Western Sanctions: Is Zimbabwe being punished for its strong views against gay rights?

Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson
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WASHINGTON – The United States has defended its two-decades-old economic sanctions against Zimbabwe saying they only targeted those that undermine democratic processes or facilitate corruption.

However, analysts believe that the West’s drive for Zimbabwe constitutional reforms is centred on the right of the LGBT Community. However, some analysts says the fallout between the West and Zanu PF government is because of the later’s longstanding ties with China, Russia and Iran.

Washington spoke as the UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on human rights arrived in Zimbabwe to “assess the impact of punitive economic sanctions on ordinary Zimbabweans.”

Belarusian Alena Douhan met President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Monday to begin her 10-day mission that will include meetings with top government officials.

Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson, said Washington was not responsible for Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.

Ned Price himself is gay and so are many in Joe Biden’s Administration. Analysts believe that Zimbabwe is being targeted for its strong anti-gay position.

During his nearly four-decade-long rule, Zimbabwe’s late President Robert Mugabe issued a string of homophobic statements, at one time describing gays as “worse than pigs and dogs” and whose conduct “is condemned by nature”.

In another speech directed at young people and students, he warned: “We will punish you severely.”

When members of the US Congress sent Mugabe a letter of protest, he told his Zanu-PF party supporters: “Let the Americans keep their sodomy, bestiality, stupid and foolish ways to themselves, out of Zimbabwe … Let them be gay in the US, Europe and elsewhere … They shall be sad people here.”

A demo denouncing economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, in Harare, in October 2019. PHOTO | AFP

“Our sanctions there target human rights abusers and those who undermine democratic processes or facilitate corruption,” Price said.

“I want to be clear that the sanctions do not target the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabwe’s economic ills, we know, are caused by leaders abusing power, not US sanctions.

However, analysts says, those who understand international business and global economy know that a country whose few influential policy-makers placed on sanctions is sufficient information not to invest in that country for it is deemed insecure and has potential costly charge from the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is a financial intelligence and enforcement agency of the Treasury Department. It (OFAC) administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions in support of U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives. Many international businesses use its records for reference on red-list potential foreign investment destinations.

Targeted individuals

“Our sanctions target only 83 individuals and 37 entities. We review our sanctions list regularly to acknowledge developments in Zimbabwe. They make it more difficult for targeted individuals and entities to access funds through the global financial infrastructure,” he added.

“We do not target Zimbabwe’s banking sector, but rather ensure sanctioned individuals and entities cannot use the US financial system to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

“Blaming US sanctions for Zimbabwe’s problems detracts from the core issues of better governance, and to that end, Zimbabwe must make reforms consistent with its constitution.”

Western countries first imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2003 after accusing the regime of the late Robert Mugabe of human rights violations and electoral fraud.

After the coup that toppled Mugabe in 2017, President Mnangagwa pushed a re-engagement policy, but the US and the UK have imposed sanctions on some of his key allies accused of corruption and human rights violations.

He is accused of failing to keep his promises to reform and human rights violations.

Zimbabwe maintains that the sanctions are an attempt to push for regime change.

“These sanctions are illegal and hurt the most vulnerable in our society,” President Mnangagwa’s office said.

Mugabe effect

Mugabe spread hatred against, and fear among, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) community in Zimbabwe that is still being felt today, several years after he was toppled in a coup in November 2017 before his death two years later.

Harassment is rife

Among the LGBTIQ community, many members who face harassment in Zimbabwe are students.

In an interview with University World News, Samuel Matsikure, programme manager of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), said there is a lot of harassment, stress and anxiety among students at institutions of higher learning that often follows them to the workplace after completing their studies.

There are cases in which former students were dismissed from the workplace because of their sexual orientation.

Matsikure said some students are disowned by families who stop paying their fees after discovering their sexual orientation.

