After independence in 1980, Zimbabwe began distributing land from white to black farmers, marking a shift from colonial to independent rule. The implementation of the government’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme, however, has led to fresh outbursts of violence and land seizure due to a food shortage crisis, which threatens to imperil its constitutional duty to citizens.

The government imposed Fast Track Land Reform has led to a decentralized system of agricultural production and a shift towards small-scale farming. The government has additionally imposed price controls which have oftentimes forced the small agricultural sector to market their goods below production cost. On top of losing value on goods, the current system has not been able to match the levels of production sustained by large-scale commercial agricultural activity prior to land reform. A result Zimbabwe currently suffers from a wide-scale food shortage crisis.

Access to food is a basic and foundational right from which many other privileges stem from, and is protected by international law. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food. The General Comment 12 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights since provides that states have the duty to ensure that their citizens are not arbitrarily deprived of food. Governments are to uphold their duties under international law by engaging in activities that strengthen access to resources and enforce laws that prevent the derogation of the right to food that people. According to Jean Ziegler, the first U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, governments must not take actions that result in increasing levels of hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition.

The Zimbabwean Government has shifted blame for the food crisis onto sanctions that were first imposed on the country in 2000 by the European Union and followed by the United States.  In a campaign letter, Zeigler and others denounced U.S. encouragement of European sanctions, stating that such sanctions violate article 98 of the Cotonou Agreement signed in 2000 between the European Union and the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) countries. For Zeigler, the sanctions were driven by politics and policy and did not consider the needs of the Zimbabwean people.

U.S. sanctions nevertheless remain in place, and seem here to stay after President Mugabe’s victory on July 31, 2013.  According to the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the sanctions imposed by the U.S. are responsible for depriving citizens of prosperity. However, Deputy Secretary Smith from the Bureau of African Affairs claims that such allegations are a “misperception.” The U.S. and EU imposed sanctions against 113 individuals, including President Mugabe and Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, and seventy entities, including the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe but not the entire country. President Mugabe stated that the sanctions violated the fundamental principles of the Charter of the United Nations on state sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state. The Charter states that “[n]o state may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another state in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights or to secure from it advantages of any kind.”

Despite sovereignty issues delineated in the Charter, the U.S. maintains that the sanctions do not target Zimbabwe as country, but rather, specific individuals who have participated in human rights abuses related to political repression or against senior government officials tainted by public corruption. Further, although the sanctions prohibit the U.S. from supporting assistance from international financial institutions, the U.S. may assist programs targeting basic human needs or promote democracy. Aid, moreover, has not been cut off through U.S. sanctions—Zimbabwe has received over 1.4 billion dollars since 2001. The U.S. sanctions do not seem to be at odds with international law, as their objective serves the intended purpose of restoring international peace and security as delineated in Article 41 of the U.N.

At the general debate of the 68th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Mugabe stated that the United States should be ashamed of its policies towards Zimbabwe.  Despite the potential effects of the sanctions, the stipulations of the sanctions are based on human rights violations in Zimbabwe. Others in Zimbabwe such as Vince Musewe, an economist in Harare, indicated that international sanctions may not be to blame for the pending food crisis rather that “most of the smallholder farmers have changed to farming tobacco. …We need to get back to producing food. What was the purpose of land reform? It’s to feed ourselves.”