The defense of economic sanctions is that they are a better alternative than a lot of other strategies — the most obvious one being war. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be scrutinised — not just for their effectiveness, but also for their political and ethical implications.
It has been repeatedly found that economic sanctions simply aren’t that effective: If it is the ruling elite that sanctions are supposed to punish, there is a clear problem — the ruling elite by virtue of being elite and powerful simply aren’t as affected by market conditions. As seen in Russia, it is becoming increasingly obvious that sheltering elites from sanctions is not impossible. As The Economist writes in the context of the sanctions on Russia, companies often just sidestep sanctions using well-timed transactions.
But the argument could be made that if the sanctions effectively punish the citizens of a country, they will in turn put pressure on the ruling elite to change things. As the International Press Organization’s appeal against sanctions, submitted to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1996, explains, “the innocent civilian population of the targeted state is deliberately and indiscriminately attacked by a decision of a group of states as represented in the Security Council in order to obtain a change of the political behavior from a third party, namely the government of the targeted country.”
While economic sanctions can be aimed just at weaponry and industries supporting terrorism, they can also be more wide reaching. In Iran, for example, one consequence of the long period of sanctions was that people didn’t have access to medications and had to treat themselves with expired — and in effect, useless — medication smuggled from other countries.
But that is where the moral implications come in: Is any ideological position or political interest of one country more important than the real lives of civilians? Is it okay to make these civilians’ right to life, right to health and nutrition a potential casualty of the political negotiations of countries? Especially when these sanctions are usually applied on countries with autocratic or apathetic leaders, it is hard to see how the argument of civilians pressuring the government pans out.
Economics seem cleaner and less cruel than physical, violent engagement. And I understand that this sentiment rings true — but just because it is less violent does not mean it is peaceful. Blanket sanctions that affect access to healthcare services and employment deprive common people of basic commodities they have no other means of accessing, in effect lowering their quality of life but often also condemning many of them to a slow death.
I’m not saying using the soft power of economics is always bad — I’m saying it is not above scrutiny, because in effect, it is not soft.
The IPO report goes on to state, “Economic sanctions and blockades — as now applied as the ‘weapon of choice’ on a multilateral basis by the Security Council and on a unilateral basis by the United States — are comparable in their devastating impact to a weapon of mass destruction directed at a whole people. They are incompatible with civilized human behavior …” because “multilateral economic sanctions … make the civilian population hostage of the Security Council or of the group of states imposing and implementing the coercive measures. Such sanctions constitute a crime against humanity.”
The strong language and the description of economic sanctions as a crime against humanity is not misplaced. After all, the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, according to UNICEF estimates, led to the deaths of 500,000 children aged under five from malnutrition and disease, which explains why the report by the International Progress Organization criticized sanctions as “an illegitimate form of collective punishment of the weakest and poorest members of society, the infants, the children, the chronically ill, and the elderly.”
Is anything sufficiently important to warrant the coercion of people through their basic survival and the impoverishment of their day-to-day lives?
As the IPO report states, “It is inadmissible that an organ of the United Nations Organization such as the Security Council — by decision under Chapter VII — violates those basic rights of entire populations in the name of international peace and security.”
After all, what can excuse this collective punishment — this use of indiscriminate aggression against a civilian population? The power struggles amongst countries do not justify the targeting of the civilian population. The IPO report goes on to say, “Sanctions of this kind are a direct continuation of war, not a means to restore or preserve peace.”
But the adverse effects of sanctions are well-discussed. My question is this: What gives certain bodies the right to exert this kind of influence over international politics and on civilian lives in foreign countries? While the use of general economic sanctions has drastically decreased, it is still worthwhile to examine the sentiment behind them and what that implies about the world today. Economic sanctions reveal something about the way power dynamics between countries work in a way that is stripped of moral binaries and comes down to economic might.
Accusing western countries of imperialistic motives is a common trope — but examining their behavior, especially when they exert so much power over the world, is vital. Economic sanctions provide a gateway into doing that — and prompt an inquiry into why a few countries are still allowed to control so much of what happens in the world.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.