Biden Ends Zimbabwe Sanctions Program — But Stops Short of a Total Reversal

March 05, 2024

On Monday, March 4, President Biden signed an executive order terminating the Treasury Department’s Zimbabwe sanctions program and the over two-decade-old national emergency declaration that underlay it.

The move is an effective recognition of the senselessness of these economic sanctions, and will provide welcome and much-needed relief for a sanctions-starved Zimbabwean economy. But it comes with significant limits.

Treasury’s Zimbabwe sanctions program began in 2003 when then president George W. Bush declared a national emergency, claiming that the actions of the Zimbabwean government and certain Zimbabwean individuals “constitute[d] an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.” While the declaration cited alleged democratic erosion and a breakdown in the rule of law, opponents of the sanctions have long considered that their primary motivation was punishment for the government’s postcolonial land reform program, which expropriated the farms of many white large landowners for redistribution to Black subsistence farmers — punishment for Zimbabwe for taking action, and a possible threat to post-apartheid South Africa, lest they consider the same.

Under the authority of this declaration, Bush and his successors imposed sanctions on well over 100 individuals and organizations, including economically important actors such as the state mining corporation. Though certainly not as broad as other US sanctions programs, like those against Cuba or Iran, the Bush sanctions prohibited transactions with major businesses and state officials. For a low-income country with an economy heavily concentrated in a few sectors, these were bound to have far-reaching, deleterious effects. Multiple UN human rights experts have argued that “The human rights of ordinary Zimbabweans suffer greatly from the consequences of sanctions,” and that “sanctions and various forms of over-compliance with sanctions have had an insidious ripple effect on the economy … and on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.”

Citing a desire to make clear that “our sanctions are not intended to target the people of Zimbabwe,” Monday’s executive order terminated the national emergency declaration, thereby effectively lifting sanctions on about 120 individuals and entities. At the same time, the administration used its authorities under the Global Magnitsky Act — which allows for sanctions on individuals alleged to be responsible for certain human rights abuses and acts of corruption — to reimpose sanctions on 12 individuals and entities, and newly impose sanctions on two more.

This leaves 14 Zimbabwean individuals and entities under Magnitsky sanctions, including the president, the vice president, and the first lady, the heads of police, intelligence, and defense, and prominent businessman Kuda Tagwirei and others linked to the Fossil Group conglomerate, which includes Fossil Contracting, Fossil Agro, and Fossil Mines. One additional Zimbabwean entity, a safari company, is designated under separate authorities, for alleged ties to a sanctioned Venezuelan businessman.

This appears to be a significant reduction in the scope of sanctions on Zimbabwe, and will likely be a boon for the civilians who inevitably bear the costs of broad sanctions regimes. However, the remaining sanctions, including those targeting top officials, may still have significant spillover effects. Overcompliance — in which foreign individuals and corporations avoid even technically permitted activities out of fear of violating sanctions — remains a particular concern

More importantly, the Zimbabwean economy will continue to be stifled by the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA). Passed by the US Congress in 2001, ZDERA makes it US policy to oppose IMF, World Bank, and other multilateral development financing for Zimbabwe until a set of conditions are met, including the holding of free and fair elections, the restoration of private property rights, and a commitment to “equitable, legal, and transparent land reform.” As an act of Congress, ZDERA can only be overturned by congressional authority.

It’s unclear what prompted the sudden policy shift. Perhaps there is a genuine recognition that the main product of economic sanctions is civilian suffering; that there is little evidence that sanctions achieve their stated policy aims; that unilateral sanctions are widely considered to be a violation of international law; or that the claim that the situation in Zimbabwe has merited a two-decade “national emergency” in the United States is patently baseless. [Multiple congressional efforts over the years have tried to rein in these indefinite national emergency powers.]

Or perhaps not. After all, the president maintains the most comprehensive and deadly sanctions regimes, such as the Cuba embargo — proof enough that humanitarian impacts are not a primary concern.

One actual possibility is that the end of the sanctions program is tied to developments in the contentious land reform compensation fight. White landowners that had had their property expropriated as a part of the land reform process have sought billions of dollars in compensation — billions that the heavily indebted country decidedly does not have. Under international pressure, the government agreed to a $3.5 billion compensation deal (referred to by some as “reverse reparations”) in 2020, but up to now, the exact details have remained unsettled.

Alternatively, amid outrage across the continent over the administration’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza, the move may be meant as a concession to the demands of African leaders who have long viewed the Zimbabwe sanctions as a neocolonial imposition and an affront to the sovereignty of African nations. If so, the change should be seen as a victory for unity and solidarity in the Global South.

Whatever the motivation, and despite falling far short of a disavowal of unilateral sanctions as a tool, the end of the previous Zimbabwe sanctions program is, above all, a victory for the Zimbabwean people, and a rare step in the right direction for the Biden administration’s sanctions policy. Hopefully it will not be the last.

Support Cepr


If you value CEPR's work, support us by making a financial contribution.

Si valora el trabajo de CEPR, apóyenos haciendo una contribución financiera.

Donate Apóyanos

Keep up with our latest news