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George A. LopezNovember 25, 2000

Aug. 6 marked the 10th anniversary of United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Established by Security Council Resolution 661 immediately after the invasion of Kuwait and solidified in Resolution 687 as terms of the Gulf War cease-fire on April 3, 1991, these measures have comprised the tightest economic stranglehold imposed against any nation in modern times. They have also resulted in one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the U.N. era, with hundreds of thousands of premature deaths of children and a gross deterioration of health, human services and basic goods for the bulk of the Iraqi citizenry.

Despite mounting the most extensive U.N. humanitarian assistance program in its historythe more than $4.5 billion of goods dispensed under the oil-for-food programa decade of sanctions has changed the life span and the quality of life of an entire generation of Iraqis. The recalcitrance of the Iraqi regime regarding arms inspection and the absence of creativity and compromise within the Security Council regarding the provisions of Resolution 687 have combined to mean that there is no end in sight to this brutal ordeal.

These stark realities are far from the scenario the U.N. community anticipated in 1990. Freed of cold war rivalries that had rendered it impotent, the Security Council readily agreed to the kind of peace-enforcement action hoped for by the U.N. founders decades earlier. Compliance with the embargo was nearly universal among nations, resulting in optimism about both the ethics and the efficacy of the sanctions. The economic impact of the sanctions supported this optimism: by early 1991, oil exports, which had accounted for 95 percent of Iraqi foreign currency holdings and about two-thirds of its gross domestic product, had contracted by over 90 percent. The Iraqi economy, which had also been heavily damaged in the war, was devastated. But contrary to both sanctions theory and the harsh empirical data about Iraq, this excruciating economic pain did not result in political compliance by Saddam Hussein.

In reaction to the prolonged humanitarian crisis in Iraq, numerous church-based groups, social analysts and ethicists have called for loosening or ending the Iraqi sanctions. They are raising critical questions about the generally accepted notion that sanctions were a moral alternative to war. Such questions of ethics and effectiveness deserve serious scrutiny in their own right at any time, but even more at this time when the sanctions regime against Iraq seems to be eroding.

A Scorecard for the Sanctions Decade

The frequent use of economic sanctions as a tool of international policy in the 1990’s is remarkable. During the past decade the U.N. Security Council imposed multilateral sanctions 12 times; during the previous 45 years it had done so only twice. The United States and the European Union applied unilateral or regional sanctions dozens of times during the decade. Also noteworthy is how these sanctions have served multiple purposes: to uphold democracy, protect human rights, reverse armed aggression and prevent weapons proliferation. Sanctions have become the virtual 911 of international decision makers anxious to enforce norms of justice and international peace.

Despite their frequent use, however, the conventional belief still holds that sanctions are mostly symbolic in nature and have little practical impact. One reporter described sanctions as an ineffective bromide intended to placate public demands for action but incapable of achieving real results. Whether in Cuba, where 40 years of U.S. embargo have not dislodged Castro, or in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein remains firmly in power despite 10 years of U.N. sanctions, sanctions seem to have minimal political consequences or none at all.

Yet contrary to this critique, as the case of Iraq illustrates, their economic bite can be sufficiently sharp that sanctions will have severe humanitarian and social consequences. In Haiti the short-lived U.N. embargo of 1993-94 also had negative impacts on children’s health. In Cuba and Nicaragua, unilateral U.S. sanctions undermined significant advances in public health.

Sanctions often cause social consequences that make the desired political changes within the target regime less likely. During the 1991-95 war in Yugoslavia, U.N. sanctions deprived middle-class human rights groups of international contacts and support and reduced the availability of newsprint and broadcasting equipment with which these groups sought to challenge the regime’s warlike policies. Sanctions harmed the very constituencies within Serbia that were most supportive of the human rights norms being advanced by the United Nations. Sanctions also have the bitterly ironic result of fostering black market criminality, which in many cases is controlled by state forces or paramilitary groups. This strengthens the repressive forces against which sanctions are supposedly aimed.

While the limitations of sanctions are clear, less acknowledged have been the modest successes of sanctions since 1990. The international sanctions and divestment campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa, begun in the 1970’s, clearly contributed over time to the isolation of the Pretoria government. In combination with the powerful civil resistance campaign of the African population, sanctions contributed to the emergence of a nonracial democracy. In Cambodia, sanctionscombined with UN peacekeeping and election assistanceisolated the Khmer Rouge and effected a democratic transition in an atmosphere of internal peace.

In the Yugoslavia wars, sanctions exerted effective bargaining leverage to convince Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to moderate his war aims in Bosnia and pursue negotiations that led to the Dayton peace accords. And the more targeted financial sanctions imposed after the Kosovo war no doubt contributed to the demise of support for Milosevic in the elections of October that have replaced him. In Libya, sanctions contributed to a settlement of the dispute over the trial of terrorists suspected of bombing Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. According to the U.S. State Department, they persuaded the Quaddafi regime to reduce its support for international terrorism.

