The Limitations of International Laws: Zimbabwe Case Study
The Limitations of International Laws: Zimbabwe Case Study

A historic, peaceful election was held in Zimbabwe on March 29th 2008. Morgan Tsvangirai , head of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won by a small margin against incumbent Robert Mugabe, head of the ruling, Zanu-PF party. Nonetheless a run-off election was held on June 27th, 2008. Unfortunately, the violence and human rights abuses associated with the run-off elections are not new. In fact, Mugabe has used both to stay in power during his 28-year rule.

With most of the world calling the June 27, 2008 elections a sham, Mugabe’s legitimacy has further deteriorated and  much-needed international aid has been cut-off. Mugabe may soon need to compromise and respond to international pressure.

Zimbabwe, a former British colony known as Southern Rhodesia, has historically favored a white minority, by restricting black access to land and power. Following a guerillas uprising and UN sanctions, Zimbabwe won its independence in 1979 and Mugabe was elected Prime Minister. He later became Zimbabwe’s president in 1987 (after changing the constitution). Mugabe has stayed in power by co-opting opposition leaders, intimidating, imprisoning, torturing, and killing other opposition leaders and supporters.

In 2000, Independence War veterans seized hundreds of white-owned farms stating that these farms were illegally taken by colonialists.1 Many view the seizure of these farms as one of the root causes of Zimbabwe’s economic downturn, since the commercial farming sector was severely damaged, resulting in Zimbabwe becoming a net food importer.

Economic troubles, such as inflation, high interest rates, and an unsustainable fiscal deficit, have plagued Zimbabwe for nearly 30 years. A six-year war with neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (1998-2002) depleted the treasury of millions of dollars. In response, the government just printed more money leading to a state of hyperinflation. The rate of inflation rose 32 percent in 1998, 133 percent in 2004, more than 1000 percent in 2006, 26,000 percent as of November 2007 and it keeps climbing.2 Prices for food, fuel, and basic commodities increase multiple times per day, making the paper money nearly worthless, unless spent immediately.

Coupled with the human right abuses and the devastated economy is mass migration of Zimbabweans. “Operation Murambatsvina” or “Operation Clear the Filth,” took place in 2005 after the elections in which the MDC gained much support, especially from those living in slums. During the operation, the Zimbabwe government destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and more than 700,000 people were tortured.

More than 1.5 million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa. South Africa though has not recognized them as refugees; hence they do not receive health care, social services, housing, and education. Those that are caught are often refouled (unlawfully returned to their home country). Human Rights Watch has called upon South Africa to allow Zimbabweans to enter legally into the country and to be afforded rights given to refugees and for the international community to help South Africa cover the costs of doing so.3

International Response and Intervention
Different international bodies, such as the IMF and the United Nations, regional organizations, such as the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as well individual countries, have all tried to intervene in Zimbabwe to punish human rights abuses and/or to encourage change of government policy, as well to provide aid and relief to citizens of Zimbabwe.

International Monetary Fund (IMF)
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has tried the carrot-and-stick approach to influence the Mugabe regime to make changes throughout Zimbabwe’s history. Strains in the Zimbabwe-IMF relationship date back to 1999 when the IMF withheld aid, due to the war with the Congo and the devaluation of the currency. At that time the African Development Bank and the World Bank followed the IMF’s lead. Zimbabwe stopped paying back all foreign loans in 2001. In 2003, Zimbabwe’s IMF voting rights were suspended and the process for its expulsion from the IMF began.

So, Zimbabwe started paying back its $295 million dollar debt and developed a new monetary policy to slow its annual inflation rate; the IMF expulsion was temporarily delayed. In 2005, Zimbabwe paid $120 million dollars to the IMF to reduce its debt; its suspension process stopped in 2006 after Zimbabwe settled its arrears.4 While the threat of expulsion influenced Zimbabwe to start paying back its debt and temporarily change it monetary policy, the root problem was not addressed and hyperinflation continued. Since the June 2008 elections, the IMF’s plans have not been declared.

The African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Committee (SADC)
The AU has traditionally provided cover for the Mugabe regime. Non-intervention in Zimbabwe has been the usual AU response to atrocities committed there. For example, during the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina, the AU rejected calls to put pressure on Zimbabwe to stop demolishing homes and markets.5

Hence the recent AU criticisms of the June 27th elections were welcomed by the international community. The AU called for Mugabe to agree to a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai. Some countries went even further, Bostwana called for a suspension of Zimbabwe from the AU. The AU also called for further mediation by the SADC.6

Similar to the AU, the SADC, an alliance of 14 African countries, has usually been silent about Zimbabwe’s atrocities. The SADC has chosen instead to mediate conflicts with Zimbabwe. Lead negotiator, South African President Thabo Mbeki has not been successful in yielding concrete results. An SADC meeting held in response to the June 27th 2008 elections was boycotted by South Africa and Angola, ensuring its obsolescence.

European and US response
The US and the EU have different responses. The EU has stated that it will not accept any government in Zimbabwe, unless it is led by Tsvangirai. The U.S. has called for an arms embargo, as well as travel and financial measures against officials who undermined the elections.7

One European country that has taken concrete steps to address the current crisis is Germany. The German public and German government have pressured Giesecke & Devrient (G&D), Zimbabwe’s main paper money supplier, to cut off of Zimbabwe’s supply of dollar bills. In the past months, G&D made weekly deliveries of 432,000 sheets of banknotes to Zimbabwe, equivalent to nearly $173 trillion Zimbabwe dollars ($32 million at that time).8

Moving Forward
A spring 2008 IMF meeting devised a three-pronged approach for Zimbabwe in case of regime change: 1) restoration of its currency with a $1bn currency stablisation fund; 2) a humanitarian assistance package delivered by the World Bank; and 3) land reform.9

The question is what to do if there is no regime change? International law, as carried out by international organizations, has not been able to force changes in Zimbabwe in the sphere of human rights and economic policy. Mugabe’s regime has weathered past elections and has been able to maintain a certain level of legitimacy, with membership in many international organizations, such as the IMF and the AU.

Trading partners, such as China, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Botswana have not exerted much pressure in the last few months to try to ensure a free and fair elections. South Africa’s efforts have only further propped up the regime, since the mediations have not resulted in any major changes. Similar to Darfur, the Mugabe regime must be pressured by its major trading partners and allies or else it will continue to reign.

1 Allen, Paddy. “Zimbabwe at the Crossroads.” The Guardian. April 14th, 2008.
2 Zimbabwe. CIA Factbook.
4 Altman, Daniel. “IMF gains attention of Mugabe with threat.” International Herald Tribune. September 8, 2005.
5 “Africa rejects action on Zimbabwe.” BBC. June 24th, 2005.
6 Abwao, Kennedy. “African Union Calls for Settlement in Zimbabwe.” New York Times. July 2nd, 2008.
7 Ibid.
8 Bate, Roger. “How inflation may topple Mugabe.” Wall Street Journal. July 7th, 2008.
9 McGreal, Chris. “What the aid agencies plan.” The Guardian. April 14th, 2008.

* Pictures of Zimbabwe victim of torture and of Zimbabwe dollars are from

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