Are sanctions ethical–or an ill-used weapon of mass destruction?
A decade after economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, international support for them is eroding rapidly. The Security Council is deeply divided. Air travel has resumed. As winter sets in, Iraq has threatened to stop pumping oil.
The situation in Iraq has been the most visible and elaborate of the sanctions regimes of this decade, and the ethical issues entailed have been particularly acute. But the issues raised by economic sanctions are also much broader. If the cold war's end gave rise to a unipolar "new world order," it also gave rise to a set of new experiments in global governance and the enforcement of international law, notably humanitarian intervention and economic sanctions. Economic sanctions are certainly not novel. Since ancient times, embargoes and siege warfare have been imposed, in the contexts of both trade competition and warfare. Comprehensive embargoes–the economic strangulation of a city or a people–have often been described in terms of the suffering and slow death they bring, particularly to the elderly, the ill and the very young. Michael Walzer, in his Just and Unjust Wars, quotes a passage from an account of the Roman siege of Jerusalem:
The restraint of liberty to pass in and out of the city took from the Jews all hope of safety, and the famine now increasing consumed whole households and families; and the houses were full of dead women and infants; and the streets filled with the dead bodies of old men. And the young men, swollen like dead men's shadows, walked in the market place and fell down dead where it happened. And now the multitude of dead bodies was so great that they that were alive could not bury them; nor cared they for burying them…. And they who were yet living, without tears beheld those who being dead were now at rest before them. There was no noise heard from within the city.
There are those who hold that siege warfare and economic sanctions are simply different things altogether. I am not of this view. I hold that, while the intent of economic strangulation may indeed be very different when the purpose is international governance rather than conquest, the empirical impact on civilian populations is the same; and for this reason, to knowingly impose hardship and harm on the vulnerable, even where there is a "good cause," is morally problematic. The near-comprehensive embargo on Iraq, which continues to exact a devastating toll on its population, demands the most serious kind of ethical scrutiny, regardless of the fact that it is imposed within the context of international governance.
The modern version of economic sanctions as a form of international governance came about at the end of World War I, when the League of Nations envisioned the boycott as an alternative to warfare and as the device that would bring aggressor nations to their knees–but gently, bloodlessly. It would be, as Woodrow Wilson put it, "a peaceful, silent, deadly remedy." The League's boycott of Mussolini did not so much as give him pause, though, and economic sanctions were dismissed, along with the League of Nations, as ineffectual.