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.

But the view of economic sanctions as a nonviolent means to prevent aggression and restore peace did not disappear altogether. It resurfaced in the United Nations Charter, in Chapter VII, which addresses aggression and threats to peace. Article 41 gives the Security Council the option of using economic measures to respond to aggression, and Article 42 provides a military option as well, in the event that other measures fail. Economic sanctions continued to be used by groups of nations or single nations–in particular the United States–to pursue foreign policy, to pressure or to "send a message." Of the more than sixty sanctions cases between 1945 and 1990, the United States initiated more than two-thirds; and in three-quarters of those, the United States acted with little to no participation from other countries.

The cold war paralysis of the Security Council meant that if the United States had tried to persuade the Council to sanction the Soviets or a client state, such a resolution would have been vetoed, and the same would have happened if the Eastern bloc had tried as well. Economic sanctions were used by the Security Council only twice in the next four decades, against Rhodesia and South Africa.

Discussion of economic sanctions among political scientists was far more active. In the 1960s and '70s, Johan Galtung and others noted that to the extent that sanctions were intended to undermine the legitimacy of the wrongdoing state, they were quite ineffectual. In fact, they typically generated a "rally round the flag" effect: In the face of economic sanctions imposed by foreign nations, the population tended to support their leaders far more vocally. Others looked at the logistical and political problems of sustaining sanctions, when some nations were less committed than others or suffered greater economic losses by the imposition. By the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in sanctions, brought on in part by the Soviet grain embargo following its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and considerable discussion of the problem of effectiveness.

How do we know when sanctions are "effective"? Is it when the targeted leader succumbs and complies? Or is there a kind of effectiveness that comes just from creating pressure and changing the calculus of the decision-making process? Or even if neither of these occurs, maybe the goal of sanctions can simply be to "send a message" or impose retribution, in which case they are, as it were, automatically successful.

Until 1990 the question of whether sanctions were ethical or not was rarely raised, although they had been implemented something like 120 times since the close of World War I. The only notable exception was the (presumably hypocritical) claim of the Reagan Administration to be concerned about the humanitarian consequences of sanctions on South Africa. Indeed, there was little reason to be particularly concerned about the ethics of sanctions. Comprehensive sanctions were impossible, again because of the cold war: If the United States embargoes Cuba, Cuba can turn to the Soviets. As a result, the economic sanctions that were imposed were partial and porous. They caused some inconvenience, or caused economic loss in particular areas, but they couldn't shut down an economy or generate widespread and extreme suffering. At the time that Iraq invaded Kuwait, sanctions were seen as a "middle route": They were more concrete than mere diplomatic protests and far less lethal than warfare. It is one of the ironies of our times that a measure that was long understood to be a nonviolent method to achieve peacekeeping has in fact generated more civilian deaths than any weapon of mass destruction.

The 1990s saw the end of the paralysis in the Security Council and, with it, sanctions imposed against eleven countries, most notably Iraq. The Iraq sanctions, in a sense, say less about Iraq than they do about the unipolar world, in which comprehensive measures are now possible. The result of a comprehensive global enforcement of trade restrictions, after massive destruction from bombing, is devastation. In Iraq everything from nutrition to education to agriculture has lost a generation; not to mention the social instability, loss of scientists and intellectuals, and the exodus of the professional class. Iraq has by several measures gone from being a First or Second World country, with considerable wealth and a healthy and highly educated population (the most prevalent health problem for Iraqi children in the 1980s was obesity), to a pre-industrialized economy, in which the middle class has lost everything, the poor have suffered horribly and criminals and black marketeers are doing quite well.

More modest versions of the same phenomenon took place in the sanctions regimes against Haiti and Yugoslavia, where the constriction of the economy meant that the state held greater control over communications and mass media, existing inequities between the wealthy and the poor became far more extreme, and those who suffered worst were those least responsible for the state's policies–infants and young children, the elderly, widows with children, the sick and the handicapped.

So it is not surprising that a great deal of attention is now being paid to the question of sanctions, in particular the situation in Iraq, and that the writings are as diverse and contentious as they are. Iraq Under Siege, edited by Anthony Arnove, offers poignant descriptions and photos of the suffering of Iraqis under the sanctions. With chapters written by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Voices in the Wilderness and others, it presents the perspective of activists and intellectuals who most vocally oppose the sanctions on Iraq. It offers information on the deterioration of public health and the media portrayal of the issue, as well as an interview with former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday, while it also lodges accusations and stories of US global bullying and callousness on this situation.

