MODERATOR: Good afternoon to everyone on behalf of the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion. Today we are very pleased to be joined by the U.S. Department of State Sanctions Coordinator Ambassador James O’Brien and the Director of Sanctions Policy and Implementation Jim Mullinax. They will discuss U.S. sanctions policy in general, and specifically, the recent changes in sanctions on individuals and businesses in Zimbabwe.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador O’Brien and Director Mullinax, and then we’ll turn to your questions. We’ll try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have.
As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I’ll turn it over to our speakers.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Hi, my name is Jim O’Brien, and I’m the ambassador for Sanctions Coordination at the State Department. What I’d like to do is say a word or two about my position and the way that Secretary Blinken and the Biden administration view sanctions, and then put our policy on Zimbabwe into that context.
So my position is a new one. It was created by Congress, with the support of the administration, and the idea was that we need to be sure that our sanctions are integrated fully into our foreign policy. We want to know what behavior we’re trying to seek to change; with whom we need to work, because our partners are critical to the success of sanctions; and we need to be willing to remove them when they’re not working, or when we achieve the goal that they are in place.
So I sit in Secretary Blinken’s office and work across programs around the world. And it sort of depends how one counts, but as I look across the U.S. programs with sanctions – but also other items, like export controls and trade restrictions – we probably have between 26 and 30 of these programs that are active everywhere in the world.
The largest by far, at the moment, is about Russia over its two unjustified invasions of Ukraine. But they touch every continent and every part of the world. They’re rooted very often in a
simple conviction: We want people to live in democratic governments, be able to pursue their own desires, be prosperous, and be free.
For that to happen, very often odious arrangements – whether they’re commercial contracts or corrupt government procurement arrangements, or really any form of corruption or human rights abuse – need to be called out and the people who commit them should be identified. And there should be some consequence to that.
So typically what our sanctions will do is forbid the person from traveling into the United States or from using transactions that are in any way touching the U.S. banking system. But there can be also export restrictions, or changes in tariff codes, other things that effect more public policy.
That’s what we do around the world. But just talking about in the U.S. context sort of fails to capture what we believe we are about. President Biden and Secretary Blinken have talked often about how important it is that we always be standing for the rule of law. And we’re attempting to build a community of countries that stand for a law-abiding international system, one that allows people to have faith that their complaints will be adjudicated impartially, that they’ve got the opportunity to make choices.
So for that to happen, we try not to work on our own. Obviously, as the largest economy, we often find ourselves leading, but we try to work closely with our partners. And that’s an important part of what we’re seeing happen with regard to the Zimbabwe sanctions today. So I’ll say a word or two about what we have been doing and where we’re going, and then I’ll turn it over to Jim Mullinax and, Jim, you can either speak now or we can listen to some questions and come in.
So what are we doing with Zimbabwe? And I know this program is something that all of you look at very carefully, so I won’t go into too much detail. But essentially, we are focused on the people who are responsible for and profit from human rights abuses, corruption, and antidemocratic actions. And that’s the limit of what we’re looking to do.
And I just want to emphasize that it’s very important that we call out those who are responsible for and who profit from abuses and corruption. And you can just see this from the general reporting about the situation in Zimbabwe. The country continues to have massive arrears to the international financial institutions. The economy is deteriorating. That may be partly just poor policy choices, but it’s also a result of corruption and economic mismanagement.
And here it’s not simply the U.S. Government using our own resources to say that. If you take a look at Transparency International and some really brave and intrepid investigative journalists and reporters in Africa – such as Maverick Citizen – they talk about billions of dollars in illegitimate, illegal cross-border transactions a year. And those cost the citizens of Zimbabwe a lot of their chance at having a more prosperous and free life. And so we’d like our sanctions to be part of a policy answer that begins to improve the management of public services and public resources, and makes things possible for the people of Zimbabwe to improve.
Now, this program is old, and it’s in part because of the difficulties in Zimbabwe have gone on for a long time. So we keep looking at our program, as we do with all our sanctions programs, but we’ve been actively reviewing this and we’re also consulting closely with our partners in the region. So the concerns – SADC has spoken out, the AU, a number of African governments
have spoken about what the right approach is to Zimbabwe. And my colleagues who work on policy towards Zimbabwe are in regular conversation with them. But we also use those as an opportunity to look at the sanctions program itself.
So earlier this year we delisted 11 people, and we’re continuing to look carefully at the program. And so I think you will see us on a regular basis take a look and see who’s appropriate and who’s not.
