The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has a historical perspective regarding the use of economic sanctions. We have both supported and opposed the implementation of sanctions — at times with clear strength of conviction, at other times with doubts and apprehensions. We have supported economic and cultural sanctions against apartheid in South Africa since 1976. We supported the pre-war sanctions against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, but have opposed continuing sanctions since the end of the war. We support sanctions against the former Yugoslavia and against the military government of Haiti. We have opposed sanctions against Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya and the former Soviet Union.

Challenged by our experience in the 1991 Gulf war and recognizing the seeming contradiction with the positive experience in South Africa, where sanctions appear to have had the effect we sought, the AFSC board appointed a Working Group early in 1992 to clarify issues surrounding the use of economic sanctions, and to sort out issues which have arisen in a manner that would help us, and perhaps others, when confronting new situations that are certain to arise. [1] Members of the Working Group, interestingly, leaned in opposite directions regarding the desirability of the use of sanctions in general. Those who had invested years supporting sanctions to end apartheid in South Africa wanted to find ways to justify their continued use in other settings, while those who had close-up knowledge of the use of sanctions and their effects in Iraq wanted to restrict their use and were suspicious of the motives of the sanctioning agencies.

One attraction of sanctions is that they seem to offer a more humanitarian alternative to war. Who would not be drawn to embrace an approach that holds such promise of achieving good and desirable ends (turning back aggression, ending oppression, overthrowing tyrants, gaining compliance with international norms for human rights) without the human suffering that war brings? Some of us recall the situation of two AFSC field staff back from the chaos of the ever-changing battle lines of the Spanish Civil War. During a report of their experiences to staff in Philadelphia, one field worker was asked, “How did you know what to do next?” The reply: “We simply advanced as the way closed in behind us.” On the issue of economic sanctions, some of us feel the way closing in behind us. We are inexorably led toward some fundamental conclusions about the opportunities sanctions provide as well as to their limitations and responsibilities.

We favored sanctions following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait because we opposed the aggression itself, wanted to reverse its consequences and wanted the world community to address without force of arms the problems that invasion created. We simultaneously sought to respond to the needs of the civilian population of Iraq, threatened by both sanctions and war. We quickly confronted contradictions that challenged our optimism about sanctions as an alternative to war.

First, economic sanctions, rather than serving as an alternative to war, became a trap door to war. The Bush administration easily coopted the broad support that arose for sanctions by arguing that time had run out, sanctions had been tried and failed, and therefore military action was justified.

Second, the rationale for the use of economic sanctions seemed to shift with changing circumstances, leading to jarring contradictions. Why, for example, if economic sanctions were said to have “failed” in the lead-up to war, were they so important to continue at war’s end? We began to see that economic sanctions are sometimes used, as in Iraq, as a stage or prelude to military action, and in others, as in the US response to the situation in the former Yugoslavia, as an excuse for inaction.

Third, in Iraq, rather than economic sanctions serving as a humane alternative to war — to reduce human suffering — they had many of the same effects on the civilian population as smart bombs dropped from the air. If economic sanctions were to be salvaged as an alternative to war, we would have to reconsider the limits of their usefulness and our responsibility to ensure, as best we can, that sanctions themselves do not become part of the problem rather than the solution. We may lay more hope on economic sanctions than they can bear if we do not also create, develop and support a broader mix of non-military alternatives to accompany sanctions.

What follows are some of the conclusions the AFSC Working Group reached:

• Knowing when and how to apply sanctions is always contextual, but some conditions are constant and absolute. This goes beyond questions of “efficacy.” Sometimes we have supported sanctions when we knew they would not work, and sometimes we opposed them when we thought they would work but were unjustifiable in their human consequences. Whether supporting or opposing, we need to be as clear as possible about whether the motive is to punish, to enforce compliance, to withdraw from evil, either symbolically or in reality, or to promote social change. How we evaluate success clearly depends on which motive or mix of motives guides our action. It was difficult, for example, to expect the Iraqi government to comply with UN directives when clearly those driving the momentum toward military confrontation wanted to see that regime overthrown. Economic sanctions became another element in the confrontation rather than an instrument for conflict resolution.

• Sanctions must be proportional to the severity of the situation and must not themselves violate fundamental human rights. While economic sanctions involve hardships, even suffering, they should not and cannot be justified when they lead to the loss of life. Food, medicine and the basic requirements for shelter and health must not only be exempted from sanctions, but assurance must be given that basic needs are not being sacrificed.

• Those imposing sanctions and those supporting sanctions have a responsibility to monitor their effects carefully. Obviously sanctioning parties have an interest in knowing whether and how sanctions are affecting the target country to know if they are “hurting enough” to achieve the goals set for them. Close monitoring is also needed to fulfill the moral obligation not to cross the line of causing lethal consequences.

Developing a capacity for monitoring might rely on existing agencies (for example, UNICEF, WHO, World Food Organization) and credible NGOs with experience evaluating health needs — particularly those of children, the elderly, and the sick. In closed societies hostile to any outside intervention, our responsibility is to meet that challenge with innovative approaches. Guidelines for monitoring may be needed to ensure that monitors on the ground, where permitted, are not cooptable for political purposes. When the UN itself is the originating agency for sanctions, independent means of monitoring may be needed to avoid politicization.

In general, monitoring would need to provide information about conditions in the target society that would allow sanctioning parties to maintain proportionality and to avoid crossing the line to lethal consequences.