Even in Iraq, where the frustration and humanitarian agony of sanctions are most acutely evident, sanctions initially had some impact in convincing Baghdad to make concessions to U.N. demands. In 1993 Baghdad accepted the placement of U.N. weapons monitoring facilities on Iraqi soil. In 1994 the regime declared its irrevocable and unqualified recognition of the sovereignty of Kuwait and accepted the redrawn borders with its neighbor. The combination of sanctions and the weapons dismantlement efforts of U.N. officials prevented Iraq from rebuilding its war machine and reduced its potential for military aggression and the further development of weapons of mass destruction.

In sum, the general scorecard for multilateral sanctions is more favorable than most analysts are willing to recognize. The lessons derived from the more successful sanctions cases should have a positive impact on sanctions reform. While some momentum for reform exists, it faces a general sanctions fatigue at the U.N. that has been generated by the Iraqi debacle. To overcome such fatigue, sanctions reform must avoid generating new humanitarian crises and be more firmly grounded in an ethical framework that supports the case for sanctions.

Toward Sanctions Reform

In recent years U.S. and U.N. officials have sought to reevaluate sanctions and find ways of enhancing their political impact while minimizing their unintended humanitarian and social consequences. Within the United States, Senator Richard Lugar and others have introduced legislation that would require assessment reports before sanctions are imposed, whose purpose would be to determine not only the humanitarian impact but the potential negative consequences for U.S. businesses. The legislation would impose sunset provisions that would automatically terminate sanctions unless they are extended by presidential or legislative action. Within the United Nations, humanitarian agencies have called for the preassessment of social impacts before sanctions are imposed and for greatly improved procedures for managing and processing humanitarian exemption applications.

U.N. officials have increasingly emphasized the need for targeted or smart sanctions. These alternatives to general trade sanctions seek to deny decision-making elites access to specific financial and other resources while avoiding harm to innocent or vulnerable populations. Such targeted sanctions include financial sanctions, such as the freezing of assets and blocking of financial transactions; arms and military technology embargoes; and travel sanctions, including visa restrictions on designated individuals and aviation sanctions against specific countries or territories.

With the demise of Milosevic reinforcing the U.N. instinct to impose comprehensive trade restrictions only in the most extreme cases, the use of such selective or targeted measures has become the wave of the future for the United Nations. The latest example of this trend was the November 1999 travel and financial sanctions imposed against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The use of more targeted measures, if properly enforced, could be a means of enhancing the effectiveness of sanctions while reducing their adverse humanitarian consequences. Substantial improvements in international compliance will be necessary, however, for financial sanctions, arms embargoes and travel sanctions to have the kind of targeted impact sanctions reformers seek. In the last few years the Swiss government has led an international initiative to address the challenge of freezing assets and blocking financial transactions of designated individuals. Many countries lack the legal and administrative capacity for administering such measures. The rapid growth of cybercurrency and the availability of unregulated offshore financial centers enormously complicate international efforts to combat financial criminality.

Last year the German government launched an effort similar to that of the Swiss to focus attention on ways to improve the implementation of arms embargoes and travel sanctions. Arms embargoes have great potential as a way of denying oppressive rulers the means for waging war or abusing their people. But while arms embargoes are frequently imposed, they are seldom enforced. Few nations have specific laws criminalizing the traffic in illegal arms, and the underworld of arms brokers and dealers is often impervious to international control. The implementation of travel sanctions faces similar challenges of inadequate enforcement and lax compliance by governments and private companies. The Swiss and German initiatives, in combination with reform efforts by Canada and other governments, are beginning to make progress in addressing these challenges, but the path ahead toward more effectively enforced targeted sanctions is likely to be long and difficult.

If efforts to mitigate humanitarian consequences or to target sanctions pressures more precisely are to succeed, they must be complemented by a greater understanding of the strategic purpose of sanctions. Sanctions work best as instruments of persuasion, not punishment. They are inherently limited in their impact and are incapable of achieving such major objectives as the overthrow of a government’s leadership. Rather, sanctions should impose hardships sufficient to cause a regime to recalculate the costs and benefits of pursuing a policy condemned by the international community. The pressure of sanctions is most effective when it is used as a means of inducing compromise and political bargaining. This often requires that sanctions be combined with incentives to be effective. Concessions by a target regime should be rewarded with an easing of coercive pressure; partial compliance should be met by a partial lifting of sanctions.

This was the case in Yugoslavia in 1994, when the Security Council responded to Belgrade’s decision to sever ties with the Bosnian Serbs by easing some of the U.N. sanctions imposed against the regime. The United States also has been employing this approach in political bargaining with North Korea over its ballistic missile threat. In September 1999 Washington announced an initial agreement in which the Pyongyang government agreed to suspend further tests of ballistic missiles. In exchange, the U.S. lifted some sanctions against that country. Negotiations continue.