And just a note on the scope, we are not engaged in a comprehensive effort to close the Zimbabwean economy. We don’t sanction banks. We aren’t stopping certain kinds of transactions. We’re aware that because of the depth of the problems and the duration of this program, there probably are a lot of companies who believe that doing business in Zimbabwe is just too difficult. And that does cost opportunities for the people of Zimbabwe. Whether that’s the result of the underlying mismanagement and corruption, or whether our sanctions add to it, that’s something we’re willing to talk with companies about, because we do want legitimate businesses to be able to do legitimate business in places. And that’s true anywhere around the world, including in Zimbabwe.
So if there are specific examples, they’re things we’re happy to take back and discuss, but it’s important for me to end where I started: We are focused on the people who benefit from corruption and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. That’s the behavior we are attempting to change. Our sanctions are only one part of a policy to improve the situation there, and we’ll keep evaluating them with our partners as part of the policy going forward.
So that’s what I have to say by way of introduction. Jim Mullinax, do you want to say something now, and then, Andrea, we’ll come back to you all for the questions.
MR MULLINAX: Yeah, thank you very much, Jim. I really appreciate the opportunity to join you here today to talk about this really important program.
Just quickly, as an introduction, my name is Jim Mullinax. I’m the director of the Office of Sanctions Policy and Implementation at the State Department. And my team works with our embassies around the world and the U.S. Department of Treasury to actually implement U.S. sanctions, specifically country-specific sanctions, which is the kind of program that Zimbabwe – Zimbabwean individuals face sanctions underneath.
Zimbabwe, as Ambassador O’Brien said, Zimbabwe is one of probably close to 30 different countries around the world in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, in Latin America, in the Middle East, who are sanctioned under specific country programs. And we use these sanctions programs to disrupt corrupt individuals, to disrupt the activities of human rights abusers, terrorists, and other bad actors’ ability to undermine democracy, to stoke instability, and to provoke violence.
The ultimate goal of our sanctions, I have to say, is not to punish these individuals but to bring about a positive change in behavior, and of course to support our policy objectives within the broader framework of U.S. Government strategy.
With respect to our Zimbabwe sanctions program, we are targeting individuals and entities who have been actively involved in actions that violate human rights of individuals, who have facilitated corruption, and who undermine democracy. And our sanctions impose a cost on their
behavior. By restricting their use of the U.S. financial system, we cut off the access to resources that they may use to further their bad actions. We also use sanctions to prevent them from using the United States as a safe haven for any ill-gotten gains that they may receive from their corrupt activities.
So it’s really an opportunity or it’s really a tool to try to influence the behavior of sanctioned individuals and encourage them to cease their malign activity.
So I’ll stop there. Ambassador O’Brien already mentioned that this program has evolved over the many years that it’s been in existence, but we do continue to review our sanctions designations, and as he noted, we recently removed 11 individuals from the program because we believe that they are no longer engaging in the types of activities that caused them to be sanctioned in the first place. And we’ll continue to review the Zimbabwe sanctions-related designations to keep them current and to make sure that they’re reflecting the current reality.
So I’ll stop there and turn it back to – I guess to Andrea for any questions that you might have.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. So our first question is a pre-submitted question by Julian Pecquet from the Africa Report. And he asks, “Could you update us on the status of re-engagement between the U.S. and Zimbabwe and how sanctions fit into that? What does Harare need to do to see all sanctions removed?”
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Yeah, and I think at some point one of my colleagues who works on African issues might want to address this. So this is Jim O’Brien again. What we’re asking is that the Zimbabwean Government take meaningful, noticeable, material actions that strengthen the democratic processes, build the institutions, and respect its constitution. We’d also like to see condemnation and prosecution of corrupt – for corruption and human rights abuses. Those are the things that will lead to people coming off the sanctions list, but they’re also the actions that make it much easier for a broader engagement.
So, as I mentioned at the beginning, the point of sanctions is to be a part of a broader policy, and the behaviors we want to see change are the ones that lead to sanctions, but they’re also the behaviors that impede the ability of the governments to coordinate well.
And I just want to call attention to one particular incident that matters to us here in Washington. There was an incident involving some staff from our U.S. Senate. These are public servants who are deeply committed to a stronger U.S. relationship to Africa, and so the idea that a group of thugs in some cars would try to intimidate visiting U.S. officials resonates incredibly poorly across Washington. Those are the acts of a government that doesn’t want to be engaged. They’re not the acts of a government that’s looking to improve its relationship with the United States, but also with the wider international community.
