Sanctions have served no purpose and the (UK) Foreign Office is right to begin lifting them
By Peter Oborne
A number of political reputations have been shattered over the past six months. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Chancellor George Osborne are both shadows of what they were, while questions are being asked even about David Cameron.
Yet one senior Cabinet reputation has done nothing but soar. When he became Foreign Secretary just over two years ago, William Hague indicated that he would take a new approach. He promised to draw fully on the institutional strengths of the diplomatic service, which had been at best neglected and at worst treated with contempt under New Labour. British foreign policy, so often handed over to the United States when Tony Blair was in charge, would pursue British interests.
Above all, Mr Hague promised a more intelligent policy. New Labour had a notorious tendency to divide the world into black and white, and act accordingly. The twin disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan were the result of this naive failure to acknowledge that the world is a complicated place, and that simple or morally satisfying solutions do not often work out well in the long term.
It has taken Mr Hague a long time to modify the culture he inherited and revert to traditional diplomacy, and his task is not complete. For example, the US still determines much of British foreign policy in South Asia and the Middle East, greatly to the frustration of our diplomats.
But elsewhere, results are beginning to come through. One of the earliest manifestations of the Coalition’s more sensitive and pragmatic foreign policy was Burma, where Britain has moved steadily towards engagement and away from confrontation.
Another concerns Zimbabwe, a pariah state ever since President Mugabe unleashed his programme of farm seizures at the turn of the century. For the past decade, almost every measure short of military invasion has been taken to isolate the Zimbabwe president and his Zanu-PF supporters. Aid has been suspended and heavy sanctions targeted at senior members of the regime, while Zimbabwe was forced out of the Commonwealth in 2003.
This week, that policy was reversed. In a statement in the Commons on Tuesday, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt announced that Britain now wants many of the sanctions on Zimbabwe to be lifted. Mr Burt’s speech has hardly been reported, but that does not mean it was unimportant (by contrast, events that dominate the headlines for weeks can later turn out to have had almost no significance at all).
British policy towards Zimbabwe has taken an entirely new turn. Rather than seeking to drive the country out of the comity of nations, we are now endeavouring to bring her in. As the former colonial power, our new understanding has already changed many minds in the European Union, and the United States may well alter course too. Eventually, so long as mishaps do not occur, Zimbabwe is likely to return to the Commonwealth.
This change of stance was received with dismay in the Commons. Peter Hain, who played such a brave and honourable role as an anti-apartheid campaigner in the Seventies, probably reflected the mood of the majority of MPs when he demanded more sanctions on Zimbabwe, not less. Furthermore, he provided frightening new evidence that profits from so-called blood diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe have been hijacked to build up a parallel state apparatus capable of being used by Zanu-PF thugs for sinister and bloodthirsty ends.
So why defy Mr Hain’s powerful analysis? The answer comes down to the underlying purpose of the sanctions. The last government, understandably, deployed them in order to express a strong repugnance against the immorality of the Zanu-PF regime – in other words, as a rhetorical gesture.
By contrast, the Coalition is asking a different question: what practical good do they achieve? Here, the answer is more difficult. Many people who really know Zimbabwe have argued for some time that, while sanctions were of course justified by the scale of human rights violations when they were imposed a decade ago, they have in practice been a propaganda gift to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. Even though they have been targeted only at a relatively small number of named individuals, skilful politicians have been able to blame them for many of the economic calamities of the past few years.
More important by far, it is not just Zanu-PF which wants them lifted. So do its opponents. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told Mr Cameron in March this year that he was certain the sanctions regime should be dropped. Mr Tsvangirai would also like Zimbabwe to be readmitted to the Commonwealth.
The fact is that Zimbabwe has been a success story after reaching rock bottom during the hideous violence, accompanied by hyperinflation, of the 2008 elections. The smell of fear was palpable on the streets of the big cities, while armed bands roamed the rural areas inflicting terrible bloodshed and brutality. Of course, the coalition government led by president Mugabe and prime minister Tsvangirai has had many problems, but the essential thing is that it has survived. The political atmosphere feels very different. Meanwhile, the economy, in deep depression only four years ago, is now powering ahead under the skilful management of the MDC finance minister, Tendai Biti.
The great question is how to sustain this progress, especially with Zimbabwe facing presidential elections (in which the 88-year-old Mr Mugabe insists he will stand) next year. Fundamentally, there are two opinions. There is the morally purist view – powerfully articulated in the Commons this week – that Zanu-PF has done terrible things and must be punished. Or there is the realistic position, now being pursued by the Foreign Office, which holds that sanctions are not just for show but should serve some purpose. This position requires a great deal of political courage because it exposes ministers to the charge that they are going soft on murderers and dictators.
But it also stands in a respectable tradition of British statecraft. There would have been no peace in Northern Ireland if ministers had not been happy to talk to men of violence. In Afghanistan, we now acknowledge that no solution is remotely possible unless Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders are granted a central role.
The lessons of Afghanistan and Northern Ireland show that if we are really serious about reconciliation in Zimbabwe, the international community will need to go much further than simply dropping sanctions. Take the example of defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was head of state intelligence during the Gukurahundi, which saw the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people in the 1980s. Mnangagwa remains hugely powerful. If men like him are even to countenance the possibility of peaceful regime change, they will surely need solid, bankable reassurances that they will be protected from prosecution after leaving office.
This is just one of the hideously complex moral problems that lie ahead as Zimbabwe enters one of the most dangerous, but most hopeful, election years of its short history. Meanwhile, Britain has taken a entirely sensible first step. Originally published in the UK Telegraph newspaper
Peter Oborne is the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator