, which has resulted in increased levels of poverty in the rural population. The “resultant decline in economic activity emanating from the unilateral coercive measures has given rise to external debt payment arrears and high country risk, which in turn, have adverse effects on economic activity”.[9]

Water shortages persist in most parts of the country with residents resorting to unsafe sources of water such as open wells.[10]  For example, according to the Baseline Survey, conducted by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission in early 2014, the situation in an area called Lower Gweru in the Midlands Province was found to be precarious with high levels of water pollution as has become the norm in most urban centres countrywide. This is because the local authorities have gradually lost capacity and are discharging raw sewage into rivers thereby affecting peri-urban and rural communities. This perilous situation has resulted in no access to safe potable water, outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases, skin diseases, cancers and fish poisoning especially in the waters of Umguza and Gweru Rivers. The right to a clean and healthy environment is consequently being violated inLower Gweru. Various communities are embittered with the levels of water pollution that they are experiencing due to the lack of capacity to deliver adequate services by most local authorities following the imposition of Unilateral Coercive Measures.

According to the Baseline Survey mentioned above, the local authorities have by and large been unable to supply clean and safe drinking water to the residents. The impact of sanctions has also crippled electricity power generation capabilities. As a consequence, there are water shortages and rationing which are partly caused by incessant power cuts by the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA). The shortage of clean and safe drinking water as already mentioned has resulted in outbreaks of cholera and other diarrhea-related diseases caused by waterborne vectors. Power cuts and unreliable urban water supply have contributed to more labour demands at household level with women increasingly focusing on the practical needs of the household while also participating in the informal sector economy to eke out a living.  There were large outbreaks of disease in 2002,[11] and in 2008 more than 4,000 people died from cholera across Zimbabwe.[12] The shortage of clean and safe drinking water violates the right to water, right to sanitation, right to health and right to life. In January and February 2014, a total of 37 cases of typhoid were reported country wide.[13]

4.2.3.   Right to Education

Education is pivotal to the growth and development of any nation as it is the epitome of any society and the economic development of a country. It is a vital right which every country must adhere to and fully realize in the promotion and protection of human rights. Dating back to 1996 the education sector embarked on expansion programmes which were donor funded. Since the inception of unilateral coercive measures which were first applied in Zimbabwe in 2000, no new programmes were funded up to 2009.[14] Once again donors withdrew their funding following the unilateral coercive measures imposed on the country. The aforesaid projects had greatly assisted the country in the supply of textbooks for special education needs, construction of school buildings, capacity building generally and promotion of gender equity in education in the rural areas.[15]

As an example of progressive support, the Swedish Government established the Education Sector Support Programme at a cost of $13.9 million in 1996. The project supported the purchase of text books for special needs education and construction of school buildings and capacity building. However after 2000 the funding was suspended leaving a large gap that has eroded the enjoyment of socio-economic rights in education by the general public.

4.2.4.   Right to Health

In the areas of other social services such as the health sector, over the years Zimbabwe’s efforts had been sustained through the support of international partnership programmes in the fight against diseases and the improvement of the sector. However, the imposition of unilateral coercive measures led to the withdrawal of support by some donors. For instance the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) suspended the following Health Services Support Programmes:

(a)  Supporting the Provincial Health Service Capacity Building and Policy Issues to Ministry of Health & Child Welfare (MOHCW);

(b)  Development of a Gender Strategy Support to HIV/AIDS Activities;

(c)  Integration of Zimbabwe Essential Drugs Action Program (ZEDAP) to National Laboratories;

(d)  Establishment of the Health Information System; and

(e)  Support to the Health Services Fund Transport Management.

In addition, health sector programmes which were funded by the Swedish Government with the aim of improving water and sanitation, health education, condition of the disabled and prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS related diseases were stopped once the sanctions were applied on Zimbabwe.  The City of Harare Health Department used to benefit immensely from various Joint Research Projects with international partnerships. However, their withdrawal has left a huge gap which has constrained the delivery of services in the health sector.

