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SALC Policy Brief: The Imposition of International Sanctions on Zimbabwe

By 18 July 2019December 28th, 2022International Justice, Research Reports & Policy Briefs, Zimbabwe11 min read

The Imposition of International Sanctions on Zimbabwe


Economic sanctions are commercial and financial penalties imposed by countries against a targeted self-governing state, group, or individual with the aim of changing the behaviour of political elites in the target country. Zimbabwe has been under sanctions since 2002. The stated intention of these sanctions is to impose restrictions on Zimbabwean individuals and entities which have not upheld the rule of law and have participated in human rights abuses. Similar sanctions worked well to bring Apartheid South Africa to its knees despite the harsh effect on ordinary South Africans. Sanctions against the apartheid government were in place for decades and were regarded by anti-apartheid liberation movements as an invaluable aid in the struggle against apartheid.

Zimbabwe is not alone in this regard and there are currently international and UN sanctions in place on these countries on account of inter alia terrorism, use of chemical weapons and malicious cyber activities:  Afghanistan, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Burma/Myanmar, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, DRC, Egypt, Eritrea, Yugoslavia, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Moldova, Montenegro, North Korea, Russia, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen. These sanctions have made it difficult for government to access lines of credit, debt relief and directly affects the country’s ability to meet its fiduciary obligations. The sanctions have also made it difficult for both government and private entities to access investment and financial services.

There are strong positions on either side of the sanctions issue. Some critics are of the view that they hurt the economy as well as ordinary Zimbabwean citizens, while supporters of these sanctions insist the measures are justified on account of Zimbabwe’s ongoing human rights violations as well as its failure to deliver uncontested elections in 2008, 2013 and again in 2018.


The USA has a two-pronged sanctions regime on Zimbabwe. The first is through laws like the Zimbabwean Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA). The second, is a targeted sanctions program operationalised through Presidential Executive Orders. Under these orders, several government officials and companies in which the government had interests were placed on a sanctions list. This overview will review both processes.


In early 2019 the EU relaxed sanctions against Zimbabwe but indicated that it could revise this position at any time. This was a curious position as at the time President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration was accused of deploying soldiers who fired live ammunition at unarmed civilians and committed human rights abuses.

Position of South Africa, the AU and SADC on sanctions in Zimbabwe

Both South Africa and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) have supported Zimbabwe’s calls for a relaxing of sanctions. South Africa’s ongoing failure to lead on reforms in Zimbabwe is disappointing. Following the November 2017 coup d’tat, the African Union (AU) in contravention of its position of zero tolerance of unconstitutional changes of government accepted President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s new administration. Since the AU’s founding in 2002, it has suspended eleven member states for unconstitutional change of government, yet Zimbabwe’s coup denial was accepted and in March 2019 the AU called for the removal of economic sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Response from Zimbabwe to International Sanctions

The Zimbabwe government has been promoting the lifting of international sanctions. South Africa has been supporting these efforts. The impetus for South Africa’s support of the removal of international sanctions appears to be motivated by an attempt to halt the flow of Zimbabwean economic migrants into South Africa. These are Zimbabweans who are fleeing human rights abuses as well as the economic meltdown.

Due to the sanctions also being proclaimed on private entities in the agricultural, financial and mining industry, which are the main means of Zimbabwean contribution to the formal economy, they have affected the ability of the private sector in Zimbabwe to interact or carry about any ordinary business. This is stifling its ability to make any meaningful contribution to the economy which is resulting in an overly high unemployment rate (the precise figure is uncertain). This high unemployment rate makes South Africa an easily accessible destination for those seeking employment and economic opportunities.

A Closer Look at the Sanctions Mechanisms

Zimbabwe is under three categories of economic sanctions. There are three resolutions adopted by the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union which are under the acts ZIDERA, AGOA and OFAC. In addition there are several US sanctions which target individuals and entities. The US sanctions on Zimbabwe represent the implementation of multiple legal authorities. Some of these authorities are in the form of executive orders issued by the President. Other authorities are statutes passed by Congress. These authorities are further codified by the US Treasury in its regulations.

US Sanctions

  1. Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA)

The aim of ZIDERA is to promote democracy and economic recovery in Zimbabwe per Section 2 which states that the policy of the United States is to support the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle to effect peaceful, democratic change, achieve broad-based and equitable economic growth, and restore the rule of law. It was passed in 2001 supposedly as a reaction to the Zimbabwean government not protecting the property rights of white farmers. The act was part of joint US and UK efforts to isolate Zimbabwe and cut off access to loans and financial assistance.

 These are some of the additional requirements added in the 2018 amendment:

In Respect of Pre-election conditions:

  1. Compilation and public release of a voters roll;
  2. Biometric voter registration which is endorsed by all political parties;
  3. Defence forces not be permitted to campaign, participate or intimidate voters;
  4. Civil society organisations be permitted to carry out voter and civic education and election monitoring.

