Killing them softly with sanctions

May 10, 2019

For three years Washington has been consumed by charges of Russian interference in the last US presidential election. In the latest sign that the Trump administration doesn’t do irony, on Tuesday Vice President Mike Pence threatened Venezuelan judges with unspecified consequences if they refused to back opposition leader Juan Gaidó, while lifting sanctions on a general who broke with President Nicolás Maduro. Thus Washington proclaims the right to choose other countries’ leaders and to reward and punish military officers and judges who genuflect and object to US diktat.

In recent times the Trump administration has also imposed sanctions on Iran because it was faithfully implementing an internationally brokered and UN endorsed nuclear agreement, threatened to impose sanctions on judges of the International Criminal Court if they dared to investigate war crimes by American forces in Afghanistan, and threatened to impose secondary sanctions on any country or company that continues to trade with Iran in opposition to imperial US commands.

These are the actions of a country punch drunk with the arrogance of economic muscle built on its stranglehold over the global financial system. Sanctions became popular as a bridge between diplomacy and force for ensuring compliance with the demands of the so-called international community. But they can also be imposed unilaterally by the strong as tools of bullying.

Yet the track record of both UN and unilateral sanctions in ensuring compliance is pitiful. They inflict pain on citizens while imposing questionable costs on leaders. The late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once 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, counter-productive, 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. Under a decade of international sanctions until 2015, Iran progressively shifted its trade patterns from North America and Europe to Asian partners and opened new Latin American markets. 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, Iran’s scepticism about Washington’s real intentions behind sanctions – changing Iran’s regime, not behaviour – reduced incentives for cooperation with the West.

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 the Australian Wheat Board and Saddam Hussein.

Sanctions offer an easy scapegoat for ruinous economic policies: economic pain is simply blamed on hostile and ill-intentioned foreigners. According to Cynthia J. Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Venezuela’s GDP has shrunk almost by half since Maduro’s inauguration in 2013, its oil production has plummeted to one-third and inflation reached one million percent (!) last year. Independent analysts blame the economic mess on the government’s hostility to the private sector, rampant corruption and chronic mismanagement, but the regime blames it all on sanctions and US hostility.

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 remained in place for decades not because they served any purpose, not because they were achieving their original goals, but because of the power of a domestic electoral lobby with a crucial swing vote in Florida.

Sanctions have failed to change policy and behaviour in Fiji, North Korea, Myanmar, India and Pakistan (for the 1998 nuclear tests), Iran, and Cuba. China and Russia are too big to punish; Pakistan, the Central Asian stans, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (for its invasion of Cyprus) are too valuable allies to be sanctioned. But, perversely, we did impose sanctions on Vietnam for ridding us of the monstrous Khmer Rouge.

Not one of the five NPT-licit nuclear powers has been sanctioned for violating Article 6 obligations to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Nor any of the belligerent countries or their leaders for the 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 Captain Will Rogers III, the military officer responsible for shooting down a scheduled Iran Air flight 655 on 3 July 1988 that killed all 290 passengers, including 66 children.

In fact, 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 like Myanmar, 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 sanctions successfully against our Kiwi neighbours in punishment when those who sunk the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior were tried, convicted and imprisoned: how dare they! Living in New Zealand at the time, the experience was pivotal in reshaping my professional assessment of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy.

Libya was persuaded to give up on WMD in part because of the desire to escape the crippling impact of sanctions. The positive impact of that was negated with Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and execution in 2011, prompting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to say: ‘this gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, “Take them!”… Look where we are, and in what position they are now’.

Sanctions advocacy relies on an ideological faith in the instrument quite disconnected from the mass of evidence since before the Second World war – Italy in Abyssinia – that point to their futility rather than utility. Public 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 may have caused more deaths in the twentieth century than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.

National drug regulators will ban any drug that betrays, say, a ten percent serious side-effect. Yet with sanctions, we seem prepared to tolerate a failure rate in the 70-80 percent range, some with grave consequences.

The Security Council has the legal competence to impose sanctions under Article 41 of the United Nations Charter: ‘The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures’. However, their questionable utility, dubious morality and harsh humanitarian consequences mean they have contributed to the deepening crisis of legitimacy of the Security Council in return for very modest benefits.

For anyone still prepared to argue the moral case for sanctions, let me close with a two-part question:

· How effective will sanctions be against any target country without full US participation?

· How much faith do you have in President Donald Trump’s capacity for moral reasoning on foreign policy?

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