Governments are turning increasingly to economic sanctions
as a way of exerting pressure on other states in cases when
diplomacy fails and war is too drastic or domestically unpalatable
Yet the record of sanctions in achieving desired political
ends is at best patchy. One study by the Washington Institute
for International Economics, a United States think-tank, concluded
that sanctions contributed to the achievement of political
goals in only one-third of the 116 episodes this century that
Furthermore, the implementation of sanctions all too often
causes severe hardship among ordinary people in the countries
being targeted. Sanctions, in short, are a very blunt weapon.
It is time the international community considered whether
it can find ways of ensuring that the harm inflicted by sanctions
is not out of proportion to the expected good.
After all, the two core principles of the United Nations
Security Council are to promote peace and to preserve human
rights. If nothing is done to mitigate the effect of sanctions
on a country’s population, the second of these principles
risks being undermined by pursuit of the first.
A Federation study, focusing on the imposition of sanctions
against Iraq, Haiti and Serbia-Montenegro, underlines how
severe the knock-on effects of sanctions can be (see box).
It concludes that years of sanctions against these three countries
have paid only minimal political dividends at a very high
price in human terms.
In Serbia, 60 per cent of the workforce was jobless or on
unpaid leave by 1994. Real household incomes had dropped to
one-tenth of 1990 levels and a family needed four people’s
salaries for food needs alone.
Haiti already had the highest under-five mortality in the
western hemisphere before the imposition of sanctions. These
duly increased food shortages and resulted in half the workforce
being laid off. In Iraq, infant deaths may have doubled or
tripled since sanctions were imposed. One in five babies is
premature or underweight.
This is not to say that sanctions should be abandoned altogether.
They are a legitimate tool when diplomacy is ineffective and
military action is considered too drastic. The issue is rather
whether sanctions should be allowed free rein or whether,
like warfare, they should operate within prescribed limits.
I believe that four simple steps should be taken to ensure
sanctions do not exact too heavy a toll on a target country’s
First, we should make sure that the UN Security Council gives
due regard to humanitarian concerns when imposing and reviewing
sanctions. In pursuit of this aim, the UN’s Department
of Humanitarian Affairs must be given direct access to Security
Council debates at which decisions on sanctions are made.
Second, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs should be
charged with assessing the impact of sanctions on the most
vulnerable populations before they are applied – and
while they are in force.
Third, the present cumbersome and bureaucratic sanctions
procedures im-posed by the UN to vet the export of almost
any item to sanctions-affected states should be reformed.
The aim should be to allow unimpeded delivery of humanitarian
supplies and unimpeded access to them by those in need.
Fourth, sanctions procedures should also be streamlined to
allow unrestric-ted humanitarian assistance by designated
organisations such as UN agencies and the International Red
Cross and Red Crescent Movement. At the moment, the ability
of these organisations to operate effectively is severely
hampered by the volume of red tape.
These are not difficult changes to make; they require no
new international laws, and do not go beyond the sort of restrictions
already practised in armed conflict. Moreover, they need take
away none of the political or economic impact of sanctions
on those in power.