(note: this paper was written in March of 2003 before the "Coalition of the Willing" invaded. All references to the state of Iraq refer to it pre-war.)


Economic Sanctions and The Necessity of Breaching Boundaries

There are many methods used to coerce the desired actions from one country by another: military force, public scrutiny, as well as various forms of economic sanctions. This paper will focus on the latter with regards to their relation to human rights violations and their overall effectiveness as a persuasive tool.

There are several questions that arise when trying to evaluate the effectiveness of economic sanctions: ‘Are they in fact beneficial?’ ‘What can be the measurement of success?’ and, ‘At what point do the costs outweigh the benefits?’ Depending on one’s perspective, the answers to these questions may be quite different, and depending on the boundaries one sets for oneself these answers could be skewed in any number of directions, and for a topic as sensitive as this, it is important to view the entire picture before drawing conclusions.

The study of global politics is traditionally restricted by the field in which one is working. For example, for someone working in the field of security studies, it is rare to look at economic factors, as it has traditionally been thought to be unnecessary. More recently with the emergence of the field of international political economics, this practice of maintaining walls and boundaries is being questioned more frequently. When referring to ‘breaching boundaries’ it is these divisions – between the local and the global, as well as, the political and the economic – that I am referencing.

There are still cases where the boundaries serve a purpose; where looking at economic factors in a political problem may distort the truth, nonetheless, for the case of economic sanctions and their relation to human rights abuses the boundaries between the local and the global as well as the political and the economic should be breached. To better illustrate this point I will use the examples of Haiti, Myanmar and Iraq. But first we must address exactly what is meant by economic sanctions.

At the most basic level economic sanctions are tools used to pressure a country into changing its conduct. Sanctions are defined as punitive economic actions, usually the refusal to sell goods between one state or multi-state body and another.1 However, the effects of sanctions are often felt much further and deeper than the countries that implement them intended, and by citizens whose only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be completely fair, there are instances where sanctions have effectively brought about positive change, however depending on the existing situation, and one’s perspective, the extent of the effectiveness may vary.

In examining the three case studies I hope to illustrate that breaching boundaries is the most just and unbiased way of looking at economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool. This is not to say that the resulting picture is one free of any sort of concluding consensus, but only that in examining both the global and local effects, from both political and economic stand-points, traditional sanctions fail to fulfill their function in any meaningful way.

Haiti: The Potential Poster Child

In the case of Haiti in 1991, the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) imposed economic sanctions in response to a military coup that ousted the President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As Gibbons and Garfield write, a number of sanctions were imposed:

Initial sanctions froze Haitian government assets in the United States and prohibited foreign aid to the de facto regime. Later they were expanded to include the prohibition of most imports and exports, restriction of commercial flights, and a freeze on arms and oil shipments.2

At first glance the sanctions appear to have worked. They crippled the Haitian economy, and in 1994 a constitutional government was reinstated. The sanctions were a strategic success, or so it seemed. However it was actually a military operation that eventually brought an end to the junta. If one were to ask the Haitian people if they are better off because of the trade embargo, despite the fact that it was the citizens themselves asking for the embargos, I doubt that their responses would be favourable.

As Garfield and Gibbons point out:

Democracy’s best hope was the determination of the Haitian people to overcome the heritage of their dictatorial past. Their call for sanctions is an indicator of that determination. Neither they nor the international community anticipated that sanctions would set back democracy by reducing economic activity and access to health and education, impoverishing the middle class, lessening the care of children, and weakening the national institutions for years after the embargo ended.3

However, all attempts to offer aid to the country were criticized both by NGOs on the left and by other groups on the right. Those on the left felt that humanitarian relief would lessen the effect of the sanctions and allow the military regime to maintain control of the country, while those on the right accused the aid providers of doing so out of guilt. Without action on aid, the Haitian population was hit hard.

In June of 1993, the United Nations threatened Haiti with an oil and arms embargo with the hope of returning Aristide to power. Two days before the sanctions were set to be imposed, the junta agreed to enter into negotiations with the former leader. A month later an agreement was reached which would have seen the formation of a new government, the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to the area and the return of Aristide to power.4

The example of Haiti had the potential to be the poster-child for sanction supporters, but delays in implementation allowed the junta to stockpile goods and all the while, the agreement reached in July was falling apart. By October, the military had enough supplies and confidence to defy the U.N. Security Council, and to prevent peacekeepers from entering the area.5 It wasn’t until U.S. troops landed in the fall of 1994, and forcibly removed the military regime from power, that Aristide finally returned to power.

The example of Haiti is a nearly perfect example of as to why boundaries should be breached, not only when examining the effects of sanctions, but also when seeking to impose them. From an economic point of view Haiti was an ideal candidate for sanctions. It was already a very poor country, heavily dependant on trade from the U.S. and should have been crippled from the start. Yet, looking at the social and political characteristics of Haiti, a different picture develops, one that suggests that authoritarian regimes, such as the junta in Haiti, are less likely to be affected by sanctions as a result of their centralized power structures.

