History suggests that effectiveness of economic sanctions may depend on targeted measures

By: Anna Sayre, reporter SanctionsAlert.com 
Date: June 23, 2016

Despite a checkered history, the use of sanctions as an international means of effecting change has grown exponentially in recent times. As countries becomes less and less keen to use military force, the world has turned to sanctions implementation as a means of affecting international change, both politically and socially.

Most recently, the UN imposed sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons test, and is considering sanctions against the Iranian government for its lack of transparency about its nuclear program. Considering this ever-growing use of sanctions on a global scale, the question of whether or not these measures are truly effective has come to the forefront of global policy and attracted growing attention from the international community.

Skeptics argue that sanctions, for the most part, are largely ineffectual and can even result in disproportionately punishing the poorest in a society and ultimately reinforce the regimes that they seek to affect. Proponents of sanctions implementation say that economic sanctions are an important tool in promoting peace, negotiations, and protection against violations of international law.

Why are sanctions imposed?

Sanctions are imposed for a variety of reasons. Sanctions can be diplomatic in nature, such as the removal of embassies or refusal to participate in an international sports event, however, the majority of sanctions focus on economic punishment and pressure. Economic sanctions may include simple travel bans or blocking of assets, arms embargoes, foreign aid reduction, or trade restrictions.

Imposition of a sanction is often viewed as a more cost effective and lower risk alternative to military force, and allow a country to respond more swiftly to political challenges and developments that may arise. Generally speaking, the purpose of a sanction is either to change undesirable behavior (e.g. Syria’s anti-Israeli militia), or to limit opportunities for undesirable behavior (e.g. Iran, extensive restrictions on nuclear development).

Historical sanctions

Though deployed more commonly today, sanctions are not a new way of imposing international pressure. Some of the first economic sanctions imposed by the modern western world was by US President Thomas Jefferson through the Embargo Act of 1807, which established a complete ban on all US trade with Europe. This early form of sanctions, at the time called “discriminatory duties”, was imposed mainly to protect against foreign attacks on US merchant ships. Unfortunately, because the UK and the rest of Europe already happened to have enough US goods at the time, the embargo proved largely ineffectual and dramatically curbed US trade in commercial centers like New York and Philadelphia.

Many times, a blockade may prove ineffectual due to a sanctioned country having access to sufficient goods from other countries or has the means to produce it internally. During World War II, the Allies formed a blockade of war supplies to Germany, hoping to keep it from gaining power and growing its army. Despite nearly all overseas trading being halted by the Allies, the blockade did not have the devastating effect it was expected to have due to the Germans continuing to receive raw materials and food from other sources. One of these sources was from Russia (then the Soviet Union) who, until the eve of the German invasion in June 1941, provided important grain and petroleum supplies. In addition, the Germans proved to be exceptionally adept at developing synthetic substitutes for those items that were curbed.

The emergence of targeted sanctions

The nature of economic sanctions has become more sophisticated over time. In the past two decades, countries have moved away from comprehensive measures and instead opt to impose targeted sanctions. These “targeted” sanctions, unlike their historical embargo counterpart, do not interrupt trade and investment relations with a country completely, but rather, are aimed at restricting business with certain targeted companies and individuals within that country. This can include specific goods, assets, financing operations, travel options and reputations of the individuals, companies or sectors associated with the objectionable behavior that sanctions seek to redress.

Most sanctions imposed today are targeted in some way, whereas all recent UN and EU sanctions are required to contain information as to why they have been imposed and specify their ultimate aim.

The effectiveness of a complete embargo

Despite this recent favor towards targeted sanctions, there are still countries against which the US and other countries still retain complete bans. Though most of the time this has a damaging economic effect, some would argue that this only increases tension within the country and is largely ineffectual at entirely halting trade.

The US, the UN, and the EU have repeatedly sanctioned Syria, beginning in 2011. These sanctions have cut off Syria from economic aid, severely limited trade between the nations involved, and greatly deterred investment. Companies and banks are banned from opening branches in Syria and, due to the ban of US exports, the Syrian national airline has had trouble repairing its Boeing jets or doing business with other countries that have an American connection. Though, despite the imposition of these seemingly onerous sanctions, there is little evidence that they have made much of a difference in curbing the brutal Syrian regime resulting from the Arab Spring. Syria has embarked on a secret effort with North Korea to build a nuclear plant that was destroyed in 2007, and unrest has raged on in the country for almost five years.

