Economic sanctions: How much significant ?

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Amir Mohammad Sayem

ECONOMIC sanctions, which are usually imposed on states, business organizations and individuals as a penalty, are a common phenomenon in the world. Indeed, to change undesired behaviours in political, economic, human rights and other spheres, the United Nations and different powerful states impose economic sanctions, which range from minor to major forms including freezing of international bank deposits, barring of investment and embargo. For nuclear non-proliferation, improvement of human rights situation, promotion of democracy and some other purposes, hundreds of economic sanctions that last for months to years have thus far been imposed on different states. Nonetheless, a relevant question remains on how much economic sanctions are significant.

Of course, economic sanctions, also rendered as a tool of foreign policy of powerful countries, are not new at all. In fact, such sanctions were given by the League of Nations in 1935 against Mussolini’s Italy over its petroleum supply, though it was lifted in 1936. But economic sanctions are on the rise after the World War II; since the early 1990s, the UN, the US, the EU and some other developed economies have employed unilateral and/or multi-lateral sanctions on countless situations — more than 500 times. Currently, such sanctions are widespread in the world. Of different countries, USA imposes economic sanctions more compared to any other country.

But disagreements exist on the significance of economic sanctions, which are rendered as an alternative weapon to military intervention to achieve a desired outcome. Proponents argue that economic sanctions are just as they bring out desired changes in harmful behaviours and contribute to global and national peace and security. Contrarily, as opponents argue, economic sanctions that are used to enforce law are themselves outside of the law and opposite to the right to development. Claiming sanctions as unfair, opponents also say that these are sometimes imposed for the materialization of national interests of powerful states in the name of correcting behaviours of targeting countries that do not abide by.

It is not that economic sanctions have not made some desired changes. In fact, sanctions improved human rights situations and brought some other desired changes in some countries. But economic sanctions have mostly failed to bring out desired behavioural changes in target countries. Based on their study, scholars of economic sanctions such as Hufbauer, Schott and Elliot claim that only one third of economic sanctions are effective. But there is a disagreement with such a claim; in actual fact, another scholar named Robert Pape claims that only four per cent economic sanctions are successful. Usually, shorter sanctions are more successful in changing behaviours than longer ones. Additionally, economic sanctions bring out enormous negative consequences on many occasions.

It is undeniable that economic sanctions bring out enormous negative economic impacts on targeted countries. According to Neuenkirc and Neumeier, the US and UN economic sanctions affected the target country’s economy by reducing GDP growth by more than two percent a year. As is criticized, negative impact brought by economic sanctions may sometimes last for a decade with further decline in the target country’s GDP per capita of 25.5 percent and can take several years to more than a decade to recover. Besides, sanctions affect the imposing country and bring collateral damage to countries that are trading partners of targeted countries to some degree. In fact, the imposing and partner countries sometimes lose export markets, government revenues and investment opportunities.

Of course, economic coercion can negatively influence political behaviours — instead of resulting in desired changes — through reducing political freedom and increasing repression on some occasions, even if these aim at promoting political liberalization and respect for human rights. This is mainly because such sanctions augment the regime’s coercive capacity and motivate the regime’s leadership to commit political repression to stay in power or to fight off increased opposition. As is criticized, economic sanctions worsened respect for physical integrity rights such as freedom from disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and political imprisonment in some targeted countries. Yet, extensive sanctions are more detrimental to human rights than partial sanctions.
Moreover, economic sanctions cause enormous impact on ordinary citizens. Mass people including elderly and children mostly suffer in economic and other terms owing to economic slowdown and increased political repression driven by large-scale sanctions. Since politically and economically privileged groups can unevenly use public and private resources in their favor, poor people — as opposed to targeted elites — mostly bear the brunt. As is criticized, tough nation-wide sanctions on Iraq that resulted in malnutrition and prolonged sufferings of children, a shortage of medical supplies and a scarcity of clean water caused one of the most severe humanitarian crises in modern history.

Under such circumstances, extant policy on and practices of economic sanctions deserve to be revised for minimizing unintended impact and protecting the right to development. International organizations and powerful states — especially which impose coercive sanctions — have some undeniable roles. In my opinion, broad-based economic sanctions should be avoided altogether. Economic sanctions should only be imposed when there is no alternative. But it should be ensured that such sanctions are not given merely for realizing national interests in the name of correcting behaviours of states or individuals, do not negatively affect mass people and do not hinder economic development for long.

Provided that economic sanctions are sometimes important in making desired changes in extremely undesired and harmful behaviours, conditional engagement — usually rendered as a mix of narrow sanctions and political and economic interactions that are limited and made conditional on specified behavioural changes — may increasingly be taken into account by international organizations and different countries. This process, which has the potential to reduce large-scale economic burdens on a society, may be effective in changing justifiably undesired and harmful behaviours to some context. Simultaneously, effective alternatives to economic sanctions need to be identified.

—The writer is Researcher and Commentator on miscellaneous issues including social, political, environmental public health issues and international relations, Dhaka, Bangladesh.