EU officials were forced to defend the bloc’s decision of sticking to sanctions against Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle at a joint EU-South Africa summit on Friday.
"We are not talking about economic sanctions," Karel De Gucht, EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, said at the second EU-South Africa summit in Cape Town on Friday.
De Gucht said that the sanctions imposed in 2002 targeted individuals and that they had no impact on the general population.
He was responding to calls made at a summit of Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders earlier this week. African leaders meeting in Kinshasa had demanded that the Zimbabwe sanctions be lifted, arguing that they were obstructing the country’s economic recovery.
The EU and the US have said they will not lift sanctions until Zimbabwe implements further reforms, especially in the field of human rights.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, pointed out that human rights abuses continued in Zimbabwe, including violence directed at supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
"It is not the restrictions that are creating the problems in Zimbabwe, it is the mismanagement … not respecting human rights," said Reinfeldt in the South African town of Kleinmond, where the summit was taking place.
The EU and US implemented the targeted sanctions in 2002 following a disputed presidential poll that extended Mugabe’s rule.
Mugabe’s blame game
Mugabe has tried to make people believe that Zimbabwe’s domestic problems are solely due to Western sanctions and that once these are lifted the country will get back on its feet.
However, while South African President Jacob Zuma said the sanctions were obstructing a successful power-sharing deal, he stressed during the summit with EU diplomats that Zimbabwe’s problems were older than the sanctions.
"I don’t think the sanctions started the problems in the economy. I think it was the Zimbabweans who undermined their own system. That got the economy into trouble," said Zuma.
However, while EU and South African officials differed on the sanctions issue, they did agree on a joint communique in which they urged Zimbabwe’s parties to "remove all obstacles" to the country’s power sharing deal and unity government.
Zimbabweans had hoped the power-sharing deal agreed to by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe would pave the way for the country’s recovery under a unity government.
The deal, which came into effect in February, managed to defuse the violence that ensued after last year’s disputed presidential election, but it has done little to actually change the country’s economic or humanitarian predicament. Power struggles over key posts in the government continue as do human rights abuses and food shortages.
Mugabe lashes out at West
The 85-year-old Mugabe reacted promptly to the EU’s announcement that sanctions would remain in place. Speaking at a gathering of his party’s youth wing in Harare on Friday, he slammed the sanctions and the West.
"Who said the British and Americans should rule over others? … We have not invited these bloody whites. They want to poke their nose into our affairs. Refuse that," Mugabe said.
Mugabe’s remarks come a day ahead of the first EU high-level visit to Zimbabwe in seven years. The team, which is led by De Gucht, is scheduled to meet Mugabe and Tsvangirai this weekend.
"This is a critical time for Zimbabwe and the weight of responsibility falls squarely on the country’s leaders to deliver urgent political, economic and social progress for the benefit of all people of Zimbabwe," said De Gucht in a statement.
No turning back on land reform, says Mugabe
Mugabe also made clear on Friday that he is still unwilling to back down on controversial land reforms which he implemented in the former British colony nine years ago.
"The land reform exercise is irreversible," Mugabe said.
Mugabe’s government launched the land reforms in a bid to redress colonial grievances. In the chaotic process that followed white farmers were often violently driven off their property and the land given to black farmers.
Since then these hitherto productive and efficient farms have often been badly run, which has contributed strongly to the fact that Zimbabwe, once Africa’s bread basket, is now struggling against food shortages, disease, poverty and hyperinflation.