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Winter 1998

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Scavenging for scraps of
food in Iraq - old as well as
the young suffer from sanctions

‘UN sanctions are an act of genocide against the Iraqi people’; but ‘Saddam Hussein is responsible for his people’s sufferings: sanctions could be lifted at once if he fulfilled his legal obligations to the United Nations.’ Two voices, two appeals, the one to humanitarian principles, the other to international law. Both make a claim to morality. Even policy makers can see this contradiction: for EU Commissioner Emma Bonino it is ‘perfectly legitimate to impose repressive sanctions in cases of major violations of international law’, but it is also ‘morally unbearable to take responsibility for deliberately provoking the suffering of millions of innocent civilians.’ Yet, following the December bombing of Iraq by the United States and Britain, we are told that sanctions will be ‘tightened’. Against that there is an increasing volume of public demand for ‘the lifting of sanctions on Iraq’ fuelled by public outrage at what is seen as the deliberate ruin of a country and killing of its people by bombing, malnutrition and disease. It is time for us to look at the whole subject of sanctions in a wider context than the particular case of Iraq or concentration on economic action.

Sanctions come in many forms and with varying effect. They are often disastrously imposed for the wrong reasons, on the wrong people and at the whim of the most powerful states. But not always. A negative sanction is an action by which one or more states try to influence the actions of another state in response to its impermissible, unacceptable behaviour, real or alleged. Such actions can, according to Article 41 of the United Nations Charter, include ‘complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.’ Should these measures not prove effective, Article 42 permits ‘such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary’ and which may include ‘demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of the Members of the United Nations.’ In other words, sanctions range from recalling an ambassador to military action, and for members of the United Nations they are dependent on a decision by the Security Council that a ‘threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression’ exists. Because human rights law is now widely included in international treaties and conventions, massive abuse of human rights by a government against its own people can be seen as a ‘threat to the peace’.
It is a basic rule of international law that states are bound to fulfil obligations they have themselves accepted. The duties of membership of every international organisation are set out in its founding treaty. These treaty provisions provide some way of deciding when rules have been broken by member states, and what collective response is appropriate.

power to regulate
It must be said, however, that not even the United Nations has the power to force a member state to behave itself. State conduct can be regulated by international organisations only if and when the majority of their members abide by the rules and are willing to take some enforcement measures against those who do not. Chapter VII (Articles 39, 41 and 42) of the United Nations Charter gives authority to the Security Council to declare a situation to be a threat to peace, a breach of the peace, or an act of aggression, and to order appropriate measures to restore international peace and security.
The standards laid down for acceptable state behaviour are subject to varying interpretations and different orders of priority. No definition of aggression exists, and human rights are not universally self-evident. Add to this all the interests and military clout of the major powers, and it is easy to see why the imposition of sanctions is selective, even arbitrary, and may be either half-hearted or apparently vindictive.
The purpose of sanctions is to change the behaviour of the offending state. At best, where sanctions have some success it seems to be relative, and linked with other factors. In the case of South Africa, it is arguable that exclusion from the United Nations and from the international sporting world were more effective that either the arms or the oil embargo (South Africa successfully developed its own arms industry and an oil industry based on coal).
Currently, the case of Libya suggests that sanctions are not the decisive factor in moving a situation towards resolution. UN sanctions were imposed on Libya in 1992 as a result of US and British pressure following the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988 and to force Libya to hand over for trial two men suspected of being responsible for the bombing. Libya wanted the suspects tried before the International Court of Justice or in a third country. In February 1998, after 6 years of deliberation, the ICJ decided that it did have jurisdiction in the dispute. In March, Tripoli called, in the UN General Assembly, for the lifting of sanctions, supported by dozens of other countries, The Security Council decided to keep sanctions in place, but in June the Organisation of African States voted to dilute some immediately prior to ending them altogether. Britain and the United States eventually agreed to trial at The Hague under Scottish law.
Sanctions were first imposed on Iran by the United States, following the revolution and overthrow of the Shah in 1979 on the grounds that Iran was trying to amass weapons of mass destruction, was supporting international terrorism and opposed Arab-Israeli peace. Recent improvement in relations between Iran and Europe and America has, however, less to do with sanctions than with the election in 1997 of a relatively liberal president and the subsequent upsurge of pro-western reformist activity.
A major cause of the failure of sanctions is ‘sanctions-busting’. In Libya it began to erode the ban on air travel in 1995 with the journey to Mecca of Libyan pilgrims.
During the Bosnian war forbidden goods were delivered to Serbia by river-traffic on the Danube, and arms to the Muslims from Islamic supporters. In Angola mandatory UN sanctions were imposed on the rebels (UNITA) in 1993. UNITA was known to be smuggling diamonds estimated at $2.1 bn from 1993 to the end of 1996, and possibly $1bn a year since then. The sanctions were meant to restrict this smuggling and the arms trade it finances. Despite this, several countries have been, and are, helping UNITA. The UN reported that at least 186 illegal flights carrying military and mining equipment, clothing, food into UNITA territory had originated from small air-fields, mostly in South Africa, in December 1997. President Mandela took action to close a number of these airfields; the number of illegal flights dropped to only 40 in January-February 1998. Sanctions-busting is also carried on across the Gulf. Up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day may be being smuggled out, the proceeds going direct to the Iraqi regime, which probably explains the new palaces, mosques and vehicles for the police.