So things like that need to stop, but mostly we want to see changes in the behavior related to human rights abuses, antidemocratic behavior, and corruption.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll now go to Pearl Matibe from Power FM 98.7. Pearl, you can unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador O’Brien, and I really appreciate your availability. I am actually here in Washington, D.C. My question is this. I’ve been – I’ve done a close reading of the recent UN special rapporteur’s report at the end of the 51st session. So the work of the UN special rapporteur to Zimbabwe claims that sanctions are in overcompliance. Her report applauds the Government of Zimbabwe. Instead, she makes accusations against civil society and indeed the Zimbabwean population in the entirety of the report. Some might say it’s tantamount to conspiracy or disparate levels of credulity. The narcotics problem is not sanctions, right to life is not because of sanctions when you compare the lack of investigation into the disappearance, for example, of Itai Dzamara.
So my question for you is this. While your colleagues at the foreign mission in Harare have put a stellar explainer effort to the Zimbabwean society at large, clearly more needs to be done. So what efforts and how might you be planning to work interagency or intra-agency with, say, for example, public diplomacy teams to counter all forms of smoke-and-mirrors campaigns and guard against how sanctions have been discharged? Sanctions doesn’t stop Zimbabwe’s comedians, researchers, innovators from participating in the global community. So – and also, is there a red line with Zimbabwe on sanctions?
Thank you, Ambassador, and I appreciate you both, your take on that. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Thank you. I’m not familiar with the special rapporteur report, but it sounds like I need to learn more. So thank you for calling attention to that. I completely agree with you that the problems that are identified have to do with choices made by those in power in Zimbabwe, and we would love to see those improved. So to the extent there’s a red line, it’s begin to prosecute for human rights abuses; stop the corruption; reform the governmental systems; respect the democratic institutions and build them up. That’s what we’re looking to see.
I think your point on engagement is absolutely right. It is – we are making efforts to reach out more and more, but I think it’s a point that we never do enough. And as you said, there are a lot of channels for engaging in a wider public debate. It’s a sad fact that bureaucrats and diplomats are not often that great at engaging with comedians or others who really sort of get to the heart of issues in a way that points out a greater truth, but we are going to try to work on a variety of ways of reaching people.
So on that one, I think check back in a bit. We’re going to see our Global Engagement Center and some of our global public diplomacy tools put to use, and let’s see if we’re doing better. And I’ll expect the kind of fearless and clear commentary on how well we’re doing that you just directed to this report, because I think with scrutiny we’ll get better. So I appreciate the spirit of the question.
MR MULLINAX: If I could just add one more point to yours, Ambassador O’Brien. This is Jim Mullinax again. I really appreciate, Pearl, your raising the point about civil society, and there are a lot of myths out there about U.S. sanctions, some of them being propagated through different channels. But let me just say one thing very, very clearly, and that is that our sanctions do not target the Zimbabwean people. Our sanctions are very closely targeted to specific acts of corruption, human rights abuses, and undermining democracy. And these are, I think, values that are widely shared – support for these values are widely shared around the world.
And we really do appreciate the tremendous work that’s being done within Zimbabwe to highlight these abuses and, as I mentioned earlier, we’re going to continue to review our Zimbabwe-related designations to make sure that they are current. That’s going to mean taking some people off of the list, but I fully expect as well that as human rights abuses or corruption or other measures that are undermining democracy are happening in Zimbabwe that there will be additional interest in expanding the list as well to address some of those behaviors.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Our next question goes to Carien du Plessis from Business Day, South Africa. Carien, you can unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. I hope I’ve unmuted myself successfully. I am a freelance journalist; I’m writing a story for Business Day. My question is President Ramaphosa was recently on a visit to the White House and he said he raised the issue with President Biden, basically arguing that sanctions weakened the economy of Zimbabwe and that has (inaudible) South Africa because we get a lot of economic migrants here and that’s causing – sort of stoking xenophobic sentiment. Is that taken into consideration in reviewing the – yeah, in the recent changes in sanctions against individuals and businesses in Zimbabwe? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Thanks. This is Jim O’Brien. So I’ll start by saying that I can’t characterize the conversations between the two presidents. My trying to do that would make me a freelancer very quickly. But I do think you can say that it’s an example of the kind of consultation that we prize, and that’s also something on which we can never do enough and we’ll continue to do better. So having conversations with obviously the neighbors, with important regional powers, SADC, the AU, and others is a – was very important in the recent changes, and will continue to be as we review the program.
