The Global Magnitsky Act: Make it make sense, Joe

Source: The Global Magnitsky Act: Make it make sense, Joe

I have no love lost for Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa, but I will not celebrate the sanctions imposed on him by the US.

President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa. He is walking along a corridor
President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa arrives before the opening ceremony of the 37th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on February 17, 2024. [Amanuel Sileshi / AFP]

The empire has struck again.

On March 4, the United States imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa for corruption and serious human rights abuses through the Global Magnitsky Act.

It also sanctioned 10 other individuals, who it designated as “key actors”. They include Mnangagwa’s wife, Auxillia, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri, Police Commissioner Godwin Matanga, the deputy director general of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Walter Tapfumaneyi, and several businesspersons who are aligned with the president.

At the same time, US President Joe Biden’s administration also announced the termination of the 2003 Zimbabwe sanctions programme. Moving forward, it explained in a statement, the Biden administration will instead implement “sanctions on clear and specific targets”, such as Mnangagwa and his shifty cronies.

Enacted in December 2016, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act allows the US executive branch to impose visa restrictions and targeted sanctions on foreign government officials responsible for crimes including extrajudicial killings, torture, and other gross human rights violations or acts of serious corruption.

There is little doubt that Mnangagwa behaved in ways and participated in acts that made him a legitimate target for an act aimed at sanctioning human rights abusers and corrupt political actors.

Mnangagwa is a veteran politician who has held various cabinet posts since Zimbabwe gained its independence from Britain in April 1980. And his many-decades-long political career has been blighted with accusations of sleaze, corruption, illiberal conduct and direct participation in human rights violations from the very beginning.

Just last year, an expose by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit (I-Unit) placed Mnangagwa, his spouse, a senior ambassador and various shady businesspersons at the centre of a complex gold-smuggling and money-laundering scheme.

This landmark investigation led the US to conclude “Mnangagwa provides a protective shield to smugglers to operate in Zimbabwe and has directed Zimbabwean officials to facilitate the sale of gold and diamonds in illicit markets, taking bribes in exchange for his services.” His wife, Auxillia, meanwhile, was found to have excelled at “the misappropriation of state assets and corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery”.

And Mnangagwa’s record on human rights and corruption was not any better before his rise to Zimbabwe’s highest office in 2017.

In October 2002, a United Nations Security Council report revealed Mnangagwa was the “key strategist” for an elite network that systemically plundered diamonds, cobalt, copper, and germanium from the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This transnational network, which included political and military actors and businesspersons from Zimbabwe and the DRC, allegedly transferred at least $5bn of assets from the state mining sector to private companies under its control while the 1998-2003 Second Congo War was under way.

And long before taking on a leading role in the DRC’s systematic plunder, as state security minister, Mnangagwa also played a critical role in facilitating the Gukurahundi massacres of 1983-1987, which many scholars and activists consider a genocide.

At least 20,000 mostly Ndebele-speaking people in Zimbabwe’s southwestern provinces of Matabeleland and Midlands were killed in what was supposed to be an anti-rebel operation, led by the Fifth Brigade, a crack army unit. For five years, the Fifth Brigade subjected millions of civilians to enforced disappearancesrape, sexual violence, mass starvationextrajudicial killingsforced displacement, and ethnic cleansing.

The Global Magnitsky Act, of course, did not exist back then. However, the US still had many other means to demonstrate its displeasure with the way Zimbabwean authorities, including Mnangagwa, conducted themselves. It did nothing. It turned a blind eye to genocidal violence in the country, despite being aware of the slaughter. In fact, the US authorities repeatedly went out of their way to express their support for their Zimbabwean counterparts.

In September 1983, as the exterminations in Matabeleland gathered momentum, for example, then US President Ronald Reagan invited his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe to a “working lunch” at the White House in a move that bordered on outright complicity.