As Oudraat argues, “the effectiveness of coercive efforts, including sanctions, largely depends on the economic and political characteristics.”6 She accompanies this with a chart7 outlining the qualities that make a country more or less vulnerable to economic sanctions:

                                     Economic characteristics
                                 More vulnerable   Less vulnerable
                                  Market economy   Centralized economy
                        Highly developed economy   Under-developed economy
                                    Weak economy   Healthy economy
                              High dependence on   Low dependence on
                             exports and imports   exports and imports
                              High dependence on   Low dependence on 
                   international capital markets   international capital markets
                               Social and political characteristics
                                 More vulnerable   Less vulnerable
                              Industrial society   Rural society
                                Ethnically mixed   Ethnically homogenous
                           Internally fragmented   Internally cohesive
                               Democratic regime   Authoritarian regime
                     Strong political opposition   Weak political opposition

This table illustrates the critical importance of considering economic as well as social and political factors when assessing the possible outcome of implementing sanctions on a country. Using roughly these guidelines I will now examine the case of Burma (Myanmar).

Burma: Why Unilateral Action Fails

According to Hadar, “U.S. unilateral sanctions against Burma have not achieved the goal of ousting the authoritarian government from power. Instead they have had harmful effects on American diplomatic and economic interests and on the economic and political well-being of the Burmese population.”8 Unlike Haiti, the authoritarian government is still in power in Burma, even after more than ten years of sanctions. The failure of this attempted coercion has hurt not only the Burmese citizens, but also U.S. (and other foreign) interests in the area.

Looking at Oudraat’s table and the fact that Burma has an authoritarian regime with practically zero political opposition; one would anticipate the potential for sanctions failure in this situation. One thing the table does not take into account is the willingness of third parties to trade with the sanctioned country. Burma is resource rich, and although the country suffers from severe rural poverty9, money from black market sales allows the junta to remain in power.

American companies that are currently impaired by U.S. sanctions against Burma argue that foreign investment, not sanctions, will bring about effective democracy. “According to Unocal President John F. Imle Jr., ‘Sanctions are counter productive. […] They hurt people, not regimes. […] Economic progress fuelled by foreign investment, provides the foundation for more democratic and open societies.’”10

Although the sanctions have not been effective in removing the junta from power, to say that they have had little or no effect would be unfair. According to a study conducted by the Institute for International Economics some results have been achieved:

Although the military regime in Burma has steadfastly refused to honour the 1990 election results, the decision to hold the elections at all, as well as the decision to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest appear to have been attributable at least in part to the international pressure, including economic sanctions.11

In order for sanctions to work effectively certain conditions must be met. In the case of Burma, the problem was and remains that its largest trading partners refuse to cut off trade. This black market economy is also becoming a problem in Iraq, which is where we now go.

Iraq: The Ultimate Rogue State

If Haiti was the potential poster-child of how sanctions could possibly work, Iraq was just the opposite. After over a decade of the harshest sanction regime in history the Iraqi people are suffering in astounding numbers and the brutal dictator that is the cause for the action remains in power. The latest Bush administration has felt the need to address this situation, and at the beginning of his mandate, George W. Bush brought the idea of ‘smart sanctions’ to the table. During his presidential campaign, “Mr. Bush complained that the Clinton administration was not serious about its stated policy of ‘containment plus regime change.’ He promised to be more serious himself.”12 However, the attacks on the World Trade Center changed the American agenda. I will return to the idea of smart sanctions in a moment, but first the plight of the Iraqi people and how and why it is as bad as it is.

It is important to note that economic sanctions have failed to work in Iraq more than once. They were imposed after the invasion of Kuwait, but the impatience of the senders resulted in a military action being taken before there was time to assess the effectiveness of the sanctions. After the Gulf War the sanctions remained in place in order to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and ideally the removal from power of Saddam Hussein. However the consequences have been severe.

Several studies have been done on the impact of the sanctions on Iraqi civilians. According to Abbas Alnasrawi:

There is a general agreement that infant and child mortality has increased; death rates across the board have increased and life expectancy has declined by several years. Estimates of the number of people who lost their lives because of the sanctions range up to 1.5 million people, including more than 500,000 children.13

Casualties this extreme are even harder to comprehend given Iraq’s situation before the sanctions were put in place. For example, The Economistwrites, “sitting on the world’s second-larges oil reserves, Iraq was once, politics aside, an advanced country. Now its living standards are on a par with Ethiopia’s; UNICEF confirms a 160% rise in Iraq’s infant mortality rate since 1991; and the middle classes have disappeared.”14

If the aim of the sanctions was to cripple Iraq’s economy, they have succeeded. Inflation has skyrocketed due to the limited access of so many goods. Previous government-subsidized salaries are now barely enough to pay for transportation to work and back, forcing people into the streets to beg for food and money.15 Militarily, Iraq has not tried to invade Kuwait, and has recognized the border between the two countries, so this can be seen as a victory. Looking at the situation from a humanitarian perspective, however, it is difficult for many people to see how the sanctions, as Madeline Albright proclaimed, are “worth it.”