Anthony Cordesman's Iraq and the War of Sanctions is a detailed analysis of Iraq's armed forces, with a good deal of useful information about Iraq's weapons capabilities. It also includes features such as a 139-page "table," a day-by-day chronology from July of 1997 to November of 1998, describing in excruciating detail hundreds of excerpts from press conferences, meetings and reports by every conceivable party. All this ultimately demonstrates, according to Cordesman, that Iraqi leaders misstated facts and sought to exploit the growing "sanctions fatigue" in the Security Council (neither of which seem to me surprising, or in need of such elaborate documentation, any more than would the observation that US leaders also misstated facts and used political pressure to retain support for the sanctions in an increasingly uneasy Security Council). Cordesman also goes a bit further than simply focusing on the weapons issues rather than humanitarian concerns. At one point, he makes the fairly odd claim, based on 1997 CIA data, that the infant mortality rate in Iraq did not increase greatly in the 1990s. He maintains that World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that held otherwise "could not survive minimal peer group review in any normal research effort," and that estimates in the mid-1990s of the human damage due to sanctions came from "a small fringe group of US doctors." In fact, the massive public health crisis in Iraq that has resulted from the sanctions has been documented extensively by UNICEF, the International Red Cross and a host of other organizations. Scholarship on the magnitude of the public health crisis has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, as well as in many other medical and public health journals, with the major researchers in this area from Harvard and Columbia universities.

The Iraq sanctions committee of the Security Council has been harshly criticized by activists and ethicists for its burdensome procedures and arbitrary decision-making in granting humanitarian waivers for Iraq's purchase of essential goods for the civilian population. It must be noted that the situation has improved dramatically under the Oil-For-Food program–applications and guidelines are available on the OFF website, submissions can be made electronically and approvals for large classes of goods are granted quickly. But it is nevertheless fascinating to read Paul Conlon's account of the first years of the Iraq sanctions committee's operation, United Nations Sanctions Management: A Case Study of the Iraq Sanctions Committee, 1990-1994. I have never before heard of any bureaucratic apparatus with such an extreme aversion to transparency that the agenda for its meetings was not distributed to its own members and no actual minutes were kept, only summaries. The 6,000 decisions per year were not computerized, making them effectively unavailable, even to the committee's members.

Needless to say, the meetings were closed, and neither vendors nor representatives of Iraq were permitted to attend for the purpose of addressing questions about a proposed contract. No criteria for approval or rejection were formulated, much less made available to Iraq or to companies seeking to sell goods to Iraq. When a contract was rejected, no reasons were given to the applying company (or to its permanent mission to the UN, which presented all proposed contracts of its nationals). Thus, a company or government could not know whether the flaw in a rejected contract was that the goods were prohibited, the quantity was unacceptable, the vendor was unacceptable or someone on the committee was just in a foul mood that day. The committee operated by consensus, which meant that a hold by any of the fifteen members (the Iraq sanctions committee mirrored the Security Council) could block a contract. The situation was not helped by the apparent arbitrariness of the decisions–identical goods, in identical quantity, by the same vendor, could be approved at one time and rejected six months later.

The Permanent Five members of the Security Council, especially the United States, ended up with enormous influence in these proceedings, but, interestingly, for a very different reason from what is the case in the Security Council itself. In the Security Council the P5 hold veto power and the rotating members do not–a fact that has obvious (and enormous) ramifications. In the Iraq sanctions committee the influence had a different source: Because there were virtually no mechanisms of institutional memory, and because each year a third of the committee rotated off , the P5 were the only members who knew what had happened in prior years and prior cases, and could invoke those in arguing each new waiver application. Were ambulance tires approved before? Does beer count as a "foodstuff"? Can an Iraqi diplomat sell his car before returning home, or is that a violation of the sanctions regime?

Conlon tells us that the arbitrariness was not as extreme as it seemed. He says that the committee was broadly guided by the US focus on end-use and end-users, based upon an analysis of which sectors should be given priority. Thus, tires for ambulances would be approved, whereas identical tires for private cars would not. But that did little to clarify to anyone else–Iraq, vendors, other states–what on earth was going on, and it had the overall result of presenting far more obstacles to the flow of humanitarian goods.

The bizarre aspect of the committee's operations was not limited to its extreme commitment to nontransparency. The conflicts of interests and agendas took several forms, as the parties that had pressed most adamantly for restricting Iraqi imports then held responsibility for granting exemptions to it (see my March 22, 1999, Nation article on the operations of the 661 committee). Conlon tells the following story: In 1991 the bombing by the United States and Britain destroyed the windows in a Baghdad building that housed a UN agency, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. The cost of replacing the glass was $56,000. As summer approached, air conditioning was impossible without its replacement, and temperatures were expected to rise to 120 degrees–more or less frying the $4 million worth of UN computer equipment in the building. The UN itself applied for a waiver (all UN agencies, as well as international humanitarian organizations, were required to seek humanitarian waivers from the committee for economic transactions or exports to Iraq), and the United States vetoed the application, on the grounds that the repairs were technically illegal, since they would involve the purchase of $56,000 worth of glass and services from Iraqi glaziers. "During acrimonious debate," Conlon writes, "no delegate [was] impolite enough to bring up the fact that the government taking the hard line in this matter had caused the damage in the first place." The UN Secretariat intervened, and the matter was ultimately resolved diplomatically after special appeal.