On the other hand, the refusal of the United States to reciprocate for the early concessions of Iraq impeded the prospects for political bargaining and blocked a resolution of the crisis. The more effective and ethical approach would be to reciprocate concessions, combining sanctions with incentives as part of a bargaining dynamic to resolve an impasse. Such an approach combines effectiveness with ethics in ways that can sustain moral sanctions.

Keeping High Standards for Sanctions

When the recent war between Ethiopia and Eritrea flared, when election irregularities developed in Peru, and when civil disorder unfolded within Sierra Leone and sectors of Indonesia, the prospect of imposing economic sanctions was prominent in the debate. For better or worse, in a world where the international community will increasingly concern itself with various local threats to peace and justice, economic sanctions are the only tool international decision makers consider to be available to them short of the use of military force.

As such, and as a result of the experience with the Iraqi sanctions, even the most secular of agencies now recognize that sanctionseven smart sanctionsmust be guided by explicit international legal standards, if not ethical principles. At present sanctions have uncertain grounding in ethics and little or no standing in international law. In the latter, they fall into a gray area between humanitarian law and the rules of warfare. This ambiguity and moral uncertainty must be overcome if sanctions are to serve a legitimate purpose in international affairs.

Just as political leaders are bound by just war criteria in deciding whether and how to use force, so the decision to impose sanctions should be limited by specific ethical standards of just cause, last resort, right authority, probability of success, proportionality and civilian immunity. Currently these areas are underexamined, save for some useful pronouncements by Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops concerned with applying these notions more strictly, particularly with regard to civilian immunity.

In a November 1999 statement echoing the language of the just war theory, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that the grounds for international action against Iraq are still justifiable, particularly in consideration of Iraq’s aggression toward neighboring countries, the need to protect minorities within Iraq and to prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction. But even honorable causes may not be defended with immoral means, Bishop Fiorenza’s statement said. Such is the case of embargoes that contribute to untimely death, chronic illness and reduced life expectancy among innocent civilians. The statement said the primary responsibility for resolving the disputes between Iraq and the international community belongs to the government of Iraq. It also blamed the Iraqi government for deliberate diversion and misallocation of resources within the country. But the international community still bears a large measure of responsibility for the plight of the Iraqi people, it continued. Given the effects of the embargo and the inadequacy of various attempts to mitigate the suffering through humanitarian exemptions, the current comprehensive sanctions are morally unacceptable and must be replaced by more humane arrangements. Political and military sanctions remain acceptable; comprehensive economic sanctions are not. The statement states that it is long past time to end the economic embargo against Iraq. The comprehensive sanctions against Iraq have long since ceased to be a morally acceptable tool of diplomacy, the statement reads, because they have inflicted indiscriminate and unacceptable suffering on the Iraqi people.

We believe that a number of ethical criteria emerge from the experience of the sanctions decade that deserve note and further exploration. First, the need to combine sanctions with incentives in a successful bargaining model means that close monitoring of sanctions cases must include adequate attention to incentives. The imposers must also attempt to engage the target in dialogue, not in isolation. While it may be in the nature of the sanctions instrument that it rests on economic denial and coercion, the longer such initial action remains exclusively within a punishment mode and ostracizing style, the more seriously will such sanctions prove ethically indefensible.

Second, while just cause and proportionality are important, they leave open the question of whether international sanctions are supported as a just and useful means of redress by the internal groups in the targeted nation who also want policy change. While in repressive societies we would not expect internal opponents of the regime to risk their lives by supporting sanction, the support of expatriates may serve as a proxy indicator of support.

Third, recent discussions of whether sanctions should have built into them a sunset clause that specifies a particular time when they come to end, even if their goal is not achieved, deserves serious scrutiny. While the objections that such action may simply encourage targets to wait out the pain in order to get sanctions lifted must be examined, such end-dates could encourage a specified end-game, which has been lacking in the Iraqi case after 1994. Such an approach pushes imposers to construct sanctions creatively so as to achieve success as soon as possible.

If sanctions are to remain a common tool of international policy, as seems likely, the practices and standards for their use will need substantial reform. The experiences of the past few years have revealed both the shortcomings of the present use of the instrument and the direction for possible reform. As the case of Iraq shows, greater efforts are needed to assess and mitigate the potential humanitarian consequences of sanctions. Coercive pressures should be selectively targeted against decision-making elites, rather than vulnerable populations. Sanctions should be understood as tools of coercive diplomacy, rather than punishment. They should be applied as part of a carrot and stick policy designed to resolve conflict. Clear ethical and legal standards should be applied to the imposition and implementation of sanctions. If these reforms are achieved, sanctions are more likely to bring about political gain while minimizing unintended civilian pain. They will be effective and ethical at the same time.

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