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Sanctions do more harm than good

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Article by CIWI Member Ramesh Thakur, published in

The Australian

January 4, 2012

(Access published article here)

SANCTIONS became popular as a bridge between diplomacy and force for ensuring compliance with UN demands, yet their track record in ensuring compliance is pitiful. They inflict pain on citizens while imposing questionable costs on leaders.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan acknowledged that “humanitarian and human rights policy goals cannot easily be reconciled with those of a sanctions regime”. Sanctions all too often are a poor alibi for, not a sound supplement to, a good foreign policy. They are ineffective, counterproductive, harmful to the economic interests of those imposing sanctions, damaging to relations with allies, morally questionable, yet difficult to lift once imposed.

The target country can choose from a range of sellers in the international market place. Iran has progressively shifted its trade patterns from North America and Europe to Asian partners and is now exploring Latin American prospects. It is virtually impossible to secure universal participation in embargoes and difficult to police their application in participating countries. The incentive to make large profits by circumventing sanctions is more powerful than the motive for enforcing them, and a variety of means and routes exist to camouflage sanctions-busting contacts: think AWB and Saddam Hussein.

Sanctions offer an easy scapegoat for ruinous economic policies: economic pain is simply blamed on hostile and ill-intentioned foreigners. Sanctions create shortages and raise prices in conditions of scarcity. The poor suffer; the middle class, essential to building the foundations of democracy, shrinks; the ruling class extracts fatter rents from monopoly controls over the illicit trade in banned goods. Moreover, scarcity increases the dependence of the population on the distribution of necessities by the regime, giving leaders yet more leverage over their people.

Once imposed, ineffectual sanctions fall into a termination trap. Sanctions on Cuba remain in place, not because they serve any purpose, not because they are achieving their original goals, but because of the power of a domestic electoral lobby with a crucial swing vote in Florida.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the highest-ranking member of Iran’s political elite living in the US, notes that since the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006 “the number of centrifuges increased eight times. Instead of one enrichment facility, Iran now possesses two facilities. Additionally, the fact the unilateral US sanctions are not readily reversible exacerbates Iran’s scepticism about Washington’s real intentions behind sanctions and removes any incentives for co-operation with the West”.

Support for sanctions rests in their image as a humane alternative to war. Yet they cause death and destruction through structural violence — starvation, malnutrition, the spread of deadly diseases, curtailed access to medicines — that can exceed the cleaner alternative of war. John Mueller and Karl Mueller argued in Foreign Affairs that sanctions caused more deaths in the 20th century than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.

Sanctions have succeeded sometimes, including persuading Libya to give up on weapons of mass destruction. National drug regulators will ban any drug that betrays, say, a 10 per cent serious side-effect. Yet with sanctions we seem prepared to tolerate an 80 per cent failure rate, some with grave consequences.

Sanctions have failed to change policy and behaviour in Fiji (the New Year concessions are not due to sanctions), North Korea, Burma, India and Pakistan (for the 1998 nuclear tests), Iran or Cuba. China and Russia are too big to punish; Pakistan, central Asia and Turkey (for its invasion of Cyprus) are too-valuable allies to be sanctioned. Perversely, we did impose sanctions on Vietnam for ridding us of the monstrous Khmer Rouge.

Not one of the five Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty-licit nuclear powers has been sanctioned for violating Article 6 obligations to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Nor have any of the three belligerent countries for their illegal aggression against Iraq in 2003. In the 1980s, the UN imposed sanctions on Libya for the Lockerbie bombing, under US pressure, while Washington promoted the military officer responsible for shooting down a commercial Iranian aircraft.

Remarkably, no Western country has ever been subjected to any coercive action, economic or military, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Is Chapter 7, then, a tool to be used only by the West against the rest, provided they are weak and vulnerable non-allies such as Burma, neither a major power with clout like China nor an ally like Israel? And will such an equation continue to be acceptable standard operating procedure with the centre of gravity of the emerging global order shifting east and south?

Against this formidable list of non-sanctions, dubious sanctions and the failure of sanctions, the list of successful outcomes of sanctions policies is thin and patchy. France used it successfully against New Zealand in punishment for those who sunk the Rainbow Warrior being tried, convicted and imprisoned: how dare they! Sanctions advocacy relies on an ideological faith in the instrument quite disconnected from the mass of evidence since before World War II — Italy in Abyssinia — that point to their futility rather than utility.

The trend to smart sanctions that impose travel bans on leaders and freeze their overseas bank accounts and assets shows that we can learn. But even their success remains to be proven.

Ramesh Thakur is professor of international relations in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, and adjunct professor in the Institute for Ethics, Governance, and Law, Griffith University.

Originally published by AWPR, 11 January, 2013 | 3:51 pm

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