So we return to the subject of Saddam Hussein. He is after all, the only remaining reason for sanctions to exist. It cannot be denied that he is a brutal dictator guilty of the slaughter of many innocent people, however, as former U.S. marine and U.N. weapon inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter puts it, “the concept of us trying to save the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein is ludicrous. He is a brutal dictator. He may torture to death 1,800 people a year. That’s terrible and unacceptable. But we kill 6,000 a month. Let’s put that on a scale.”16

At what point do sanctions stop being measures to combat human rights abuses and actually become human rights abuses themselves? The world ‘genocide’ has been used by experts on international law and other cautious voices, such as Denis Halliday, the former assistant secretary general of the United Nations who resigned as the U.N.’s senior humanitarian official in Iraq, and Hans von Sponeck, his successor, who also resigned in protest.17 One would think with such glaring evidence that the sanctions would have been lifted or changed by now. Even studying the case of Iraq within the boundaries of security studies, one would be hard-pressed to justify the destruction that the ordinary Iraqi citizen is witnessing in his or her life.

So what is the solution? If economic sanctions are the alternative to military force, what is the alternative to economic sanctions? Stephen Marks suggests that:

Arms embargos, [the] severing of communication and criminal prosecutions merit more systematic use by governments and offer greater chances of influencing political decision makers in the target state than do economic sanctions. The latter place the human rights and public health of the civilian population at considerable risk and must be reformed.18

These various alternatives are being investigated more and more, since it has been demonstrated repeatedly that economic sanctions serve to punish the citizens of a country, as well as the economies of third-party nations, and do little to reduce the comfort of the governments who are committing the violations in the first place.

In dealing with a topic so far-reaching as economic sanctions it is important to look at the issue from all angles, taking into consideration the state interests involved in imposing the sanctions and the global outcomes of such sanctions, as well as the humanitarian and economic costs that may accompany them.

Since the end of the Cold War, sanctions have become a frequent instrument of the United Nations authority. However, if sanctions are to serve the interests of justice they must be properly designed and implemented and should be targeted against decision-making elites rather than innocent civilians.19 Perhaps sanctions can be smarter, and perhaps there is a new method being developed for dealing with such regimes as I write this. However, no matter how international security is addressed the causes and effects of the measures should be examined with eyes wide open.

1 Beth Osborn Daponte and Richard Garfield. “The effect of economic sanctions on the morality of Iraqi children prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.” American Journal of Public Health 90, 4 (April 2000): 546.

2 Elizabeth Gibbons and Richard Garfield. “The impact of economic sanctions on health and human rights in Haiti, 1991-1994.” American Journal of Public Health 89, 10 (October 1999): 1500.

3 Gibbons and Garfield, 1504.

4 Chantel de Jonge Oudraat. “Making Economic Sanctions Work.” Survival. 42, 3 (Autumn 2000): 111.

5 Ibid.

6 Oudraat, 115.

7 Oudraat, 116.

8 Leon T. Hadar. “Burma: US foreign policy as a morality play.” Journal of International Affairs. 54, 2 (Spring 2001):411.

9 CIA – The World Factbook 2002 – Burma. Internet on-line. Available from http://www.cia.gov/CIA/publications/factbook/geos/bm.html. March 11, 2003.

10 Hadar, 422-423.

11 “Case Studies in Sanctions and Terrorism: Burma (Myanmar)” Institute for International Economics. Internet on-line. Available from http://www.iie.com/research/topics/sanctions/myanmar.htm March 9, 2003

12 “Can Sanctions Be Smarter?” The Economist. 359 (May 26, 2001): 27.

13 Abbas Alnasrawi. “Iraq: economic sanctions and consequences, 1990-2000.” Third World Quarterly – Journal of Emerging Areas. 22, 2 (April 2001): 214.

14 “Can Sanctions Be Smarter?”, 25.

15 Maysoon Pachachi. “Hurt by the West.” New Statesman. 131 (2002): 16.

16 Jeff Lindemyer. “Iraqi Sanctions: Myth and Fact.” New Politics. 8, 4 (2002): 85.

17 John Pilger. “Iraq: the great cover-up.” New Statesman. 130 (January 22, 2001): 8-9.

18 Stephen P. Marks. “Economic sanctions as human rights violations: Reconciling political and public health imperatives.” American Journal of Public Health. 89, 10 (October 1999): 1512.

19 David Cortright and George A. Lopez. “Are Sanctions Just? The Problematic Case of Iraq.” Journal of International Affairs. 52, 2 (Spring 1999): 754

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