The Failure of Sanctions: Iraq, Iran, NK, Cuba and Gaza
Sep 19, 2010

The Failure of Sanctions: Iraq, Iran, NK, Cuba and Gaza

Sanctions are one of the chief "nonviolent" ways the worlds states impose punitive, preventative or coercive measures on regimes who go against their wishes. It has been an important tool used extensively by the US and her allies in both the past and the present on unsavory regimes around the world.   However, sanctions often are ineffective at accomplishing their goals and have enormous human consequences on the people they effect.  I consider here the ethical justifications for and against sanctions, their successes and failures at accomplishing their stated goals and the effects on the people in countries like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Cuba.

I look first at the stated reasons for sanctions which fall into three categories: punitive, coercive and preventative.  A recent example of a  punitive sanctions is the increased sanctions applied by South Korea, the US and others on North Korea after it recently sunk a South Korean navy ship. As with any punitive action, the main goal is to establish a deterrent that prevent hostile regimes from engaging in actions like sinking a ship in the future. The potential effectiveness of such sanctions as a punitive deterrent will be discussed later. The second category of sanctions, namely coercive, are designed to try and force a regime into taking a specific course of actions such as the current sanctions on Iran which has the stated goal of pressuring them to drop their nuclear program and allow for open international inspectors.  Preventative sanctions aim to directly prevent the spread of usually weapons or technologies from passing to a regime such as Israel desiring to prevent Hamas from receiving weapons. In many cases the lines between these types of sanctions are fuzzy and contain elements of two or more of them.  The potential effectiveness of such sanctions as a punitive deterrent or as a preventative or coercive force will be discussed later and in the examples.


In both cases, these goals are achieved through restricting some aspects of trade, finance, human transfer or diplomacy. It can be as extreme as a physically enforced complete embargo restricting all and any outside interactions with any country (cold war Cuba was an approximate example of this) to a few highly targeted sanctions with a narrow focus (say nuclear related tech in Iran). In all cases however it operates by putting some level of pressure, sometimes existential pressure, on the regime. A large focus of this essay will be the effect on of the people of a nation, and not just the regimes leadership. For many sanctions, pressure is put on the people either directly whereby pressuring the people will in turn pressure the regime (perhaps sparking a revolution or threat of one) or it is indirect where the focus of the sanctions are on the regime but the people suffer as an ancillary consequence. As a rule of thumb, the broader and less targeted the sanctions are the more likely and more severely they hurt the people.

Let us move now to the moral justification of sanctions. As we shall see in the subsequent examples, the simple reality is that sanctions do, and often even aim to, cause legitimate harm to a states people and result in lower quality of lives, infringement of freedoms, suffering and civilian deaths that can number in the hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions as was the case in the sanctions against Iraq from 1990 to 2003, the majority of them children. It should thus be acknowledged that sanctions cause legitimate harm to innocent people. In this sense, sanctions should be considered in the same moral category of a direct war. Now one can certainly maintain the necessity of morally just wars, but what should be emphasized is that key components of a just war morality such as a legitimate threat, a reasonable chance at success and a focus on minimizing human suffering on all sides while trying to accomplish the objectives is paramount. Far too often, the sanctions employed by the west fail on at least one if not all of these three factors. In the case where the sanctions aim directly on the people cutting off all but the most basic of humanitarian supplies with the goal of pressuring the regime via internal pressure, then our conditions for just sanctions must be especially strict and truly a method of last resort. Just as directly targeting civilians in war - such as Nagasaki or Hiroshima- necessitates the most extreme clarity in each of the three factors so to is it with sanctions that target people. Should an alternative exist, it must be preferentially considered. Finally, one must consider some level of relativism when considering morality. It may be our contention that some social ordering - such as communism - is bad however it takes quite a bit more to morally justify violent actions against such a regime merely for the difference of values.

