Fiddling While It Burns

Sanctions: Get Busy Looking Busy | 15/11/2011

Note: I wrote this in an hour a couple of months ago as part of a recruiting process, so it’s a little out of date and a little rough, but I stand by the premise so I thought I’d throw it up.

Muammar Gaddafi (Picture:AP) and Frank Bainimarama (Picture:RFMF).

Sanctions. For the slaughter of thousands of its own people, Syria gets sanctions. EU and US sanctions for now, and perhaps Security Council-imposed sanctions in the near future.

Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria – sanctions are applied all over the place, but rarely achieve anything beyond putting the problem off for another day. Sanctions are the international community’s ‘too hard basket’.

Ostensibly, they exist to punish violations of international law. They are placed on states as a measure short of violence to force them to conform to whatever norm they are breaking. However, to argue they are really anything other than filler, a replacement for either real action or an admission of impotence, is drawing a long bow.

It’s not that sanctions do nothing. When the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and held them largely in place until 2003, they were intended to force Saddam Hussein’s regime to quit the country and pay reparations. While this task was instead accomplished by main force by the United States two separate occasions, the sanctions still took their toll.

In fact, it is estimated by the UNHCR that these sanctions took no fewer than 500,000 Iraqi lives, mostly those of children. Meanwhile, Hussein maintained his vice-like grip on his country until April 2003.

Similarly, Iran has been under US sanctions since 1979 and UN sanctions since 2006, but its nuclear weapons program still ground onwards. Only an alleged US-Israeli operation to destroy Siemens industrial equipment used for uranium enrichment with the Stuxnet computer virus succeeded in putting a real spoke in the regime’s plans.

In Gaddafi’s Libya, things were little different. The US first imposed sanctions on the country in 1986, and it was under varying levels of these sanctions until September 2003 when the prospect of purchasing all of Libya’s lovely oil became too hard to resist. Gaddafi remained inviolate, a king in his castle, until February this year, when a foaming sea of opposition broke open arms caches and joined with defecting soldiers to fight the regime directly.

The West is deeply ambivalent about the legitimacy of violence, particularly on the political Left. Despite the horrific brutality of Gaddafi’s campaign against his own people before the imposition of the no-fly zone, it is not uncommon to hear NATO’s efforts in Libya described as ‘massacres’, just as it is incredibly common to hear Afghanistan described as an illegitimate war of occupation, which is no doubt surprising to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans fighting for the government in that conflict.

The use of force in international peacekeeping is certainly a messy and difficult issue. Sanctions, however, are stupid. Not only do they not achieve their goals, they cause real suffering amongst the population of their targets. International travel sanctions and divestment of the foreign assets of dictators are even sillier – rather than pursuing the traditional escape avenue for dictators of fleeing with the kitty, tyrants like Muammar Gaddafi must instead stay where they are safest and can do the most harm – in their capitals, surrounded by their army.

Force is not always an option. I wouldn’t advocate an invasion or even bombing of Syria to add to the economic and military stress of campaigns Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But sanctions don’t help. Like medieval bleeding, they give the international community something to do, but happen to make the problem worse.


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