What it is: Sanctions are penalties which don't involve the use of force and are imposed on a state (or other group) which is threatening international peace and security. (Sanctions can be imposed for other reasons, too, such as penalising states which have placed unwelcome restrictions on trading with them.) International sanctions are usually imposed by the United Nations Security Council, through a formal Resolution, but sometimes states take action independently (as the USA has done in the case of Cuba, for example).
What it means: The charter of the United Nations says that international law and order ought to be achieved without the use of force. Sanctions are meant to be disagreeable enough to persuade a threatening state to mend its ways. By 2002 fourteen states had experienced the pain of UN sanctions: Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia and Eritrea (now separate states), Haiti, Iraq, Liberia, Libya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro). Most sanctions have been economic: trade embargoes (which have included blockades) and other disruptions of income. Communications have been cut off, international financial aid withdrawn, and other boycotts introduced. One problem has been 'sanction-busting': commercial businesses with profits affected by trade bans have found ways round them. There's a much bigger problem: sanctions have hurt the population rather than the 'rogue' government responsible for the threats. Sanctions were originally devised for governments likely to want to protect their citizens, rather than dictators or political leaderships in a state of collapse. Efforts have now gone into devising 'smart sanctions'. These are targeted at an administration, not its people. Leaders find themselves banned from travel, for example, or cut off from their financial resources, or deprived of weaponry by arms embargoes. Smart sanctions have been used, with some success, against armed rebel groups and terrorist organisations. In the diamond-mining countries of Africa, where rebel groups have funded themselves with illicit sales of uncut 'conflict diamonds', a counterfeit-proof system of certifying the stones came into effect in 2003.
Think about it:
(1) A trade embargo was imposed on Iraq in 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But there was no ban on imports of medical supplies, food and other humanitarian items. However, difficulties arose over imported items that could have 'dual use' - as parts for weapons systems or in the manufacture of chemical/biological weapons of mass destruction; these were often held back from their destinations. In 1995, to help suffering Iraqi civilians, the UN introduced an oil-for-food agreement: Iraq could sell a certain amount of its oil itself and use the money for its people's food. But the Iraqi government sold the people short and diverted the oil money elsewhere. Either way, basic human rights of the Iraqis (to food and proper health care) were being violated. By whom? The Iraqi leadership, or the UN Security Council and its sanctions? Or both? Could it have been prevented? How?
(2) There was a lot of concern around the world about the rising death rate of children in Iraq in the 1990s, caused by malnutrition and starvation. There were calls for sanctions to be abandoned. But the US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said that the deaths of thousands of infants and young children were 'a price worth paying' to bring the Iraqi leadership in line. Two problems here. One is that Madeleine Albright wrongly supposed that the leadership cared about the children rather more than she did. Another problem is how people in government see things. The US secretary was, as someone explained, 'speaking the language of politics' (or, indeed, of the military), in which the fate of individual human beings doesn't count for much. Some leaders compensate for this by using the language of humanitarian care in their speeches, but their policies may not reflect what they say. So who can citizens trust?
(3) Some of the world's military, and others, have had little time for sanctions as a way to stop aggressors. Like people in civil society talking about violent criminals (or even difficult teenagers), they say 'Force is the only language they understand.' Is it possible that 'they' haven't been given the chance to learn any other kind? Consider how punishment, from prison to international sanctions, humiliates people, groups and states - and breeds resentment that keeps the cycle of violence and distrust going. In the 1990s, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan understood this: he dealt personally with Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein, trying to find ways in which Iraq could comply with the UN without loss of face or, more importantly, dignity. (He came close, but lacked support.) Is it possible that at least some adversaries, however aggressive and dangerous, might change their attitudes (and behaviour) more readily if treated with civility and respect as human beings? - which is something that can be tried out in any community, anywhere. Maybe. if that civility and respect starts at an early age, there will be fewer dangerous aggressors?