I now consider some examples. Perhaps the most extreme of our recent examples is the aforementioned sanctions in the 90s against Iraq which left as many as 1.5 million civilians dead, mostly children, as a result. Osama bin laden has even used this example in his published justification for the 9/11 attacks which points to its severity and backlash.  The sanctions were multilateral from the UN (led by the US), comprehensive on all but the most basic humanitarian supplies, and physically enforced via troop presences in the gulf and an arial no fly zone. The results to infant mortality, literacy, poverty and most other humanitarian measures was dramatic. The result was that the suffering to the people was extreme and thus invokes a moral demand for a clear threat, a reasonable chance of success and a lack of alternative options. The stated reasons were to enforce reparations for Kuwait - which Saddam Hussein had invaded leading to the gulf war and these sanctions - and to pressure Iraq into removing and proving this removal of weapons of mass destruction. While not codified as a reason in the UN resolution, in the US bills, statements from Clinton and other documents that to "replace the regime" was a key goal of policy. All three of these goals were ultimately not met as the US decided the conditions warranted a full invasion in 2003 which begs the question: was all that suffering on the peoples part necessary given how little changed in the 13 years leading up to the second Iraq war?

The issue of accomplishing goals becomes even more clearly questionable when one considers Cuba and North Korea. Sanctions against these regimes have and still continue today for over 50 years. In the Cuban case we have seen what was at one point an existential threat at the height of the cold war dissipate into diplomatic differences yet the core of the sanctions remain and no American business is permitted to trade with Cuba, a condition strengthened by Clinton to include foreign subsidiaries of US companies. No formal diplomatic ties exist.  While certainly there are legitimate goals such as ensuring human rights and democracy progresses in Cuba, the vaguely coercive sanctions don't relate in severity to the goals and more importantly in 50 years of existence don't satisfy the condition of a reasonable and timely accomplishment of these goals. Instead, they are a throwback to an anachronistic anticommunist fears that ought to be replaced by the way most of South America deals with Cuba: direct engagement. For instance, Cuba was one of the first and most directly involved in supplying doctors and other aid to Haiti after the earthquake.

In the other autocratic communist country, North Korea, no official peace - merely a truce- has been declared between the two Koreas since 1953 and various levels of sanctions that run quite deep have applied ever since. Again the question of what one realistically hopes to accomplish after a half century with these sanctions that brutalize the people is one that must be asked. Now NK is very different from Cuba in that it is actively belligerent in its direct actions like the recent South Korean ship sinking, the enormous standing army and weapons pointed at Seoul, the nuclear testing or the consistent aggressive rhetoric. Thus the threat is legitimate. That said, we must consider the other conditions namely that it has a realistic chance of reducing the threat and that it minimizes harm. Given how extensive the sanctions where before the ship sinking and how they have persisted for so many decades it seems unlikely to expect such punitive actions being a deterrent. Furthermore, the effect on the people is enormous. Thankfully, the Chinese supply a large amount of the basic humanitarian supplies without which the people would undoubtably experience a far worse catastrophe than they currently experience. As a result of the regimes failure to satisfactorily distribute food, a merchant class was developing to fill this role that provided one of the first legitimate opposition to the regimes unquestioned authority. This last Christmas Kim Jong Il implemented vicious currency reforms that essentially accomplished wiping out the savings of this merchant class. However, when the US and SK imposed additional sanctions  after the ship sinking the principle victims were not the established regime but the merchant class and those they serve.  For example, there were considerable new restrictions on NK merchant ships traveling through SK waters. The result is that even if one ignores the morally culpable naturing of pressing a people as a means to pressuring the regime, even if one ignores the ineffectiveness of sanctions over recent history we are still faced with the conclusion it is directly hurting the one group that was posing a legitimate opposition and whom we would theoretically support.