The Gukurahundi killings eventually came to an end after the so-called Unity Accord was signed in December 1987. But to this day, not a single Zimbabwean politician, army official, or government operative has faced international sanctions for their complicity in the state-sanctioned violence. Mnangagwa and his first deputy, Chiwenga, who participated in the Gukurahundi campaign as a brigadier in the army, faced no global condemnation.

Despite the well-documented carnage, in the eyes of the West, Zimbabwe remained a trusted partner and alleged paragon of democracy in Southern Africa.

At least until February 2000, when landless black Zimbabweans began to invade commercial farms owned by white farmers. Faced with an attempt to rectify a colonial injustice, and instances of violence against white people, the US immediately changed its stance and began to castigate the “terrible human rights conditions in Zimbabwe”.

In the end, US global policing only made it to our dusty villages, towns, and cities after a few white farmers were killed in politicised violence. White lives mattered – obviously – but the 20,000 Black Africans killed in Gukurahundi did not.

It was then that I realised the utter hypocrisy of the US claim to being the global policeman. And this is why I cannot rejoice at the sanctions imposed on Mnangagwa by the US under the Magnitsky Act this month.

Of course, as someone who never forgot or forgave Mnangagwa’s past crimes, or turned a blind eye to his obvious corruption, I will not lose any sleep over the hardship he and his cronies may experience due to these sanctions.

That being said, I cannot get over the illogical and unjust manner in which the US is – still – attempting to police the globe, either.

Since its 2016 inception, the Global Magnitsky Act has only served to help Washington unilaterally determine which lives matter, and which crimes necessitate a punishment.

So far, some of the act’s other high-profile targets included Yahya Jammeh, former president of The Gambia, and Alpha Conde, the deposed leader of Guinea.

There is little doubt that these leaders, like Mnangagwa, are responsible for their fair share of human rights violations, and thus rightful targets for an act aimed at sanctioning human rights offenders with governmental powers.

However, there are countless other leaders with long, well-documented histories of violating international humanitarian law, who have never been targeted by the Magnitsky Act.

Indeed, the US has never sanctioned, just to give a few examples, Uganda’s Yoweri MuseveniEthiopia’s Abiy AhmedEgypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, or Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

It has never sanctioned, or in any other way meaningfully punished, a high-ranking official from the rogue, violent and lawless state of Israel, either.

Israel, for many decades, consistently refused to respect the most basic socioeconomic and human rights of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and launched 15 brutal wars against the besieged Gaza Strip.

The systematic repression and grotesque violence directed at Palestinians amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Disappointingly, though, the US has not sanctioned Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under the Global Magnitsky programme.

Instead, it provided his government with all the weapons it needs to continue oppressing Palestinians and vetoed countless UN Security Council resolutions aimed at putting a stop to Israel’s seemingly never-ending violations of international law.

Even today, as Netanyahu’s government commits, in the assessment of the ICJ and several UN experts, a “plausible genocide” in Gaza, the US shows no real intention to sanction any Israeli leader.

The repression that Gambians, Guineans and Zimbabweans undoubtedly suffer under their corrupt leaders is not any worse or more worthy of international intervention than the systemic oppression experienced by the Ugandans, Ethiopians, Rwandans or Palestinians.

A sanctions regime that attempts to deliver justice in some countries but not others cannot deliver justice at all.

A sanctions regime that targets only those who are not useful to US interests, and ignores the wanton violations by valued US allies, serves only to further Western hegemony, deepen white supremacy, and divide victims of repression who should be united in their resistance against empire.

This is why I, along with many other Zimbabweans who have no love lost for Mnangagwa, refuse to support or celebrate the US sanctions against the president.

If the US wants the world to see the sanctions it imposed on leaders like Mnangagwa under the Magnitsky Act as a genuine attempt at delivering justice to oppressed people, then it should do the right thing and also sanction el-Sisi, Museveni, Abiy, Kagame, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

If not, it should put an end to its decades-old, tired hypocrisy and abandon its controversial sanctions regime for good.

Empire’s days of impunity are over.

It’s time for the US to strike down its shameful attempts to preserve Western hegemony, and white supremacy, across the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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