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Sanctions: a blunt weapon

By Peter Walker

To sanction or not to sanction? This is a question that can weigh heavily on the minds of policy makers trying to protect a plethora of interests and simultaneously avoid military confrontation. Peter Walker looks at the issue from a humanitarian point of view and concludes that ordinary citizens can be spared unnecessary suffering caused by sanctions if certain rules are followed when sanctions are applied.

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 an option.

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 it examined.

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 ordinary citizens.

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.

The case of Haiti

The Organisation of American States and the United States imposed a trade and political embargo on Haiti when a military coup ousted President Aristide in September 1991. Demanding the President’s reinstatement, the embargo was never strictly implemented. Human rights violations, including the assassination of President Aristide’s supporters, continued.

As the security and human rights situation deteriorated, the UN Security Council found that the situation in Haiti in June 1993 threatened international peace and security. Acting under the Charter’s Chapter VII, and aiming to reinstate the ousted president, it adopted Resolution 841, imposing an arms and oil embargo and freezing government funds in other countries.

Three weeks later, the Haitian military regime seemed to concede, when an agreement was signed with President Aristide on Governor’s Island in New York, outlining steps to restore democracy and reinstate the president. Sanctions were lifted when the Haitian Parliament reconvened to confirm the appointed Prime Minister in August under the terms of the agreement. Sanctions seemed to have worked.

But violence again increased. After a US vessel carrying UN training and monitoring troops was prevented from docking in Port-au-Prince on 11 October 1993, the Security Council decided to reimpose sanctions. The next day, the Minister of Justice appointed by President Aristide was assassinated in Port-au-Prince.

With continuing “extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, abductions, rape and enforced disappearances [and] the continued denial of freedom of expression”, Security Council Resolution 917 on 6 May 1994 tightened sanctions with a general trade embargo and a ban on air traffic.

Sanctions included a ban on travel by senior Haitian military and police officers and their families and associates — about 600 people — as well as a call on all states to freeze those individuals’ assets.

The UN Secretary General reported no progress in implementing the Governor’s Island agreement six weeks after sanctions were tightened. Instead, he found a sharp deterioration of human rights and new patterns of repression. Politically related killings continued and the security environment remained highly unstable. The Secretary General summarised: “Tensions have increased as a result of... the growing impact of economic sanctions, the continued repression and the humanitarian crisis.”

In late September, 16,000 troops, most of them from the United States, moved into Haiti, reinstated President Aristide and escorted the coup leaders out of the country. Sanctions did not achieve these goals. Casualties directly connected with the armed intervention were low. The Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies claimed that sanctions had led to a considerable increase in child mortality. This view was contested but the assumption that sanctions take fewer human lives than armed force will hardly find support in the case of Haiti.

Taken from the World Disasters Report 1995,
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,


Peter Walker
Peter Walker is Director of Disaster and Refugee Policy at the Federation.

This article first appeared in the Financial Times,
18 May 1995.


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