By far the most impressive work on the Iraq sanctions is Sarah Graham-Brown's Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq. It is a thorough and scholarly work, with meticulous documentation of the impact and operations of sanctions, the refugee crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan and the functioning of NGOs. Based on an apparently exhaustive analysis of every reliable source of information on Iraq, Graham-Brown includes discussions of not only the Iraqi political parties but all the Kurdish ones as well, estimates of the amount of smuggling that occurs through various routes, human rights abuses and the mechanisms of state survival, the rationing system and its role in staving off famine while solidifying state control of the existing economy, and on and on. It is a rich and thorough work that does not shy away from identifying the tensions, the confusion, the ambivalence or the raw callousness that has marked the agenda of nearly every party in this interminable nightmare. We might begin with the shifting of blame: "Those in the international community who wish…to see sanctions remain in place, stress the political responsibility of the regime for all the outcomes of sanctions, whether foreseen or not. The regime, on the other hand, continues to use civilian suffering to call for the lifting of sanctions, and to blame on those sanctions all the ills of society." Yet there is more than enough blame to go around. The invasion of Kuwait was rooted in part in Iraqi policies that had led (despite significant gains in health and education) to a deteriorating overall economy alongside an enormous military. At the same time, the Security Council has said precious little about the massive influx of arms into Iraq and Iran–sold to them by members of the P5–during the 1980s.

Graham-Brown suggests that the intractable shortsightedness that has marked the Iraq sanctions regime appears in every domain. As aid agencies, Security Council actors and Iraq continued to treat the humanitarian problems as short-term emergencies and limited imports to emergency relief while prohibiting reconstruction, planning for even six months or a year in advance was impossible, and economic and institutional stability was precluded. This in turn perpetuated the problems of food insecurity, long-term malnutrition and deterioration of infrastructure. Regardless of the emergency relief available, the overall collapse in the economy, industrial production and education devastated the middle class and triggered the flight of professionals and rapid growth in the uneducated and unemployed. It generated a considerable increase in theft, prostitution and begging as means of economic survival and as markers of social deterioration.

In the end, despite the emergence of an elaborate humanitarian-exemptions regime within the sanctions bureaucracy, there is no satisfactory resolution of the fundamental tension between accomplishing the economic strangulation of a country of 22 million people and doing so without widespread humanitarian consequences. "We break their legs, and then we give them crutches," Graham-Brown quotes an aid worker as saying. And, in the end, there is no reason to expect that the strategy of radical disarmament of a single nation will lay the groundwork for lasting peace in the region. Given the local arms buildup (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt were among the leading recipients of conventional arms between 1992 and 1996, and the arms purchases by Iran and Syria did not diminish), once the sanctions are over, it is hard to think that the leader of Iraq–whether it is Saddam Hussein or someone else–will not be tempted to do some catching up.

The recent books on sanctions also address broader questions that go beyond the situation of Iraq. The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s, edited by David Cortright and George A. Lopez, offers an overview of the transformation in the role of the UN, as it imposed economic sanctions with both a frequency and scale that was unprecedented. Using case studies of the countries sanctioned by the Security Council, the authors look at the structural tensions between the Security Council and the member states in this context, as well as the increasing sophistication of institutional processes to implement sanctions along with humanitarian exemptions. In a broader context, they also discuss methods for studying and evaluating sanctions, as well as the emerging discussion about "smart sanctions" (those narrowly targeted to affect only political or military leaders, or particular items, such as arms). The result is a balanced overview of key conceptual issues, the factual background of each of the UN's sanctions episodes of this past decade and the political and institutional processes within which sanctions regimes were framed.

Geoff Simons's Imposing Economic Sanctions: Legal Remedy or Genocidal Tool? poses in stark terms the issue that some have started to raise, particularly in regard to Iraq. The Genocide Convention provides that one form of genocide is to deliberately inflict, on a national, ethnic, religious or racial group, "conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part," with the intent to destroy the group as such, in whole or in part. Simons contends that since ancient times, economic blockades have had this result, and he offers a good deal of factual information and some legal argumentation not found elsewhere in the voluminous literature on sanctions. I am not sure he succeeds in proving that sanctions do constitute genocide–the intent requirement is particularly thorny–but the extent of human loss in the sanctions episodes of the 1990s obliges us to examine that possibility closely.

