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Legitimacy, Morality, and Effectiveness of Sanctions

By Mukesh Kapila

World peace may have a better chance if sanctions were de-weaponised in our time of multi-dimensional war-making.

The West has imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia in response to the conflict with Ukraine. Will they affect the course of the war, even as fears of a nuclear Armageddon emerge?  Meanwhile, wider questions are raised about the legitimacy, effectiveness, and morality of many sanctions around the world. 

These are not new concerns. My own engagement with sanctions started in 1970s Oxford when a lecturer described how Kodak and Polaroid’s photos facilitated identity cards under apartheid,  and worldwide consumer boycotts forced them to exit South Africa.  Suitably inspired, I joined the ‘Boycott Barclays’ movement and withdrew my account from the biggest investment bank in South Africa.  

Of course, I had no illusion that removing my student debt out of Barclays would change the world. But when thousands joined in, opposing apartheid became my generation’s greatest moral movement. It triggered the cutting of diplomatic, cultural and sporting links with South Africa alongside United Nations arms embargoes and trading and financial sanctions. Apartheid was eventually bankrupted, Mandela was released, and the new ‘rainbow nation’ emerged. 

My next encounter with sanctions was in the 1990s when, as a UK Government humanitarian official, I pleaded to allow Iraq to import chlorine for water purification as cholera erupted. But hardline sanctioneers worried about chlorine’s dual use in Saddam Hussein’s alleged chemical weaponry. Such tensions around Iraq’s sanctions were never resolved. They caused terrible, indiscriminate harm, with countless lives lost through malnutrition, disease, redoubled repression, and immense corruption under the Oil-for Food programme. It was not sanctions but a US-led invasion that brought government change in Iraq, the toxic legacy of which is still unfolding. 

My further experience of sanctions came from leading a European Union delegation to 1990s North Korea to evaluate the starvation that paralleled huge import sanctions because of DPRK’s nuclear ambitions. As history shows, the long-running sanctions have done nothing to de-nuclearise the country or enhance regional security. 

My closest sanctions encounter was in the 2000s Sudan, then Africa’s biggest country experiencing the world’s longest-running conflict. As Head of UN Sudan, I had to exercise maximum creativity to enable the largest humanitarian programme of that period to function while navigating the prohibitions. The sanctions did nothing to bring democracy, stop the Darfur killings or the country’s fracturing.

All these sanctions were authorised by the UN Security Council.  There are currently 14 such sanctions concerning Central African Republic,  DPR Korea, DR Congo, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Taliban administration in Afghanistan as well as Daesh, Al Qaeda.

Sanctions can include prohibitions and embargoes spanning trade and economy, as well as arms sales, banking, technology transfer, and travel. By and large, compliance with UN sanctions is high because they command global legitimacy. 

However, with the Security Council paralysed by geopolitics, recent sanctions such as on Russia were instituted by regional organisations such as the European Union.  The EU has also sanctioned Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Myanmar, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, in addition to restrictions against those committing terrorism, cyber-crimes, chemical warfare, and human rights abuses.   The  African Union has used sanctions 20 times in recent years in reaction to coups on the continent.  

Individual nations also institute their own sanctions.  European countries and India have sanctioned certain Chinese technologies, while China has put restrictions on Australian trade and on travel by European parliamentarians who criticised Chinese policies.  

Non-UN sanctions are not universally legitimate, and more countries feel justified and emboldened to bypass or even gain from them. 

But some non-UN sanctions can be powerful. United States sanctions are most feared because of American economic domination and control of the world’s currency – the dollar.  Its sanctions also assert extra-territorial jurisdiction. Thus, if non-Americans do business with US-sanctioned entities, they are blacklisted for travel and business in the United States and become subject to secondary sanctions.

The perverse effect of non-UN sanctions is that they further undermine our global law and order system through dividing the community of nations. This is not conducive to international peace and security, the original justification for sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.  

Furthermore, many underlying problems have complex causes and, therefore, hard to influence through sanctions. For example, they have had meagre results in stopping child soldier recruitment, trading in blood diamonds, or stopping human rights abuses. Recent Western sanctions against Iran’s morality police and Taliban have yet to make a difference to women’s rights. 

With the effectiveness of sanctions under question, are they moral? For example, should all Russians be made to suffer because of their politicians? In moral terms, no. But Europeans are themselves suffering from Russia’s energy retaliation and secondary economic consequences. Therefore, does mutually-inflicted suffering make the policy more morally acceptable? 

The contrast is with the one-sided suffering inflicted on black South Africans who disproportionately bore the impoverishing impact of anti-apartheid sanctions. Or the devastating costs of comprehensive sanctions on the poorest in Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan, while their elites prospered through sanctions busting or adapting.

Then there is the ‘greater good’  moral argument that worthy ends, such as reversing aggression or removing abusive rulers, justify the suffering caused to innocent people caught in the middle. But with the effectiveness of generalised sanctions limited, they are doubly immoral.  

Further immorality accrues when unintended harms from sanctions are not mitigated through humanitarian exemptions. Hence, food and health are usually excluded from restrictions, as under the Russian sanctions. But, as I found from experience, the sanctioning authorities impose huge bureaucratic obstacles that require humanitarians to deploy vast administrative and monitoring capabilities. That adds major costs to delivering life-saving essentials to suffering populations. 

A popular version of sanctions is boycotts to express public outrage, often involving sport and culture. Currently, French cities plan to boycott the public showing of the Football World Cup in Qatar because of “human rights” concerns. Russian tennis players were excluded from Wimbledon, and musicians from Swiss concerts. Boycotts of Russian culture and even vodka may give frustrated Westerners the illusion of making a stand, but it makes no difference to the Ukraine war. Just like Cold War history, which was unchanged by the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics, or the Soviet retaliatory boycott of the Los Angeles games in the 1980s.  

Sanctions were originally perceived as a non-violent tool for achieving peace and security. However, with current sanctions increasingly shown up as illegitimate, immoral, and ineffective, they are highly divisive among the community of nations. Meanwhile, a greater threat is emerging from the nature of war itself that has altered radically to become a whole-of-society affair. Today’s wars often have outside sponsors or participants, as seen in the Russia-Ukraine confrontation or the conflicts in the Middle East, Myanmar, and Ethiopia’s Tigray region. In these contexts where war crimes and civilian atrocities are normalised, the restraining influence of sanctions is moot. 

World peace may have a better chance if sanctions were de-weaponised in our time of multi-dimensional war-making.

The views expressed in the article are solely the opinion of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author not Wargeyska Jamhuriyadda. The article was originally published on TRT World Website.

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