The symbolic hypocrisy of the EU’s Mugabe sanctions

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The European Union has lifted almost all its sanctions against Zimbabwe’s political and business elite. With one rather significant exception: Mugabe is still on the blacklist (no pun intended, although it might just be appropriate), and he would be well within his rights to wonder what he’s done to deserve this special attention. Sure, he’s a brutal, oppressive autocrat, but he’s not the only one.

There was a time, not so long ago, when 203 Zimbabwean people and companies were blacklisted by the European Union, caught up in the ‘targeted sanctions’ designed to punish the Zimbabwean government’s human rights violations and encourage regime change. Those on the list were, in theory, prevented from travelling to the European Union, or doing business there, and their assets were frozen.

As of Monday, there are now just three names left on that list: Comrade-in-Chief Robert Gabriel Mugabe; his wife, Grace; and Zimbabwe Defence Suppliers, an arms dealer. As the political situation in Zimbabwe has stabilised, so the European Union has quietly rewarded Zimbabwe’s top businessmen and ruling elite by lifting the restrictions against most of them.

As sanctions go, these were always mostly symbolic, and their targets didn’t seem to mind all that much. Switzerland and its secret banks aren’t part of the EU anyway, and why shop in London when Dubai stocks the same ranges, and doesn’t ask any awkward questions? Mugabe himself seems to prefer Singapore, anyway – he’s there now seeking medical attention, while Grace does her thing on Orchard Road.

In fact, being on the sanctions list was something of a point of pride for members of Zimbabwe’s ruling party; a shout-out from the hated European colonialists didn’t hurt anyone’s popularity with the Zimbabwean electorate.

Nor did the sanctions achieve any kind of broader purpose. As Joe Devanny argues in Think Africa Press, the sanctions “ultimately showcased EU foreign policy at its most ineffective and increasingly unjustifiable” and were “never part of carefully-calibrated, coordinated, multilateral efforts to either change the behaviour of the Mugabe government or precipitate regime change”.

In addition, the sanctions are porous, and remain so. In March last year, Mugabe attended the inauguration of Pope Francis in the Vatican City. The Vatican City is not an EU member, but to get there, he had to land at Rome’s Leonardo Do Vinci Airport and transit through the Italian capital. Italy most definitely is part of the EU, but opted not to prevent Mugabe’s travel.

This year, Mugabe has been given the green light to attend the EU-Africa summit. The sanctions will be temporarily lifted to allow the president to travel to Brussels. In fairness to the EU, it was given little choice in the matter: African countries took a joint position that they would all boycott the summit if Mugabe was not allowed to attend this year.

Mugabe’s presence is important because he was elected in January to one of the top jobs in the African Union, as first deputy chair of the AU executive council. This effectively puts him in line to take over as AU Chairperson next year. Whether Europe likes it or not, Mugabe is taking on more and more of an African statesman role – and, in all likelihood, those sanctions will have to be bent even further next year to accommodate his presence at significant conferences and events.

For the EU, it is an unenviable position to be in. On the one hand, the EU is trying to send a firm message to Zimbabwe’s leader that his leadership is not acceptable. On the other, African heads of state have chosen him as a role model – completely undermining the EU position. Complicating things further is that the EU funds 50% of the AU’s budget. In effect, the EU is nowsponsoring Mugabe’s elevation to continental statesmanship.

The situation is particularly fraught for UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is under strong domestic pressure to boycott the summit because of Mugabe’s presence. “If he [Mr Mugabe] now is to be there, then I would call on our Prime Minister to follow the principled lead of his predecessor Gordon Brown,” said Kate Hoey, a Labour MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe. In 2007, then-Prime Minister Brown refused to attend the 2007 EU-Africa summit in Lisbon because Mugabe was also attending. Various civil society groups have echoed Hoey’s call.

The evident discomfort of EU politicians may also have something to do with the uncomfortable hypocrisy of their position on Zimbabwe. As Zimbabwean academic and journalist Miles Tendi-Blessing explains, in a Guardian column urging Cameron to attend the summit regardless of Mugabe:

“It would be hypocritical to boycott because of Mugabe’s presence and yet say nothing about the participation of Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is accused by the International Criminal Court of orchestrating post-election violence in 2007-8 in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Other likely attendees, such as Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang, Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh and Swaziland’s King Mwati III, to mention a few, are hardly paragons of human rights protection either. The more the UK unevenly interferes in the affairs of African states in the name of advancing human rights, the more it undermines the advance of the human rights doctrine in Africa.”

For some reason, though, both the UK and the EU have singled out Zimbabwe for special attention. And even as the EU relaxes sanctions against the country, the fixation on Mugabe remains. Sure, he is a deeply flawed leader, but then, he’s not the only one. Where are the sanctions against Obiang? Why is Chad’s Idriss Deby feted in Paris? Why is David Cameron happy to shakes hands and smile for the cameras with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah?

Perhaps it’s that Europe can afford to alienate Zimbabwe, which is of little economic significance. Or perhaps it’s more insidious than that: unlike any other African leader, some (but certainly not all) of Mugabe’s crimes were committed against white people, which makes him that much more dangerous to the jaundiced eyes of European electorates.

Does Mugabe deserve to be sanctioned? Absolutely. As every human rights report from the last decade will tell you, he’s a nasty piece of work. But he’s not the only one. And as long as Europe singles him out for special attention, while embracing others of his ilk, the sanctions actually work in his favour. With justification, Mugabe can claim he is a victim, while Europe’s moral standing (dubious at the best of time) is eroded by its hypocrisy. All we’re asking for is a little consistency – and if that’s too much, then it is might be time to forget this whole charade.

By Simon Allison

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo by Reuters.

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

Allison graduated from Rhodes University