An acknowledgment of these specific past atrocities and human rights abuses:

  1. Displacements and human rights abuses associated with Operation Murambatsvina;
  2. Violence perpetrated against citizens and the opposition over the 2008 elections;
  3. Acknowledgment and apologies for the atrocities of the Gukurahundi;
  4. Disappearances of human rights activists including Patrick Nabanyama, Itai Dzamara, and Paul Chizuze.

In respect of the enforcement of SADC Tribunal rulings:

SADC should enforce the SADC Tribunal rulings from 2007 to 2010, including 18 disputes involving employment, commercial, and human rights cases surrounding dispossessed Zimbabwean commercial farmers and agricultural companies.

  1. Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Since AGOA came into force in 2001, Zimbabwe has never been eligible for the market access offered under the legislation, which has been extended to 2025. The US determines whether countries in Sub-Saharan Africa meet its published eligibility requirements on an annual basis and beneficiary status can be granted, or withdrawn, at the discretion of the US President. Currently, 38 African countries are eligible for AGOA, which extends duty-free access to the US market across 6000 tariff lines.

  1. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC)

The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) administers and enforces economic sanctions imposed by the United States against foreign countries. Depending on the country, OFAC programs may freeze assets of embargoed countries, prohibit payment of funds to individuals and countries on the embargo list, or prohibit provision of services to countries subject to US sanctions.  These sanctions may require obtaining OFAC approval before conducting research or other activities in or involving the sanctioned country.  Some sanctions are more restrictive than others, and apply to the whole country, while others are specifically target certain individuals or entities within a country.  Currently, sanctioned countries include the Balkans, Belarus, Burma, Cote D’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.  OFAC can also designate persons and entities (including persons and entities in the United States) as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN list). OFAC designates persons and entities as SDNs for narcotics trafficking, weapons proliferation and other reasons.

  1. Executive Orders

 Executive Order 13288 of 2003

In 2003, then President George W Bush signed an executive order to target specific individuals whom the US determined were undermining Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions, were contributing to the deliberate breakdown in the rule of law in Zimbabwe, to politically motivate violence and intimidation. The purpose of this order is to prohibit any transactions or dealings with US citizens and these individuals including making/receiving/contributing funds, goods, or services to or for the benefit of any blocked person.

Executive Order 13391 of 2005

Current US sanctions on Zimbabwe sanctions pursuant to this executive order block the property and interests in property of listed individuals and entities. These individuals and entities need to:

  • Be a senior official of the Government of Zimbabwe;
  • Be owned or controlled by, directly or indirectly, the Government of Zimbabwe or an official or officials of the Government of Zimbabwe;
  • Have engaged in actions or policies to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions;
  • Be responsible for, or have participated in, human rights abuses related to political repression in Zimbabwe;
  • Be engaged in, or have engaged in, activities facilitating public corruption by senior officials of the Government of Zimbabwe;
  • Be a spouse or dependent child of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to E.O.s 13288, 13391, or 13469, or an immediate family member of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to E.O. 13391;
  • Have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, logistical, or technological support to the Government of Zimbabwe, any senior official or any person blocked pursuant to E.O.s 13288, 13391, or 13469; or
  • Be owned, controlled, or acting on behalf of any person blocked pursuant to E.O.s 13288, 13391, or 13469.

Executive Order 13469 of 2008

The executive order was issued in response to the violence and human rights abuses surrounding the 2008 elections. There are 128 individuals named in this EO which include the current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Vice President Constantine Chiwenga and senior government officials. In addition there are 33 entities named, the majority of which are farms which were expropriated by the state.

EU Sanctions

EU sanctions on Zimbabwe were first imposed in 2002, by Common Position 2002/145/CFSP, in relation to the escalation of violence and intimidation of political opponents and the harassment of the independent press. The sanctions comprised an arms embargo, as well as an asset freeze and travel ban on targeted people and entities. The current EU sanctions regime on Zimbabwe is imposed pursuant to Council Regulation (EC) No 314/2004 (as amended) and Council Decision 2011/101/CFSP (as amended), and consists of an arms embargo and targeted asset freezes and travel bans. The named individuals include the President, Vice President and members of the current and former cabinets. The grounds for such designation are also enunciated and President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s grounds are listed as: “Member of the Government and engaged in activities that seriously undermine democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.” Vice President Chiwenga’s grounds for designation are: “Member of the security forces and complicit in forming or directing repressive state policy.”

What these Sanctions Mean for Zimbabwe and its Citizens

The Zimbabwe government has been working towards the lifting of international sanctions. There has been much support from African states on this. However, Foreign Minister SB Moyo in a July 2019 visit to the United Kingdom stated that sanctions are not relevant to Zimbabwe’s recovery. The sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe are not against the country; rather they are imposed on persons who have violated human rights and democracy.  US targeted sanctions apply only to individuals and entities. Persons and entities not specifically named in these sanctions may seek technical and financial assistance from any of the countries who are imposing these sanctions. For as long as the Zimbabwean state continues to carry out human rights abuses, persecute and harass human rights defenders and prevent independent media from operating – these sanctions will remain in place. It seems very clear that the Zimbabwean state needs to engage in reform and desist from attacking its citizens in order for it to improve its economic outlook.



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