Zimbabwe Sanctions Must Go – UN Rapporteur

Abridged version of the report of the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Alena Douhan.

The Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights undertook an official visit to Zimbabwe from 18 to 28 October 2021 to examine the impact of unilateral sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights in Zimbabwe and on people’s right to development.

She concludes that sanctions, including secondary sanctions, and different forms of over-compliance by foreign banks and companies have had a significant impact on the population and the Government, exacerbating pre-existing economic and humanitarian challenges.

She recommends lifting unilateral sanctions in line with the principles of international law; avoiding de-risking policies and over-compliance in accordance with the due diligence rule; and engaging in meaningful structured discussions on political reform, the rule of law and human rights.

Impact of unilateral sanctions on public institutions: economic and humanitarian situation General macroeconomic context.

Zimbabwe has experienced an economic downturn since the mid-1990s due to the adverse impacts of the IMF economic structural adjustment policy, 13 climate-related droughts, economic mismanagement and civil unrest.

In 1999, IMF and the World Bank suspended adjustment financing to Zimbabwe, restricting access to key developmental loans.

In 2001, official development assistance reached a 20-year low of $160.2 million as external debt reached 2.485 percent of the gross national income, a level not seen since the early 1980s. For Zimbabwe, lost revenues reportedly exceeded $42 billion from 2001 to 2019.14

Zimbabwe historically relied on foreign trade to sustain its economy. It last registered a trade surplus in 2000, at $155 million, representing approximately 74 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

Overall production increased 1.44 percent in 2001 after a shortfall in previous years.

However, sanctions targeted various entities in key productive sectors of the economy, including mining, manufacturing, tourism and agriculture, which made it challenging for Zimbabwe to rely on its trade and industry to promote growth.

During the first decade under sanctions, the country’s trade balance spiralled to -23.8 percent, in 2010, and has stayed negative since then.

Sanctions facilitated de-industrialisation, as key agriculture, mining and manufacturing companies were barred from selling their products in the United States and European Union markets.

The economic contraction went from -3.1 per cent in 2000 to -17.7 pe cent in 2008. Thousands of workers were forced out of employment in the formal economy, and multiple local companies closed down.

This nurtured the expansion of the informal sector as a method of resilience, estimated at 94.5 percent in 2014 and 75.6 percent in 2019.16 Foreign direct investments were affected as investors avoided risks, given the negative perceptions about the economy and the country’s governance.

This led to increased unemployment, estimated at 94 percent in the formal sector by the end of 2008,17 and to a significant loss of qualified professionals.

From 2000 to 2008, the gross national income per person fell by 35 percent. There was a significant loss of public revenue, which was critically undermined by consistently high inflation that surged from 56 percent in 2000 to 599 per cent in 2003 and over 230 million per cent in 2008.

This fuelled the collapse of the public system and resulted in the inability of the Government to provide for essential services, with serious ramifications for people accessing essential livelihoods and humanitarian needs, including food, water and sanitation, education and other public services.

Humanitarian impact

Unilateral sanctions decimated the economic performance of the country, thereby aggravating the humanitarian situation and consequently adversely impacting access to basic rights, including to life, food, water and sanitation, health and education, and the rights of Zimbabwean residents, migrants and refugees. Poverty has increased sharply as a result, undermining efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 1, on ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.

With the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) adding to the problem, a survey by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency and the United Nations Children’s Fund showed that almost half of the population was in extreme poverty in 2020.

Access to food

Agriculture has historically ensured rural livelihoods. It currently represents approximately 14-17 percent of GDP and employs and provides income to approximately 60-70 percent of the population.

However, sanctions imposed on key farms and agricultural companies and the general decline of agricultural investments has resulted in poor production levels since the early 2000s, especially as regards cereals such as maize, sorghum, millet and others.

While droughts, cyclones and other environmental hazards influenced the decrease in food production, unilateral coercive measures also had a determining impact.

Food insecurity has remained a key concern since 2001, both in terms of accessibility and affordability. The proportion of food insecure people increased from 29 percent in 1995 to 58 per cent in 2003, 21 and measured 42 percent in 2016, according to Government estimates. It worsened further, to 8.6 million people or more than 60 percent of the population, at the end of 2020. The estimated undernourishment of the population was 42.2 percent in 2005, which increased to 51.3 percent in 2017, resulting in the worst malnutrition rate for 15 years, with 30 per cent of the rural population requiring food assistance.

In 2020, the food insecure population increased to 2.4 million people, up from 2.2 million in 2019, with global acute malnutrition levels increasing from 3.6 percent in 2019 to 4.5 percent in 2020.

In children under five years of age, stunting and severe wasting increased. In the period from 2000 to 2019, the prevalence of anaemia in pregnant women averaged 33.2 percent.

Following her 2019 visit to Zimbabwe, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food identified sanctions to be among the key obstacles to enjoyment of the right to food. The agricultural sector’s inability to borrow funds or perform bank operations have rendered it incapable of properly retooling, buying spare parts and reagents, maintaining equipment and infrastructure, or investing in better plant and machinery technology.

