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Date: Sat, 17 Oct 98 14:34:58 CDT
From: Progressive Response <irc1@zianet.com>
Article: 45518
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.18227.19981018121506@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Sanctions as economic violence

By Roger Normand, The Progressive Response, Vol. 2, no. 32(a), [17 October 1998]

There are a number of reasons why economic sanctions have become a favored foreign policy tool in the post-Cold War era. Sanctions provide the US with a relatively cost-free mechanism for defining the boundaries of acceptable international behavior and punishing regimes that, in the American view, cross the line. Sanctions do not require Congressional approval and do not attract much public attention, thereby minimizing the government’s accountability to domestic politics. And in today’s global economy, with most countries dependent on access to international markets, sanctions have more bite than ever before. This is especially true for comprehensive sanctions, which isolate a country from all foreign trade and investment.

It is commonly believed that sanctions are a humane alternative to war. But this is a misconception. Both sanctions and war are forms of organized violence that cause people in the targeted country to suffer and die in order to achieve certain political objectives. Economic violence is a humane alternative to military violence only if one believes that it is more humane to die from hunger than from a bomb.

In fact, there are several reasons why war may sometimes be a humane alternative to sanctions. The resort to war generally attracts intense public scrutiny and a certain level of vocal opposition, and therefore must be politically justified at every turn. Moreover, the pain of war is usually felt on both sides of the conflict, even if one country holds the military advantage. In addition, war is limited and regulated by international law, albeit imperfectly. Military attacks are supposed to be directed against legitimate targets such as the opposing army or political leaders, and may not cause disproportionate civilian casualties. Carpet bombing an entire city in order to kill its leaders or change their behavior is a clear violation of the laws of war, as is causing civilian starvation through blockade.

Of course, these limiting factors have not gone far towards reducing the horrors of war. Yet it is significant that even these weak constraints are absent in the case of economic sanctions. Sanctions are not generally viewed as subject to human rights law or even the laws of war. Sanctions generate very little public attention, since soldiers do not risk their lives and television does not provide instant coverage. Most importantly, by depriving the entire targeted country of resources, comprehensive sanctions take the greatest toll on the poorest and weakest sectors of society (minorities, women, and children) rather than on political or military elites.

Iraq is a case in point. Eight years of comprehensive sanctions have not affected the nature or behavior of the Iraqi regime. Any temporary gains in dismantling weapons of mass destruction (which can always be reconstituted later) are dwarfed by the staggering human costs. Well over half a million Iraqi civilians, many of them children, have been killed by hunger and disease brought on by economic collapse. A civilian death toll of this magnitude during the US-led war against Iraq in 1991 would have provoked public revulsion and been denounced as a violation of international law. But what would have been unacceptable in war has passed almost without notice because economic violence kills people quietly, in homes and hospitals, beyond the glare of television cameras.

As with Iraq, sanctions are almost always imposed by strong countries against weaker countries without reference to objective legal criteria or standards. This has resulted in the selective use of sanctions: occupation by Iraq triggers sanctions but not by Israel; human rights violations in the Sudan trigger sanctions but not in Nigeria.

No one wants to sit idly by as people’s human rights are violated and their lands occupied. But before unleashing a potential weapon of mass destruction like economic sanctions, it makes sense to develop a consistent legal and moral basis for their application. Otherwise the cure may be worse than the disease.

There are two main options for bringing sanctions within the rule of international law. Business interests favor the international law of free trade, which protects the rights of corporations and investors to seek the most profitable home for their capital without restrictions or regulations. While certain companies may benefit from certain sanctions regimes, the overall trend of US business has been to attack sanctions as a restraint on free trade and investment based on treaties like GATT and NAFTA or enforcement bodies like the WTO.

For those who prefer an international law grounded in human values rather than the almighty dollar, there is the human rights regime. Binding international treaties and declarations over the past 50 years have recognized a set of universal human rights standards aimed at protecting all individuals in all nations. Even the Security Council is obligated to respect human rights under the Charter of the United Nations. But it is important to invoke the full vision set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the centrality of economic and social rights (e.g. health, food, housing, work) to the inherent dignity of every person.

A human rights approach to sanctions has immediate implications. First, any imposition of sanctions should be justified on human rights grounds and should comply with human rights standards. Second, sanctions must be carefully tailored to impact the offending regime through targeted tools such as financial and diplomatic sanctions, arms embargoes, and sanctions on communications and technology. Such sanctions should be carefully monitored to ensure that the rights of the population are protected. Third, comprehensive trade sanctions should be presumed illegal given the inevitable human rights violations that result from punishing an entire people for the sins of their leaders. Fourth, and most important, under no circumstances should sanctions be imposed by outside powers without clear support from the affected population.

This last point is based on the centrality of popular participation in the promotion and protection of all human rights. It is proper to distinguish between sanctions against South Africa or Haiti, which enjoyed strong internal popular support in both countries as a tool against repressive regimes, and UN sanctions against Iraq or the US embargo against Cuba, which have no internal support because they are viewed as an outside imposition that causes widespread misery. Such popular support is essential to establish a credible moral basis for sanctions and minimize the possibility that sanctions will be used by outside powers to further narrow political interests at the expense of the general population.