Perhaps the most strikingly immoral current sanctions are the Israeli sanctions against the Gaza strip in Palestine. Since the Israeli 2007 invasion of gaza, the region has been in a complete blockade of all but the most basic humanitarian supplies and limited human transport except for medical emergencies.  The UN human rights council has issued 15 condemnations of the embargo on humanitarian concerns in the last 2 years with the US and israel boycotting the proceedings. The embargo is enforced by a heavy military presence and has led to deaths by attempts of international groups attempting to deliver aid. Given the international outrage at the deaths and the sanctions regime in general Israel accepted a minor loosening of the sanctions however it is one of painting the old sanctions a new color. The region now exists in a horrific state with a complete culture of dependency on the trickle of humanitarian aid with no ability to rebuild it's buildings (cement and rebar were banned) let alone an economy or even hope for a better future.  Now to be sure, Israel faces a legitimate threat from Hamas backed attacks and experiences such attacks regularly. However, the humanitarian crisis and the suffering of the people of gaza are so extensive that our moral goal to minimize suffering seems like it must be nearly impossible to maintain as true. Moreover, there is serious question as to the possible effectiveness as such actions can only further galvanize anti-Israeli sentiment among the people. We shall discuss this concept further below, but there is also the issue of publicly states goals and actual goals. In the gaza case the chief goals claimed are the most readily justifiable ones such as preventing weapons and other materials that can be used to directly attack Israel with and hence the secured boarder. But this doesn't explain why trivialities like cilantro or soccer balls got banned. The ultimate goals in this case are actually right on the surface in the rhetoric, namely that by exerting this enormous pressure on the people their democratically elected Hamas leadership will be weakened and ideally collapse from within. When seen in this context the scope of the embargo make more sense but fail to retain the moral legitimacy. Such an act should be considered morally an act of aggression only marginally less extreme than actual invasion and judged intentionally as such. Ironically, it still suffers from a lack of basic effectiveness as since Hamas controls the smuggling over the Egyptian border, and because the anti-Israeli sentiment gives it support, Hamas is in many ways stronger than ever despite the suffering of the people from the sanctions.  One can take steps whereby the border remains secure (perhaps by an international force to remove Israeli bias and obstacles) of the ability to smuggle arms and weapons yet not induce so much suffering on the backs of the people as a result of this sanctions regime.

Finally we have Iran and the new sanctions being slapped on them. These sanctions are remarkably different than the other case as they are so called "smart" sanctions with a very targeted focus on Iranian companies and individuals that relate to their efforts towards nuclear capacity. They are a combination punitive, preventative and coercive sanctions in that they punish for Iranian failure to satisfactorily allow inspectors into its facilities and pursuing nuclear goals while attempting to prevent them from getting nuclear tech all the while hoping to coerce them into giving up this ambition entirely. Unfortunately they appear to be failing on at least the punitive and coercive fronts, while it remains to be seen whether the sanctions can prevent the successful development of nuclear capacity especially given the past black-market nuclear trading stemming from Pakistan into Lybia, NK and Iran. The Iranian leader Ahmadinejad has since the sanctions only tamped up his rhetoric, goals and demonstrations of capacity - the sanctions are clearly not being an effective deterrent. Quite the contrary, while one is being punished for an act they are already committing it gives them free reign to actually increase and expand their goals as they do not even have to maintain the pretense of abiding to international pressure anymore. Likewise, the financial aspects of the sanctions actually do more to force Iran to making connections and dealing through Dubai and other places with far less western influence that result in a less accountable and transparent Iran but not at all a less effective or shackled one. I should note that pressuring countries in general to give up nuclear tech has worked in the last, sanctions convinced Lybia to give up it's weapons program, but there is little reason to expect them to in this case. Largely I think all parties know that they are relatively vacuous but are intended as a way of political posturing and expressing American frustration against Iran. Larger scale sanctions are likely not possible in today's climate given China and Russia who both have large and growing ties economically with Iran and which remains a dominate power in the region.

One theme that comes out of these examples is that between clearly stated reasons and the ultimate reasons, sometimes buried and at other times these reasons are right on the surface. In the Gaza case we discussed how the larger goal of simply pressuring Hamas (through pressuring the people) to collapse is the evidentially ultimate goal. In the communist cases the one time goals of simply preventing the spread of communism is a goal that appears to remain today despite a world where such cold war fears seem anachronistic. Especially in the Cuba case where we have seen throughout South America a consistent pressure applied on countries that adopt populist socialist or anti-American sentiments, it is hardly surprising that Cuba still faces such shackles. This gap between stated and actual reasons is an important one and generalizes to actual war (considered the rather tenuous alleged official justifications for the Iraq war) however is often an order of magnitude more difficult to demonstrate and hence I defer the reader to writers like Chomsky for more. In the majority of the above I have taken the useful heuristic of accepting at face value the claimed reasons and judging them directly through this more objective lens.

Throughout our examples we have seen many cases of punitive, preventative and coercive sanctions. After identifying some guiding moral principles such as the presentation of a legitimate threat, a reasonable likelihood of  preventing it and an attempt to minimize harm as a precondition for sanctions we are left with the unenviable conclusion that many of our sanctions are are ineffective, very harmful and not morally justified. As members of western society and influenced by the unipolar world, this should be troubling at the very least.

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