He said that, in some cases they face extortion amid threats of making police reports or being ‘shamed’. This has prompted GALZ to help some students with accommodation or assist them to relocate to, especially, South Africa.

Matsikure said that, because of the difficulties LGBTIQ students face, GALZ came up with a scholarship programme that benefits two students and two interns each year. Because of limited resources, the organisation focuses on students who are already enrolled and had started struggling financially along the road.

This could be due to parents who disown the students, or guardians who stop paying, due to their wards’ sexual orientation, Matsikure said.

Some students also come from disadvantaged families. They could afford the first semester and continued in the hope that the money would come from somewhere.

Survey shows hostile campus climate

Matsikure said GALZ undertook a survey at state-run universities and, in 2019, released a report titled Experiences of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) students on campus and perceptions of campus climate and student outcomes in Zimbabwe.

The survey was the first of its kind to be conducted at Zimbabwean state universities.

According to the findings, participants generally perceive the campus climate as hostile towards all LGBTIQ students. Fellow students were identified as the major cause of harassment and discrimination against LGBTIQ learners.

The report said that, despite the numerous incidences of harassment and discrimination against LGBTIQ students, university structures do not have a response system to deal with the problem. Moreover, most victims of harassment do not report the incidences.

The survey found that Zimbabwean state universities reinforce heteronormativity and appear to mirror the homophobic utterances witnessed at national levels as pronounced by some influential political and religious leaders.

The findings show that most respondents believe that LGBTIQ learners, in general, were likely to experience discrimination or harassment.

However, gay (82.1%) and male bisexual students (73.8%) are perceived as those most likely to experience discrimination or harm, according to the report.

In comparison, in Western countries, rates of harassment experienced by trans students are highest among all LGBTIQ students, according to studies conducted there.

According to the GALZ report, respondents were asked about the types of harassment they experienced or witnessed.

The nature of harassment or discrimination varied from stigmatisation, insults, name-calling, gossip, outing, demonisation by preachers and cyberbullying as well as invasion of privacy.

LGBTIQ members say campuses not safe

The survey said some students bemoaned their exclusion from active student politics based on their sexual orientation. They said WhatsApp groups have been used during student annual elections to gain political currency by attacking gays and lesbians.

One respondent said there is widespread hate speech associated with campus politics and having political aspirations.

Socialising on campus was also identified as a problem. LGBTIQ respondents said their identities had an impact on their interaction with others, keeping them from participating fully in activities.

Participants were asked to comment on their perception on the safety of the campuses.

Many participants (76.2%) perceived the campus climate as not safe for LGBTIQ learners while 16.7% were uncertain. Only 6% of participants perceived the campus space as safe for LGBTIQ learners.

This partly explains why most participants have not disclosed their sexual orientation, the report said.

While there are ordinances that guide student conduct and interaction with fellow students, most violations go unpunished because they are not reported. Some participants said it is no use because the university structures also seem homophobic.

Being gay is not a crime

In an interview, Zimbabwe human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama said Zimbabwean laws criminalise ‘unnatural acts’, but stated that being gay was not a crime.

“The law says if you engage in unnatural acts, that becomes a crime. The acts are criminalised. If you say I am a gay, it’s not a crime,” Muchadehama said.

A May 2018 report by the British Home Office said politicians, traditional leaders and religious leaders have publicly rejected LGBTIQ people in Zimbabwe, causing some to forfeit education opportunities.

“Numerous LGBT persons have lost their jobs, been expelled from education, or been evicted once their sexual orientation has been revealed,” the report reads.

“Some persons may also be subject to physical assault, including ‘corrective’ rape, although the evidence does not indicate that such violence is frequent or widespread.”

The report pointed out that victims rarely report such crimes out of fear of being outed.

“Privileged LGBT persons may be able to be more open about their sexual orientation and identities, but still only within their like-minded social circles. LGBT persons may also find it difficult to access information about and treatment for HIV and medical care for sexually transmitted diseases,” according to the report.