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Sanctions May be Key to Political Reform in Zimbabwe

At a recent meeting of the Southern African Development Community in Dar Es Salaam, SADC leaders called on western countries to lift so-called targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe blames the sanctions for the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, an allegation rejected by the western governments. But as Tendai Maphosa reports for VOA from London, SADC leaders hope to link the ending of the sanctions to political reform in Zimbabwe.

Southern Africa leaders hope to win the support of Britain and other western nations to use the promise of ending targeted sanctions against President Robert Mugabe and his senior supporters as an incentive to keep him to his commitment of joining negotiations for political reform in his country. Chris Landsberg, Director of Johannesburg's Center for Policy Studies, says that the leaders' plan also foresees Mr. Mugabe's retirement.

"[They told Mugabe] we will engage the West to end isolation in exchange for working on an exit strategy for you, backed up thirdly by a political negotiation with the opposition," he said.

Western countries, including the United States and Britain, imposed the sanctions in 2002 in response to what they perceived as widespread human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, repression of the opposition and rigged parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000 and 2002.

In a recent address to the British House of Commons, minister of state for trade, Ian McCartney, argued that the sanctions are strictly targeted, and imposed on specific individuals in the Mugabe government for alleged human rights abuses.

"The EU does have an arms sales ban, and a travel ban and an assets freeze on leading members of the regime," he noted. "But while these targeted measures have had no impact on the Zimbabwean economy, they show that the EU is serious about human rights."

Alex Vines is head of the Africa program at London's Chatham House, an international research organization. He even doubts whether the targeted sanctions have any influence at all on events in Zimbabwe.

"Sanctions in themselves won't change anything, they are an incentive for change, but my view is that change in Zimbabwe can't be influenced by the West at all, the West has very little influence over domestic events inside Zimbabwe," he said.

While the sanctions have not influenced political reform in Zimbabwe, those targeted by them, including Mr. Mugabe, frequently rail against them and use them as excuses for the rapid decline in the country's economy. Zimbabwe has the world's fastest shrinking economy and highest inflation rate at over 1,700 percent.

Zimbabwean information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu insists the sanctions, rather than targeting certain individuals, are imposed broadly to prevent western business from engaging with Zimbabwe.

"They use the term targeted sanctions, yet any company that deals with Zimbabwe they have been threatened; ordered not to deal with Zimbabwe," he explained. "External financial institutions and banks have been told not to deal with Zimbabwe as such IMF stopped bilateral balance of payment support so that the country does not have foreign currency, these targeted sanctions are a smokescreen."

Ndlovu acknowledges that British companies are still operating in Zimbabwe, but he says some of these are trying to sabotage the Zimbabwean economy to promote regime change in the country. Analysts such as Vines dismiss these claims as rhetoric by the government designed to distract attention from its responsibility for the economic crisis the country is experiencing.

But Southern African leaders, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, are likely hoping that Mr. Mugabe's strong views on the sanctions can be translated into cooperation at the negotiating table, if he can be convinced that by doing so, the sanctions will be lifted.