highly selective
The application of sanctions may be highly selective. We may ask, with Arab states, why sanctions should be so heavily imposed on Iraq but not on Israel which also has a nuclear weapons programme, has ignored 6 UN resolutions calling for withdrawal from occupied territories, including part of Lebanon, has broken pledges of the Oslo agreement, and violates Palestinian human rights. Security Council action against Israel has always been vetoed by the United States with the threat of retaliation against the UN if legitimate moves to exclude Israel are proceeded with.
Similarly, sanctions were not imposed on Indonesia until the overthrow of President Sukarno despite the UN’s refusal to recognise its annexation of East Timor; but Indonesia has been a major arms importer, notably from the United States and Britain, and has huge oil reserves.
The refusal to impose sanctions on Burma, despite the appeals of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is also notable, though Burma’s self-isolation from the world may make it difficult to chose effective sanctions. The option of excluding Burma from the Association of South Eastern Nations was rejected by ASEAN members on the doubtful ground that their engagement with its rulers would be more effective than exclusion.

domestic policy
Sanctions may be quickly dropped for reasons of domestic policy. An arms embargo, the suspension of high official contacts and the freezing of aid imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, were replaced by normal relations within two or three years. China’s size, geopolitical importance, and trading potential are too great to be ignored. More recently, the United States has lifted a ban on the sales of sophisticated weapons to Latin American countries first imposed by President Carter in 1977. This was presented as a reward for almost universal return to elected, civilian government and regional stability. In fact, it was the result of intensive lobbying by the military aircraft manfacturers, Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas. This is an instance of sanctions which should become both permanent and universal.
The pull of domestic interests was also paramount when America restored the agricultural credits withdrawn from both India and Pakistan following their series of nuclear tests in May 1998. Economic sanctions were imposed by a number of countries following the tests but these were muted in the hope that India and Pakistan could be persuaded to sign the Nuclear Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties. In the event, pressure from American wheat farmers persuaded the American government to restore agricultural credits almost immediately. As President Clinton said: ‘We need to make sure that our sanctions policy furthers our foreign policy goals without imposing undue burdens on our farmers.’
Which brings us to the question of the consequences of sanctions and who suffers from them. The degree of suffering and its distribution within a country depend on the form of the sanctions. Diplomatic measures, travel restrictions, a ban on tourism, and the freezing or confiscation of assets will affect government officials and the wealthy, while restrictions on trade, affecting exports and the import of food, medical supplies, spare parts for water, sanitation, power and transport systems, the withdrawal of aid and international loans and the refusal to reschedule debt repayments will affect disproportionately the poorer people. Unscrupulous governments, such as the white minority government of Rhodesia and the Saddam Hussein regime, will certainly shift the burden of economic sanctions onto those sections of the population least able to bear it. Where human rights are at issue, these are the very people whom the sanctions are supposed to help.
People and firms within the countries imposing sanctions may themselves be affected by the restrictions placed on offending countries as contacts and trade shrink. Third countries economically dependent on the country under sanction will also suffer as in the case of South Africa’s neighbours, all of whom suffered perhaps more than South Africa; Jordan and the Palestinians have also paid a heavy price for sanctions imposed on Iraq.
Among the consequences of sanctions are two which can have marked influence on the outcome of a situation. Sanctions may be counterproductive in that their imposition can increase solidarity and resistance within the country under sanction. This seems to be the case in Iraq and Yugoslavia, though repression makes it difficult to assess. At the same time, the hardship and ruinous consequences of economic sanctions most certainly influence public opinion in the countries imposing them.
The whole issue of sanctions abounds with controversy. Given that governments tend to resist external pressure, is it justifiable to subject a whole population to long-lasting economic deprivation, especially where they have no control over their government? Is there any difference in authority and morality between sanctions imposed as a result of a decision of the UN Security Council, and those imposed unilaterally by a major power for motives which may be self-serving? Are the long-term costs of economic sanctions always less than those of military sanctions? While diplomatic measures, the severance of communications and of cultural and sporting ties are less damaging than economic sanctions, do they make enough impact to be effective? And shouldn’t we be demanding rigorous sanctions on all countries and multinational corporations involved in the arms trade, economic exploitation and environmental degradation?
Finally, what about positive sanctions? Very little attention has yet been given to this concept. Dialogue and patient diplomacy over whatever length of time it takes, incentives to reform rather than punitive measures, confidence-building measures requiring the achievement of agreed standards, assistance with refugees and minority problems. These are all sanctions within the meaning of the definition of trying to influence the unacceptable behaviour of a state; they bear a striking resemblance to pacifist methods of conflict resolution and peace-building.
Florence Assie

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