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The use of sanctions as a tool of foreign and international policy increased dramatically in the 20th century. Yet as the crumbling sanctions on Iraq show, their track record in ensuring compliance is pitiful. They inflict pain on ordinary citizens while imposing questionable costs on leaders who are enriched and strengthened on the back of their impoverished and oppressed people.

As the use of force for the pursuit of national goals became increasingly anathema to the modern conscience, the international community placed ever more normative, legislative and operational restrictions on the recourse to war. Coercive economic sanctions developed as a conceptual and policy bridge between diplomacy and force. Yet their track record in ensuring compliance with Security Council resolutions was described by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as “uneven” in his Millennium Report.

In a debate in the U.N. Security Council in April 2000, not one country was prepared to offer unqualified support for the existing system and practice of sanctions. France and Russia called in vain for sunset clauses in sanctions resolutions, which would require complete reviews rather than periodic rollovers of sanctions once imposed by the Council. The United States took the contrary position, arguing that sanctions should remain in place until the target regime changes behavior. Considering that the U.S. imposed sanctions more than 100 times over the 20th century, this was not surprising. What is surprising is that Washington should persist with a policy of trying to destroy economies and destabilize governments by resorting to a tool that has almost never worked.

Sanctions are generally ineffectual as a diplomatic tool. Their value as symbolic expressions of community disapprobation might still leave them as an acceptable policy option if there were no other collateral costs. Public and hence political support for sanctions rests in their image as a humane alternative to war.

This is a dangerous distortion of reality. In contrast to wars, sanctions shift the burden of harm solely to civilians. Paradoxically, sanctions can be ineffectual in achieving stated goals even when effective economically, perhaps even devastatingly effective. Whether successful or not in attaining their goals, sanctions are not nonviolent alternatives to armed force. The degree and scale of death and suffering inflicted by the “structural violence” of sanctions exceeds the “cleaner” alternative of open warfare. In a provocative essay in Foreign Affairs (May/June 1999), John and Karl Mueller argued that sanctions have caused more deaths in the 20th century than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.

The imposition of sanctions is frequently accompanied by sentimentality and sanctimony. Yet the moral premises of sanctions as the preferred instrument to punish rogue regimes are open to serious question. They are neither refined, calibrated nor discriminating in their effects. The blockade of food supplies can exacerbate widespread hunger and promote malnutrition. The obstruction of medical supplies helps the spread of deadly diseases while hindering the delivery of international humanitarian aid. If sanctions were imposed because of gross, pervasive and persistent human-rights violations by the government, then its hapless citizens are doubly damned: first by their leaders, and then by the international community for the sins of their leaders.

Sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan for their 1998 nuclear tests by nuclear powers who preach nonproliferation but practice deterrence begged the question of moral equivalence. This is the foreign-policy equivalent of “let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” Their nuclear stockpiles are in defiance of the World Court’s opinion of a legal obligation to adopt nuclear disarmament. Unlike countries that are suspected of cheating on NPT obligations to which they have signed on, India and Pakistan breached no international treaty, convention or law to which they are party by testing. For the five nuclear “haves” to impose sanctions on the nuclear gate-crashers is akin to outlaws judging the law abiding.

Of course, this charge does not apply to the vast majority of countries who have voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons, criticize the nuclear stockpiles of the five big powers, and simultaneously oppose the spread of nuclear weapons to any other country.

International morality can be collapsed into one’s own political strengths. The conflation of international norms into partisan privileges is a fatal flaw in the crime-and-punishment strategy of sanctions.

One of the reasons for the erosion of the sanctions regime on Iraq is perceptions in the Arab world of double standards. In their view, the U.S. and Britain take a forceful stance against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but resist U.N. intervention to protect Palestinians from Israeli onslaughts.

Large and diversified economies are immune to sanctions because they can pay higher costs in the short term and make structural changes in the long run. The weaker and more vulnerable an economy, therefore, the more susceptible it is to sanctions. Picking on the small while leaving the big boys untouched is not part of the ethical vocabulary in any moral system.

Because of the known harm caused to civilians and the low probability of success in changing targeted behavior, the sanctions equation does not add up. Sanctions are not morality elevated above commerce. Rather they are power politics camouflaged as virtue. Hence the need to move to “smart” sanctions that target guilty leaders while leaving innocent civilians alone.

Smart sanctions are those that are targeted specifically at members of the ruling elite while leaving ordinary citizens more or less untouched. They are also limited in their application. One example of such a smart sanction is restrictions on overseas travel, even for health reasons, by members of the government of a country under sanction. Another would be to freeze foreign assets of, and restrict overseas financial transactions by, members of the government.

Such smart sanctions hold many attractions. Their moral foundation is stronger, since they are directed at the perpetrators and transgressors themselves, not at innocent victims. Their costs to third-party countries are negligible. They circumvent many of the perverse consequences, such as enrichment of the elite by black market manipulation alongside impoverishment of the general population. They avoid long-term damage to the social and physical infrastructure. Above all, they make clear to the people that the international community does discriminate between the sins of the leaders and the travails of the people.

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