And I think particularly because you’re speaking with – on behalf of Business Day, but to others as well, I want to echo the point that Jim Mullinax just made. We’re well aware that in difficult environments, companies may decide not to be involved for a host of reasons. And one of those reasons may be the risk that either new sanctions will be put in place or current sanctions are not clear. But it’s also the case that our sanctions call out behaviors that businesses want to avoid. So when we talk about corruption and the abuse of public services, companies often want to stay far away from places where those are features of the business environment.
We are, however, willing to always speak with businesses or work with those who fear that our sanctions are getting in the way of legitimate business activity. So if you – if there are – there are always sort of rumors that someone is staying away due to our sanctions, but if that ever gets chased down to a specific company and that company wants to talk to us, we’re very happy to do that. Jim and I spend a great deal of our time working with companies so that they can feel comfortable in difficult environments.
So overcompliance is a thing that we try to address through communication, both direct and publicly, but I’d also say it’s incumbent on all of us when we hear these stories to realize that there are steps that could be taken to address those concerns, and we’re very happy to be part of a discussion in that regard. Over for me.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We are getting up to the end of our briefing, and so I’d like for our last question to go to Simon Ateba from Today News Africa. Simon, you can unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. More broadly, since you talked about corruption and bad behaviors that prompt sanctions, what will you say to people who believe that the U.S. actually sanctioned people who don’t have money? For instance, the current prince of Saudi Arabia – he killed Khashoggi, has been oppressing his people, and recently disrespected President Biden by increasing oil prices to help Putin massacre Ukraine, but he’s not being sanctioned. He is – nothing is happening to him. And here we are sanctioning people in Zimbabwe and different African countries. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: This is Jim O’Brien. I mean, thanks for the question. Again, we start from the premise that sanctions are one tool, but not all the tools that we have to try to change the behavior of individuals. And I think it’s always possible to find a case that makes us appear to be applying the standards inconsistently. What I’d say is we apply our policy in a way that reflects the reality of each individual situation, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that we avoid – we make decisions based on who has money or who has power. Our largest sanctions program – the largest in U.S. history – is directed at Russia, which is earning $80 billion a month from energy sales. And we encourage those sales, because that energy is important particularly in the developing world. So it’s not a case about money or no money.
We also designate individuals who participate in human rights abuses regardless of whether they are seeking to travel or have the money to buy property or anything else. It’s whether we feel this is the right tool to highlight the abuses that we think inhibit the ability of people to live in a democratic and law-abiding society. And that’s the test.
Now, sometimes we can use other tools to try to achieve similar results. Sometimes the sanctions are the proper tool. But whether we pick the right individuals to designate, whether they remain the right individuals, whether we have other ways or we should be looking at other people, these are questions we ask ourselves all the time as we review the programs. So it’s not a one-time snapshot and it certainly is not decided by any one factor.
MODERATOR: And unfortunately that’s all the time that we have for today. I know we have additional questions in the queue but we’ll have to host you again sometime in the future. And I want to turn it back over to Ambassador O’Brien and Director Mullinax. Do you have any final words?
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: It’s Jim O’Brien. I’d just say I really do welcome the chance to have the exchange, and perhaps we can do this again at some time over the next couple of months, maybe with one of our colleagues who works directly on the relationship with Zimbabwe. Because for me, our policy gets better when we have to explain it, and I think as several of the questioners suggested, we could do a lot better job of making sure that our views reach decision-makers in the region but also the people of Zimbabwe. So I welcome the questions, especially the tough questions, and look forward to doing this again sometime.
MR MULLINAX: And Jim Mullinax here. Let me just echo what Ambassador O’Brien shared. I very much appreciate the opportunity to engage and to respond to some of these good questions about the purpose of our program and what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going forward with that. I do think that we will benefit from additional conversations like this and I look forward to the opportunity to join similar events like this in the future. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. That concludes today’s briefing. I’d like to thank U.S. Department of State Sanctions Coordinator Ambassador James O’Brien and the Director of Sanctions Policy and Implementation Jim Mullinax for speaking with us today, and thank you to all of our journalists for participating. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you can contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Thanks, Andrea. Thank you, everyone.
MR MULLINAX: Thank you.