Three times during the 1990s, the world stood by while heart-rending and preventable African tragedies unfolded in Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.
President Robert Mugabe's ongoing assault on human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe offers the latest test of whether the world community, and the West in particular, will act aggressively to avert tragedy.
Mr. Mugabe's behavior does not surprise people familiar with his record. In 1982, less than two years after being elected as newly independent Zimbabwe's first prime minister, Mugabe unleashed his North Korean-trained 5th Brigade against "dissidents" in the province of Matabeleland. Conservative estimates reckon 15,000 Matabele were murdered.
Mugabe has subsequently intimidated the opposition, stolen elections, and squandered his country's vast natural wealth. He is destroying the economy and creating a famine.
On human rights abuses in black Africa, one simply hasn't seen the same manifestations of protest and pressure by Western governments and private organizations directed against tyrants on other continents or even like those used against South Africa's apartheid regime.
The European Union has enacted sanctions against Mugabe, but they're too narrow and too late. Ironically, the template for dealing with him is the one used to bring about regime changes in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was called before independence), and later, in South Africa. In both cases, wide-ranging economic and financial sanctions were crucial. Sanctions don't work quickly, but they are more or less effective, depending on the degree the regime is willing to use repression to survive.
The broader the sanctions, the better.
A plan based on the Rhodesia model would include the following:
Financial sanctions. Because the basic source of power in any tyrannical regime is access to finances, an effective sanctions campaign against Mugabe must target his money.
Impose strict controls on financial transactions involving Zimbabwe. The countries dominating the global banking system are quite capable of financially isolating a country and tracking fund movements. Even if multilateral cooperation is difficult, the US Treasury's controls against designated countries are an effective device, and the US can bring along many of its allies in an effort against Mugabe. Compared with elusive drug dealers and terrorists whose finances are now targeted, going after a clearly identified target is a far simpler task.
Hold financial institutions accountable. Targeted regimes will strenuously seek to evade sanctions by using proxies and front operations to move funds. Thus, it is essential to require financial institutions and other intermediaries such as lawyers and accountants to vet the source of funds they accept.
A concerted intelligence effort to track down Mugabe's money is essential. In addition to an impressive global ability to monitor telecom and computer network systems, most competent foreign intelligence services are capable of penetrating the ruler's inner circle to uncover details of his finances and evasion methods.
Aggressively seize assets when violations, or suspect money, are detected.
Trade sanctions. Extremely strict trade sanctions are vital. A certain amount of "leakage" will occur, but the economy will slowly atrophy. Rhodesia is a prime example of how effective these can be. A Rhodesian involved in evading the oil embargo commented once, "In 1965, Rhodesia was 20 years ahead of South Africa economically, but by 1975 we were 20 years behind." Five years later the country yielded to majority rule.
International ostracism. Combine financial and trade sanctions with a scheme to shut the Mugabe regime out of international society. Expel Zimbabwe from the UN and other international organizations, and institute a near-complete travel ban on the country's nationals, and on everyone connected with the ruling elite. Victims of this sort of social exclusion naturally play down its importance, but it is surprisingly wearing over time.
No 'targeted sanctions.' Accept that the average Zimbabwean will suffer from the sanctions. Targeted or so-called "smart" sanctions don't work. As long as the ruling elite has access to resources, they will use them for themselves.
A positive component. Give moral support to the people. Supply funding and other assistance covertly if necessary to the opposition. Lay out a clear concept of what the sanctions are to accomplish. Win the public relations game both domestically and internationally, and put Mugabe in the position of defending corruption and repression. Despite his crudely racist appeals to Zimbabwean nationalism, a majority still voted against him in the March election.
Show the opposition that it has the world's support. Eastern European dissidents noted how helpful this was psychologically, as did Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Encourage nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups to take up the cause of the opposition.
Be willing, as a last resort, to intervene militarily. Most tyrants resort to violence because they think they can get away with it.
Complete international cooperation in this multipart plan is unrealistic, but the leading Western nations are capable of acting and having immense influence. Previous African tragedies were usually followed by Western leaders solemnly declaring that "we mustn't let this happen again." Zimbabwe will tell us if they were serious.
Grant Newsham is a former US Foreign Service officer with long experience in Southern Africa. He is a vice president of a US investment bank.