Foreign partners are also reluctant to sell seeds, equipment and spare parts directly. The main agricultural bank of Zimbabwe, Agribank, could not finance the sector adequately with credits due to its listing under United States sanctions from 2003 to 2016.

Regarding the impact on the country’s agricultural infrastructure and the ability of people to fulfil their right to food, current Government data indicate a decline in the number of functional tractors to 6 000 in 2021, against a national requirement of 40 000.

The lack of adequate supplies of vaccines and other essential drugs also impacted animal health and food exports, as well as the ability to produce food autonomously and carry out adequate disease control measures.

There were also reports of a general lack of cold storage infrastructure and a limited availability of adequate packaging to facilitate exports. Functional irrigation schemes served only 206,000 hectares due to inadequate maintenance and rehabilitation.

Cereal and horticultural production declined significantly between 2000 and 2021.

Additional challenges in the agricultural sector appeared after sanctions were imposed on Belaruskali, the Belarusian producer of potash fertilisers that used to provide Zimbabwe with 100 per cent of its fertiliser needs. As noted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Food Programme, fertilisers are at risk of becoming unavailable to farmers in Zimbabwe due to complicated logistics and costs related to travel, production and refining.

Access to water and sanitation

Unilateral sanctions also contribute to the deterioration of the water and sanitation infrastructure, resulting in the reduced accessibility of clean water and sanitation services for the majority of the population, in addition to a reduction of effective sewage systems and disposal, waste management and fire services.

This has accelerated disease epidemics, such as cholera and typhoid (notably in 2008 and 2018) with an estimated combined death toll of over 3 000 people, and has placed more than 100 000 people at risk.

Significant challenges in maintaining and upgrading water and sewage treatment plants, and obstacles in the procurement of reagents and water chemicals and other equipment were reported.

The Special Rapporteur was informed that for the vast majority of the population, clean drinking water, sanitation and related hygiene remained inaccessible.

Reports indicate that the majority of local councils are only able to supply clean drinking water for eight hours a day, compared with 24 hours a day before the imposition of sanctions.

Although public spending on water and sanitation has increased over time, it is estimated that less than half of the population currently has access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.

Only 29.5 per cent of the population was able to access safe drinking water in 2020, compared with 33.2 percent in 2002.25

In 2019, 77.1 per cent of households lacked access to improved sources of clean water, with disparities in rural (67.9 per cent) and urban (97.3 per cent) areas.

According to the 2012 national population census, 25 per cent of households lacked access to toilets, with a higher prevalence of open defecation in rural areas. In 2019, national open defecation rate stood at 21.7 per cent in 2019, especially in rural areas, which improved from 44 per cent in 2014.27

In Bulawayo, numerous testimonies described how sanctions and over compliance had crippled the local economy and public infrastructure, as industrial companies, which provided over 70 per cent of public revenue, either significantly reduced or completely discontinued production.

Prior to sanctions, the local government was reportedly able to provide support to families and vulnerable communities after severe droughts and other erratic climate conditions affected food crops and access to water, particularly in rural areas.

Outbreaks of diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases, rare before 2001, became more frequent as clean water reserves in the city’s dams progressively dried up and the lack of reliable electricity made it difficult for households to rely on boiled water.

Sanctions and over-compliance obstructed access to credit for local companies and the local government was no longer able to borrow funds for water infrastructure. The local Government noted that over the past decade, waterborne disease outbreaks occurred during almost every rainy season, infecting thousands and killing hundreds.

Access to health

In general, the provision of primary health care is delegated to municipal councils through polyclinics and rural health centres, which focus on maternal, neonatal and child health. Prior to sanctions, these facilities were, to some extent, supplied with medicines, ambulances and qualified personnel. In the 1990s, it was estimated that 85 per cent of the population had access to health care.

The structural economic and social challenges inherited from the late 1990s were aggravated by unilateral sanctions and the isolation of the country, especially during the first decade under sanctions, exacerbated by the consequences of over compliance. As a result, the public health system collapsed. Total health expenditure fell from 10.8 per cent of GDP in 1996 to an average of 7 per cent to 8 per cent in the period from 2005 through 2013. Vacancy rates in the health sector were consistently high throughout the period under sanctions, reaching 69 per cent for doctors; 61 per cent for environmental health technicians; over 80 per cent for midwives; 62 per cent for nursing tutors; over 63 per cent for medical school teachers; and over 50 per cent for other health personnel, including pharmacy, radiology and laboratory services.

Recent data on vacancy rates indicate figures as high as 89 per cent for midwives, 64 per cent for government medical officers and 49 per cent for nursing tutors.

Most provinces have less than 10 health professionals per 10,000 people.

Official data evidenced a steady decline in the country’s main health indicators combined with periods of stagnation. Demographic health surveys showed trends in child morbidity and mortality rates generally declining since 1995, especially with regard to infants and children under 5 years of age.

The Zimbabwe National Health Strategy 2009-2013 identified a high prevalence of mortality among infants and children under 5 years of age, with rates rising from 53 and 77 per 1,000 live births, respectively, in 1994, to 60 and 86 in 2009.

Overall life expectancy also fell dramatically, from 63 years in 1988 to 43 years in 2005-2006, until gradually improving to 61 years.


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