After the Gulf War in 1991, economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, however, some say that these sanctions were so sweeping that they ended up harming ordinary Iraqis. Though the economic sanctions imposed hindered Saddam Hussein’s regime to some extent from producing weapons of mass destruction, they also made it near to impossible for Iraq to rebuild its cities from the bombing damage inflicted during the war. In essence, Iraq was reduced to a pre-industrial state and this devastation to the Iraqi infrastructure was not given an opportunity to recover. In addition, US sanctions did little to help the Iraqis regain political control as Saddam Hussein retained his grip on power and would likely still have retained it if not for the US-led invasion in 2003.

 The US embargo against Cuba in 1960, in reaction to Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, has lasted for five decades. The near total ban on the flow of goods from what was previously Cuba’s biggest provider of products has caused unprecedented economic damage to the small country. The US Chamber of Commerce predicts that the embargo has cost the Cuban government approximately $685m per annum. Nevertheless, despite this great economic effect on Cuba, the communist regime that originally inspired the embargo is alive and thriving.

For larger countries, such as China, sanctions may not have the same damaging effect. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, both the EU and US announced an arms embargo with the world’s most populous nation. Perhaps most notably, the embargo limits technology sales to China of goods that could be used for military purposes. This, in addition to the EU still imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, means China is forced to spend more money on ‘in-house’ research, rather than simply importing. However, despite the rather strong sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, China’s economy is thriving due to the fact that it now simply does most of its dealings with its Russian neighbors.

Thus, sanctions seem to have a greater effect when they are targeted as opposed to a full economic blockade. In fact, a complete economic ban can often not only prove ineffectual against a cruel regime, it can help to radicalize it. In this way, sanctions can seem to be ineffective in resolving foreign policy due to the serious negative implications on public health and human rights. It is important to remember that a non-democratic regime may always try to compensate its losses at the expense of its own citizens. Targeting the natural weaknesses of a country’s economy may help to achieve greater results than a full embargo, which has too many negative side effects, most notably to the general population.

Recent sanctions success stories

One country frequently cited as a sanctions success story is Under US and UN sanctions pressure, the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi admitted to responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombings and renounced its weapons of mass destruction program, paving the way for the lifting of sanctions, as well as normalization of relations with the US in May 2006. One of the main reason cited for this success is the use of engaged bargaining with the targeted country as opposed to simple isolation and punishment.

Comprehensive arms and economic sanctions against the former Yugoslavia following the war with Croatia and at the end of the Bosnian war, in which the former Yugoslavia backed Bosnian Serbs, weakened the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and helped push it toward accession to the Dayton Accords in 1995. Some maintain that sanctions were a major bargaining chip with Belgrade in the early 1990s, however, others point out that the sanctions didn’t substantively change the regime’s behavior, as it again faced sanctions for cracking down on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999.

UN sanctions on Liberia’s lucrative timber trade in 2003, are credited with contributing to the downfall of President Charles Taylor, who now awaits a war crimes trial in The Hague. Liberia is an example of a recent UN case where the sanctions were eventually paired with larger multilateral efforts like European Union aid or UN peacekeeping. Some experts say, “Sanctions within a larger framework of dispute resolution become more robust and more effective”.

The future of sanction implementation

Many believe that, instead of effecting positive change against cruel regimes, sanctions have the tendency to hit home against ordinary ruled people of the country rather than against the rulers who are often the real target for pressure. As Nicholas Burns, the most senior professional US diplomat in the Bush Administration says regarding sanctions, “Many countries are effectively ignoring them or, like China, undercutting them. Sanctions are all very well, but if they are to work they must be universally applied”.

History teaches us that sanctions seem to have a greater effect when they are targeted as opposed to a full economic blockade. In fact, a complete economic ban can often not only prove ineffectual against a cruel regime, it can help to radicalize it. In this way, sanctions can seem to be ineffective in resolving foreign policy due to the serious negative implications on public health and human rights.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that economic sanctions do not work at all. Targeting the natural weaknesses of a country’s economy may help to achieve greater results than a full embargo, which has too many negative side effects, most notably to the general population. Often times, sanctions fulfill their desired effect when more than one country works together and puts forth a targeted, multilateral effort to work towards a common goal.

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