• Imposition of sanctions requires credible or legitimate authority. The current structure of the UN Security Council and the absence of real accountability by member states to its authority allows it to be manipulated by more powerful members, thus weakening the moral authority of the sanctions and of the UN itself. In general, this has led us to oppose harsh sanctions unilaterally imposed by powerful nations on weaker ones such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cambodia and Libya. To be effective and to claim genuine moral authority, sanctioning parties should seek a consensus so broad and deep that no nation will want to break it. The credibility of sanctioning bodies will be enhanced when they demonstrate clearly that those actions enjoy broad and voluntary support. Some international and regional bodies currently are non-representative, or have disproportionate power without accountability or universality of membership. We want to enhance the credibility, and thus the moral authority, of sanctioning bodies by helping them move toward greater fairness and equity in their composition and decision-making.

• An important criterion for supporting or opposing sanctions should be the extent to which there is significant support for sanctions within the target country among people with a record of support for human rights and democracy or by the victims of injustice. After all, they are among those who will be on the receiving end, and often are best positioned to help in monitoring the effects on those most vulnerable. Clearly this is easier when, as in South Africa and Haiti, there are popular opposition movements with credible authority to speak on behalf of those who may be hurt most. It is similarly difficult, and morally dubious, when such movements either do not exist, have been driven underground or, even more clearly, when they oppose the imposition of sanctions. Both Iraq and now Serbia represent situations in which mixed signals are given by indigenous groups. Judgments must be made about how much weight to give to different voices.

• Universal human rights must set the standard for deciding on sanctions. The Working Group gave great importance to the value of global norms for evaluating whether and how to impose sanctions. We found these norms encoded in the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and in the growing number of universal declarations stating individual and group rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Children’s Rights. Together these represent widely accepted principles of conduct in international affairs and national governance against which the decision to impose sanctions can be measured and justified. These established global norms further erode the idea of absolute sovereignty of nation-states and invite interventions into what not long ago would have been considered internal affairs. This erosion is not, however, occurring equally. As Richard Falk has observed, sanctions, like the Mississippi River, invariably flow from North to South.

• Sanctions require time to work. In the Gulf we were told that sanctions had “failed” and that “time had run out” and gross human rights violations in Kuwait required immediate military action to reverse the aggressive invasion. We hear similar arguments vis-à-vis the need for military action now in Bosnia. On the other hand, various sanctions have been applied against South Africa for over 20 years without yet fully meeting the basic objective of ending apartheid. How are we to weigh the urgency of ending an apartheid that was often lethal to its victims as against the urgency of atrocities in Kuwait or Bosnia? We may put more weight on sanctions than they can bear when we ignore the fact that sanctions inherently take time, sometimes a very long time, for their effects to be felt.

Sanctions must be a coordinated part of a package of approaches designed to alleviate the grossest aspects of a situation while allowing time for sanctions to bite and for a political process to move toward resolution. John Paul Lederach suggests that we need to “reconceptualize time.” He argues that, as in Iraq, the argument that sanctions and negotiations “buy time” for tyrants is based on a “shaky assumption that war is a more direct and time-effective way of resolving conflict. In fact, the reverse is generally true. Wars, and their aftermath, inevitably take more time and resources than initially projected.” While sanctions and negotiated approaches take patience and time, they may be viewed as an investment in the future when they translate into “cost- and time-effective long-term solutions.” [2]

Issues for Clarification

Our hopes for the effectiveness of sanctions as an alternative to war and as an agent for change have outdistanced our knowledge of both their effects on the ground and the mechanisms or ways they actually work to achieve their goals. Thus far, sanctions have been used as very blunt instruments. We are very far from discovering what combination of elements works to pinpoint pressure on those who have the power to change policies and the responsibility to do so.

If we are to succeed in building a “firebreak” between the use of economic sanctions as an alternative to war and their use as an “amber light” on the path to war, we will have to be clear about our values and the requirements and limitations those place on us. Sanctions, for example, should include non-economic measures that bring pressure to bear or signal displeasure, including the suspension of diplomatic recognition, contacts and communication. In addition, positive incentives need to be taken to strengthen the impact of negative sanctions by offering a possible and desirable way to resolve the problems. [3]

The State Department’s 1992 study of the effectiveness of sanctions found that they are more successful in achieving the less ambitious and often unarticulated goals of upholding international norms and deterring future objectionable actions than they are in making target countries comply with the sanctioning parties’ stated wishes. In most instances, the extent of actual economic damage to target nations does not often determine the success of sanctions. The threat of damage from further sanctions is often more powerful than currently imposed ones. [4]

However much we may wish that economic sanctions alone can end civil wars, as in the former Yugoslavia, or reverse aggression, as in Kuwait, it is unlikely that they will do so. They will inevitably be part of a larger package that contains either military threats or action at the end of the road or some other package that combines economic sanctions with other non-military alternatives.

All of this is to suggest that we reserve some of our best energies for the work that precedes sanctions, the early intervention in conflicts while “option formation” is useful and possible. We may well regard focusing on early intervention in problem solving as a political responsibility if we are to avoid some of the worst consequences of economic sanctions.


[1] The product of these deliberations is Dollars or Bombs: The Search for Justice through International Economic Sanctions, and is available from Literature Resources, American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102.
[2] Mennonite Conciliation Service Quarterly (Winter 1991), p. 15.
[3] Louis Kriesberg, for example, has shown through his research of negative sanctions and positive inducement in US-Soviet relations that inducements elicit counter-proposals with concessions, while threats generally yield counter-proposals with no concessions. “Positive Inducements in US-Soviet Relations,” PARC Newsletter 2/3 (March 1988).
[4] US General Accounting Office, “Economic Sanctions: Effectiveness as Tools of Foreign Policy” (February 1992, GAO/NSIAD-92-106), p. 2; and George Tsebelis, “Are Sanctions Effective? A Game Theoretical Analysis,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 34/1 (March 1990).

How to cite this article:

John Patterson "The Sanctions Dilemma," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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