Two other recent books address economic sanctions in the context of US foreign policy: Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy, edited by Richard Haass, and Feeling Good or Doing Good With Sanctions: Unilateral Economic Sanctions and the U.S. National Interest, by Ernest Preeg. The Haass collection contains essays on both unilateral and multilateral sanctions episodes, including China, Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The book concludes with a set of observations (and corresponding recommendations) consistent with those made by many others in recent years: The imposition often causes considerable unintended secondary damage; sanctions are most effective when there is broad multilateral support; the more authoritarian the target state, the less likely sanctions are to generate effective internal pressure for change; international support for sanctions regimes tends to flag over time; and so on. Feeling Good or Doing Good With Sanctions also uses case studies, looking at Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. Preeg, like Haass and his contributors, sees sanctions as "deeply flawed" and suggests that this is particularly true where they are unilaterally imposed by the United States, to further US political, economic and security interests, without international support. In discussing the "inherent downsides," Preeg reiterates the problems of harming the civilian population and enhancing state control, all while adversely affecting US commercial interests and burdening relations with US allies and trading partners.

What is striking about both books is the degree to which they reiterate the arguments against sanctions from the 1970s and 1980s: Sanctions have political costs, both domestically and internationally; not only that, they don't accomplish what we want them to and are even counterproductive. Equally notable, both books miss the opportunity to point out that many of the truisms about sanctions don't apply to the United States, because of the singular political and economic influence it exercises. Conventional wisdom holds, for example, that unilateral sanctions tend to have little effect because they are necessarily limited and porous. Yet, in the case of Cuba the fact that certain goods are manufactured only in the United States (for example, parts for the US-made water purification system that has been in place since Batista's time, or an implantable defibrillator for heart patients) and that goods patented in the United States are, under US law, subject to embargo (such as a Swedish-made filter for dialysis machines) means that a whole array of crucial products is simply not available in Cuba at all, except by an extraordinary and costly process using intermediaries and sometimes smugglers. Because many of the major pharmaceutical companies in the world are American, these restrictions effectively render unavailable more than half of the new medicines available on the world market, including, for example, pediatric cancer medications. The United States is the only country in the world that can impose a unilateral embargo with such an effect.

Conventional wisdom also holds that unilateral sanctions are difficult to impose and sustain because they lack international support and, arguably, legitimacy. Yet what characterizes the United States, and almost no other country in the world, is precisely the ability to sustain sanctions unilaterally–not only without cooperation from other nations but in the face of widespread international protest and in open defiance of international laws concerning trade and extraterritoriality. The UN General Assembly has just condemned the US embargo of Cuba–with its attendant interference in Cuba's trade with third countries–for the ninth consecutive year, most recently by a vote of 167 to 3. Challenging the extraterritorial consequences of the US legislation, the European Union brought a case before the World Trade Organization; and Canada, Mexico and the EU passed retaliatory legislation. The unilateral embargo against Libya and Iran, which also provided for punitive measures against foreign companies engaged in trade with the target nation, were similarly condemned as extraterritorial. Thus, the United States is the only country in the world whose economic and political influence is so great that it can in fact do con-siderable damage with its unilateral sanctions; it can do so regardless of the rulings or resolutions of the recognized institutions of international governance.

Finally, the United States, more than any other country in the world, provides a graphic illustration of one of the often observed features of sanctions–that they are almost exclusively a tool of powerful nations and coalitions, which do the greatest damage to weaker and smaller nations. In the text accompanying the major database on economic sanctions, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, the authors note that sanctions do the most severe economic damage to weak and import-dependent economies, while large and diversified economies are virtually immune. The sheer size and diversity of the US economy, its near-universal participation in global trade, the magnitude of the US military and a host of other factors make the United States effectively immune from the effects of embargoes of the sort that we have witnessed in Iraq, Haiti and Yugoslavia. The frequency and ease with which the United States imposes sanctions–with no fear of being subjected to the same sorts of disruption and damage–cannot be separated from this fact.

It is not clear what the future of economic sanctions will be. In this decade they have come to be used for purposes that go well beyond intervention to stop aggression, or "sending a message," or even retribution. We have seen sanctions used instead for the methodical devastation of a nation's infrastructure. At the same time, the United States and Britain no longer have the near-unanimous support of the Security Council that was present in 1990. It remains to be seen what lessons will be learned from a decade of using this deeply problematic instrument of international governance. One hopes they will include the idea that superpowers, above all, require restraint and accountability; and that a superpower that conflates self-interest with global governance, and political hegemony with moral mandate, is every bit as dangerous as a rogue dictator with a weapon of mass destruction.