CAN the freezing of bank assets and the isolation of outlaw regimes replace the dropping of bombs as the world community's weapon of choice in response to gross violations of international law?
Advocates of nonviolence are no longer alone in asking this question. With increasing frequency, political leaders are looking to multilateral economic sanctions as a partial answer to the increasing reluctance to taking up arms.
Of 116 cases of sanctions used since World War II, 80 percent were initiated by the United States alone. During its first 40 years of existence, the United Nations applied sanctions only twice - in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. But over the past three years the UN has imposed sanctions against three nations - Iraq, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia - and arms embargoes against three others - Liberia, Somalia, and parts of Cambodia controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
The world community is increasingly experimenting with comprehensive sanctions as an alternative to piecemeal, unilateral embargoes.
Success thus far has been mixed. A recent survey by the Institute of International Economics estimates the "overall effectiveness rate" of economic sanctions at 34 percent. If the goal is to reverse an aggression or usurpation that has already taken place, or to disable the military potential of an outlaw state, the chances that the embargo will succeed are low. Success is more likely when the goals are modest, the nation targeted is small and dependent on supplies from nations participating in the embar go, and there is an active internal opposition that supports imposition of sanctions.
Embargoes are also more effective if they are universally and comprehensively applied. This degree of international coordination has yet to be realized. As sanctions begin to bite, prices rise, making illicit trade with the renegade nation more profitable. The temptation to deal can become irresistible, especially to companies and individuals driven by greed, or other pariah nations that have difficulty finding outlets for their wares on the open market. Even for nations operating from a more principled position, such as Jordan during the Gulf war, the cost of complying in the interests of the world community but against their own is sometimes too high to bear without compensation from those asking them to sacrifice.
As currently applied, economic sanctions are blunt tools that sometimes hurt those they are meant to help, while leaving those they are intended to punish unscathed. The UN has applied its most stringent sanctions to date against Serbia, but their effects have been most devastating to the 80 percent of the public that has been driven below the poverty line by their effects. Like the Hussein regime in Iraq, the Milosevic regime so completely controls information that sanctions have actually produced a ral lying effect among the populace, reinforcing its paranoid view of the world and strengthening its will to resist.
How can economic sanctions be made more effective? Those who have studied them suggest a number of strategies:
* Make them more truly universal and comprehensive. Since sanctions are only as effective as their weakest link, it is vital to secure the cooperation of as many nations as possible. Compensating those countries being asked to sacrifice on behalf of the world community helps them resist the temptation to deal with the renegade nation.
* Impose secondary sanctions against all violators of the embargo. Without such penalties, the payoff for evading sanctions is just too tempting.
* Offer the targeted nation positive incentives to change its offending policies. Widen the gap between the punishment for wrongdoing and the reward for rectifying one's behavior. The recent UN-brokered agreement to return Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power was facilitated by the simultaneous imposition of a strict oil embargo and the offer of $1 billion in economic aid once he is reinstalled.
* Strengthen enforcement mechanisms. At the moment enforcement is solely the responsibility of UN member nations, whose compliance varies widely. Political economist Lloyd Dumas suggests creating a UN Council on Economic Sanctions and Peacekeeping to institutionalize the task of imposing, monitoring, and enforcing sanctions within the UN framework.
A permanent UN monitoring organization would use a satellite surveillance system, intelligence analysts, and on-the-ground personnel to carry out enforcement provisions. Certain acts of international lawlessness would trigger specific sanctions, just as certain domestic criminal violations incur unavoidable penalties. Reliable enforcement of such provisions would enhance their deterrent effect.
* Pinpoint and target the criminal parties more precisely. A generalized embargo may hurt common people most, but freezing the overseas bank accounts of those smuggling money hurts rulers without harming their peoples. Securing the cooperation of Swiss, Bahaman, and other money-laundering banks of choice is vital to enforcing this strategy.
* Improve communication with the internal opposition and ordinary citizens in the renegade nation to explain that sanctions are designed to help; coordinate actions to strengthen their effectiveness.
Economic sanctions are one tool in the world community's growing array of nonviolent actions to enforce international law. In their present form they are only partially effective. But if strengthened and applied in conjunction with positive incentives, they may one day supplant cruise missiles and smart bombs as the "great persuaders" of global politics.