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Baghdad, Iraq, March 1999 © Northfoto / Shutterstock

Are Sanctions Nothing More than a Futile Political Game?

The legal bases for international sanctions are often dubious, as such moves can be politically motivated.

Governments must work for ordinary people’s welfare, lives and hopes. Just as a government can sanction a food producer who falsified manufacturing dates or lists of ingredients, a group of (mostly) economically developed and politically powerful nations can sanction another country’s economic activities and/or investment for “threatening international security.” These sanctions are for protecting people who support and benefit from the current international order.

While local sanctions fall under domestic jurisdiction, in many cases international sanctions are agreed upon by the United Nations Security Council, which brings legitimacy in terms of international law. But when it is unlikely to happen, especially if the permanent five (P5) members of the council (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China) do not unanimously agree, or one of the P5 wants to sanction another P5 member, unilateral sanctions can be imposed, such as US and EU sanctions against Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Their legal bases are dubious, as many such decisions are politically motivated.

For example, sanctions were imposed on Iraq by the international community following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The US and the UK were the most vocal advocates for the sanctions with an aim of toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. The sanctions devastated the lives of millions of Iraqi people, with an estimated death toll of 1 million due to disease and starvation, while the regime remained largely unaffected. Airstrikes on Iraq damaged critical infrastructure like water and sewage systems, leading to lack of safe drinking water. Death rates, including child and mother mortality, rose significantly due to the deterioration of the health-care system and unavailability of basic medicines. According to UNICEF data from 1999, there could have been half a million fewer deaths of children under 5 between 1991 and 1998. The sanctions damaged the economy through decreased imports of life-saving medicine, food and fuel — as well as lower exports — while poverty and social inequality increased.

Then followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had no legal basis, against claims of the regime’s development and retention of weapons of mass destruction. While the death toll remains disputed, the war took the lives of at least half a million Iraqis (some sources give lower estimates) and deepened their plight and suffering.

As in the case of Iraq, it is ordinary people who are punished by sanctions. People suffer due to the arbitrarily unequal share and distribution of wealth and resources. People need aid, but it becomes difficult or impossible to transfer funds into the sanctioned country because of disruption of banking channels, for example. According to the UN senior resident official in North Korea, additional requirements for licenses and the time it takes to determine what is or is not a potential sanctions’ violation delays efforts, and sanctions and political pressure behind them may make donors reluctant to provide funds.

They may also render aid workers’ physical access to those in need hard or impossible. Aid workers must get tougher and more tactical to convince those who insist on sanctions to keep supporting those in need. Sanctions only further exacerbate the plight of people on the ground and make them more vulnerable, while access to them becomes more difficult. So, are all sanctions merely futile political games? Something that deprives people’s lives and gives them tremendous physical and psychological trauma must be sanctioned: arms and weapons, the embodiment of inhumanity.

Sales of arms and military services by the largest arms-producing and military companies totaled $370.7 billion in 2015. This is equivalent to Israel’s 31st ranking in terms of national GDP in 2017, or about 2.5 times the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s global development budget for 2016. Traded arms and weapons are used in proxy war such as the conflict in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, a major player in the conflict, was the world’s second largest arms importer between 2013 and 2017, with a 225% increase compared with 2008 and 2012. The US and European states provide the kingdom with 98% of its imported weapons.

All arms and weapons trade must be embargoed. The ultimate embodiment — one that came true — is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, passed on July 7, 2017. As a person whose country experienced the world’s first and so far only nuclear attack, I strongly support this move of wisdom and humanity.

As a humanitarian, I’m not against all sanctions. But an arms embargo and a ban on nuclear weapons are necessary to prevent more deaths, devastation and resentment, and, at the extreme end, a catastrophe. It is true that sanctions led to the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. But we have to be cautious as sanctions can be a result of arbitrary politics and propaganda. In my experience of working in Myanmar, I saw many people denied access to basic medical care under the sanctioned military regime. The government looked strong at the expense of its people, and the present compromise in democratization was never expected to happen at that time.

People suffer behind the scenes. Reaching and saving those is our highest priority. Humanitarian workers must have good conviction, strategies, tactics and skills to do it, going through the sanctioned regimes and reluctant donors and winning support by ordinary well-wishing citizens.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.