BY MOSES MATENGA
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s dream to end Zimbabwe’s over two-decade-long international isolation suffered yet another blow after the United States gave a damning assessment of his government’s human rights record, political analysts say.
Mnangagwa, who took over from the late Robert Mugabe following a military coup in 2007 amid promises of a “new and unfolding democracy”, made re-engagement with the West as the centre piece of his government’s foreign policy.
His administration hired Western public relations firms to
lobby Washington to soften its stance on Zimbabwe after the US sanctioned the Mugabe regime for alleged human rights violations and electoral fraud.
Relations between Harare and Washington, however, have remained frosty with new US President Joe Biden renewing targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe last month citing Mnangagwa’s reluctance to reform.
A damning country report on human rights practices in 2020 by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour released last week singled out Zimbabwe as one of the countries where the human rights situation is deteriorating.
The report raised alleged red flag over gross human rights violations that include torture and other degrading treatment of government critics by security forces.
Blessing Vava, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition director, said prospects of re-engagement with the West were diminished by the government’s reluctance to reform and continuing human rights violations.
“The re-engagement process failed at the very moment when the Mnangagwa administration embarked on an onslaught of human rights abuses, beginning with the August 1 shootings, then the January 2019 protests,” Vava said.
“It thus shows that the re-engagement itself is insincere and a waste of time because the regime has absolutely no appetite to reform.”
Wellington Gadzikwa, a University of Zimbabwe media studies lecturer, said the Biden administration will not entertain any re-engagement manoeuvres with Harare without any credible reforms.
Gadzikwa said the re-engagement process was “dead”.
“It means the re-engagement as was pushed by (the late Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso) SB Moyo might as well have died with him and I don’t think it is still viable,” he said.
“It also seems Zimbabwe is no longer that keen on re-engagement, especially with the Biden administration.
“(The Biden administration) is clear on human rights unlike the Trump administration, which was more focused on business.
“Zimbabwe’s re-engagement efforts will not work as proposed because the US places emphasis on respect for human rights.
“We are still a long way to go in terms of reengagement and it must also imply how the US influences its allies like the United Kingdom to maintain the same stance against Harare.”
Lovemore Madhuku, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) leader, said although human rights violations were a major problem in Zimbabwe, there was no need for the US to sanction the country.
“The findings of the United States on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe are correct and everyone wants a situation where we don’t continue on that path,” Madhuku said.
“The re-engagement efforts must not be affected by the human rights issues.
“There must continue to be re-engagement, but the fact that there are human rights abuses must not justify the continuation of sanctions.”
The NCA leader, who is part of Mnangagwa’s controversial Political Actors Dialogue (Polad) platform, said the only way to address the human rights issue was to push for reforms.
“Their approach to punish by imposing sanctions is not the way,” Madhuku added.
“You keep pointing them out and ensuring that Zimbabweans themselves are alert.
“For example, let us convince those that continue to vote for Zanu PF not to do so and let us continue to have reforms and push for electoral reforms and political reforms so that the next elections will be better and ultimately the solution to end all this is to change the government in the future.
“You can’t continue to have a government that is always accused of human rights abuses, day in day out.
“It shows that our people on the ground do not happen to understand that ultimately it lies with them, not the Americans imposing sanctions or issuing the report.
“The (US) report will not change anything.”
US secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden’s administration had “placed human rights at the front and centre” of its foreign policy.
Washington was particularly concerned about the spate of abductions by suspected state security agents, who targeted MDC Alliance and civil society activists.
“(Non-governmental organisations reported security forces abducted, assaulted and tortured citizens in custody, including targeted assault on and torture of civil society activists, labour leaders, opposition members and other perceived opponents of the government,” the report says.
“Human rights groups reported government agents continued to perpetrate physical and psychological torture on labour leaders and opposition members during abductions.
“Reported torture methods included sexual assault, beating victims with sticks, clubs, cables, gun butts and sjamboks (a heavy whip), falanga (beating the soles of the feet), forced consumption of human excrement and oral chemical poisoning, as well as pouring corrosive substances on exposed skin.”
Last year suspected state security agents allegedly abducted MDC Alliance legislator Joana Mamombe together with fellow opposition activists Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri.
The trio were allegedly sexually abused while in captivity. After their release Mnangagwa’s government charged them with faking their abduction.
Their treatment led to an international outcry with United Nations experts accusing Zimbabwe of using the cover of Covid-19 restrictions to close the democratic space.
The US also accused security forces of acting with impunity and in a partisan manner when dealing with government critics.
“Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces and the civilian authorities, who oversee them, including police, military and intelligence officers,” the report added.
“To date, no one has answered for disappearances, civilian deaths, rape, abduction or torture allegations from the 1980s to as recently as November (2020).
“Security forces were firmly under the control of the ruling party and were often directed against the political opposition.”
Besides the US, the European Union and the United Kingdom have an active sanctions regime against Zimbabwe.
In January, the UK introduced its own set of targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe after leaving the EU at the end of last year.
London slapped travel bans and asset freezes against State Security minister Owen Ncube, Central Intelligence Organisation chief Isaac Moyo, Zimbabwe Republic Police commissioner general Godwin Matanga and Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Tanzania Anselem Sanyatwe for their roles in the 2018 and 2019 killings of protesters.
Zimbabwe maintains that the sanctions are illegal and unjustified. Since coming into power, Mnangagwa has sought the help of regional bodies such as the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to support the lobby against the sanctions.
The campaign, however, has largely been ignored by Western countries who continue to insist on reforms and respect for human rights in Zimbabwe.