UK’s new post-Brexit sanctions on Zimbabwe: old baggage weighs on country’s debt, Commonwealth plans

Leaving with baggage: Dominic Raab says UK's sanctions 'a clear message' to Zim

The UK has imposed its first sanctions against Zimbabwe since leaving the European Union, imposing a ban on four officials for what it calls “egregious human rights violations”.

The step continues an old rift with Zimbabwe, which had appeared close to healing when Robert Mugabe was overthrown in 2017. Crucially, it further dims Zimbabwe’s already slim prospects of winning support for debt relief or readmission to the Commonwealth, two key targets of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s foreign policy over the past two years.

In a statement Monday, the UK cited rights violations during protests in 2019, which the UK says “saw protestors killed for expressing right to free speech and protest”.

Britain said it would impose a ban and asset freeze against Owen Ncube, Minister for State Security, Isaac Moyo, Director General of the Central Intelligence Organisation, Police Commissioner Godwin Matanga, and Anselem Sanyatwe, the former commander of the Presidential Guard and now ambassador.

“Sanctions go hand-in-hand with UK efforts to hold the Government of Zimbabwe to account and to make good on its promise to deliver much-needed crucial reforms,” the British foreign office said in a statement.

One of the first major powers to openly welcome Mnangagwa’s administration in November 2017, the UK has increasingly grown cold on the government following its violent crackdown on protests.

The UK’s latest measures were expected. The British government announced in April 2019 that it had drafted regulations to keep sanctions against Zimbabwe in place when Britain eventually concluded its exit from the European Union. These regulations, the UK said then, were “intended to ensure that the UK can operate an effective sanctions regime in relation to Zimbabwe after the UK leaves the EU”.

[ALSO READ: Britain prepares post-Brexit sanctions law for Zimbabwe]

In 2019, John Culley, political counsellor at the British embassy in Harare, said the regulations did not not reflect a new set of sanctions, but “a technical measure to rollover existing EU measures. There will be similar measures for all countries or entities under EU restrictions”.

The new sanctions came under the UK’s Zimbabwe autonomous sanctions regime, which became effective on 31 December 2020.

Travel ban

The UK says the four cannot freely travel to the UK, channel money through UK banks, “or profit from our economy”.

UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab said: “These sanctions send a clear message that we will hold to account those responsible for the most egregious human rights violations, including the deaths of innocent Zimbabweans.”

The UK’s statement goes out of its way to strenuously explain that the measures are only targeted at the four officials, and not Zimbabwe.

These restrictive measures, “are not targeted at, nor intended to impact, the wider economy and the people of Zimbabwe.”

The UK went on: “Contrary to claims by those who seek to stop institutional reform and respect for human rights in Zimbabwe, these sanctions will not deter investment into the country. Instead, UK investors repeatedly highlight three concerns that prevent them from investing in Zimbabwe: poorly-managed currency; arbitrary property rights and the legal system.”

The FCO added that it would continue to send aid to Zimbabwe, and that this support would not be given to the Government of Zimbabwe.

EU, US cold shoulder

UK-Zimbabwe relations collapsed when Zimbabwe began land reform in 2000. In 2003, in a rage after criticism from the Commonwealth, Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the grouping. The country applied to be readmited after Mnangagwa came to power.

However, as relations sour yet again, Zimbabwe’s chances look dim. To be admitted, a country needs all members to vote in its favour, and UK said in February 2019 that it would vote against Zimbabwe. The UK’s then Foreign Secretary, Harriet Baldwin, also said Britain would vote against any debt relief for Zimbabwe.

The EU has maintained sanctions on Zimbabwe since 2002, when it cited human rights abuses in the run up to that year’s disputed presidential elections.

Over the years, the EU has alternately tightened and relaxed the sanctions in response to Zimbabwe’s political situation. The sanctions are mainly travel restrictions on government officials and trade embargoes on the Zimbabwe Defence Industries.

The EU is expected to retain its measures when it does its annual sanctions review on Zimbabwe this month. US sanctions, which are harsher than EU measures, are also renewed every year.