Therefore, the cumulative effect of unilateral coercive measures on the health sector has led to the deterioration in the maintenance of public hospitals, clinics and support for health workers, resulting in the collapse of social services within the sector. Recent research has indicated that life expectancy plummeted to an all-time low of 37 years. Infant mortality rate rose from 70/1000 to 132/1000 by 2005 and over 250/1000 by 2008 and now stands at 57/1000 which is still high by international standards.  Severe underfunding of the health sector and a debilitating brain drain resulted in drug and staff shortages. The health crisis in Zimbabwe has led to the unnecessary loss of life due to diseases such as cholera, measles, malaria and typhoid.

The Baseline Survey carried out by the ZHRC which I referred to earlier, revealed that the right to health was not being fully realized and enjoyed. This was attributed to the shortage of medicines for chronic illnesses in all provinces such as the ARV paediatric formula.

4.2.5.   Impact on Vulnerable Population Groups

Whenever economies perform poorly, vulnerable populations bear the brunt of the hardships. The increase in the high incidents of early child marriages can be attributed to the effects of coercive measures as the tendency now is to marry off the girl child for payment of bride price to the family in need. 21% of children mostly girls are married before the age of 18 according to the Zimbabwe Multiple Indicator Monitoring Survey. The reasons for child marriages are diverse, including culture and religion but this has since been exacerbated by sanctions. However, poverty also accounts for some of the child marriages according to the Survey.  UNICEF launched a 2005-2010 Survey[16] in Zimbabwe which highlighted the plight of women and children in a faltering economy and in terms of access to services. The report’s highlights are that endemic poverty and HIV/AIDS have contributed to high levels of vulnerability on women and children in Zimbabwe. This further buttresses the negative effects of the coercive measures on the groups such as women and children.

In addition, the lack of bilateral aid as a result of the economic embargo imposed on Zimbabwe coupled with limited resources within the country has serious underpinnings on government’s capacity to provide basic services to the ordinary Zimbabwean. Certain institutions such as prisons have been the lower end recipients of this brunt of limited capacity.Some prisoners have faced appalling conditions, acute shortage of food and clothing, and disease outbreaks in the prisons. This plight for prisoners is in sharp contrast to the supreme law of Zimbabwe. The supreme law or Constitution dictates that, the conditions of imprisonment must be consistent with human dignity, including the opportunity for physical exercise, adequate accommodation, ablution facilities, personal hygiene, nutrition and medical treatment. The paucity of all these has sadly led to unprecedented occurrence of Prison riots and break outs such as the Chikurubi Maximum Prison riots of March 2015, which claimed 5 lives and left many injured including prison officers.

5.    Conclusion

In principle the present Unilateral Coercive Measures against Zimbabwe are said to have been imposed in order to establish democracy, promote human rights and enhance the rule of law in Zimbabwe. However, contrary to the belief that sanctions were to compel the government of Zimbabwe to promote democracy and human rights, they are in fact the worst perpetrators of these lofty ideals. My experience is that they target the poor, disempower civil society groups and undermine the enjoyment of fundamental human rights in all the forms unimaginable. The resultant effects of sanctions threaten human dignity and security and also deny Zimbabweans the capabilities to enjoy descent and dignified lives as prescribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various other international conventions and treaties on human rights.

In order to sustain a balance in the promotion, protection and enforcement of human rights across the global divide and indeed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030, it is my view and recommendation to world leaders that political differences should be resolved through constructive engagement and not by application of gunboat diplomacy typified by imposition of Unilateral Coercive Measures. Such methods of engagement should necessarily in my humble opinion, incorporate a human rights-based approach that should be linked to issues of practical concern to citizens, including access to potable water, food, education, health care and employment which are all fundamental rights enshrined in international and national human rights instruments. My partying shot, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished colleagues is that all countries in the global village, big or small are enjoined to respect, protect and promote human rights.


Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on Human Rights in Zimbabwe – Paper Presented By Elasto. H. Mugwadi, Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, Geneva, Switzerland, 21 June 2016