Hard Choices on Sanctions

IN Haiti, Iraq, and Yugoslavia the international community is wrestling with a tough question: When should punitive sanctions end? The United States faces the same question in Cuba. In all four, the question is more and more likely to separate the US from the rest of the world community, for Washington has an agenda beyond the specific wording of resolutions.

The decision to lift sanctions is relatively easy when changes create an international consensus, as in South Africa's case. This situation, however, differs in many ways from countries currently under sanctions. The worldwide condemnation of apartheid suppressed pressures for relaxation. Time permitted the emergence of strong internal opposition and of white leaders prepared to negotiate change. A democratic process within the white community provided a framework for such change. No comparable conditions exist in Cuba, Haiti, Iraq, or Yugoslavia.

Yet today, the situation in each of these other countries is creating pressures for relaxation even before objectives have been fully achieved. Reports from the affected countries suggest that the punitive measures may be doing more harm to the general population than to entrenched rulers who have the means of evading the effects.

Opponents of the sanctions argue that in the four countries, the measures only enhance the power of the authoritarian rulers; the regimes blame sanctions for the plight of the people - stimulating nationalist sentiments and avoiding acknowledgment of their own responsibility. Commercial interests that once traded in these areas increasingly complain that their interests are hurt by competitors evading the blockades.

Frustrated by failed peace efforts, European Community members now propose a relaxation of sanctions against Belgrade to persuade the parties to make peace. Even in Cuba's case, voices - including some in the Cuban-exile community - are suggesting a more flexible policy toward the US embargo to encourage change in that country.

In Washington, in both the Congress and the executive branch, influential voices oppose easing the pressures. In part, these attitudes stem from a deep mistrust of the leaders of the target countries. The US sees little evidence that these leaders have given up their maximum goals. Further, the president does not want to be accused at home of being ``soft on Iraq,'' or appearing to endorse ``ethnic cleansing.'' As for Haiti and Cuba, strong ethnic lobbies in the US support continued economic pressure.

As a result, the US insists on firmer conditions than do most other countries. If the truth be known, Washington probably would prefer to maintain sanctions against the four countries until the current regimes are replaced.

The other members of the United Nations Security Council have never been prepared to go this far. Unless the US abandons this objective, it will be at odds with much of the world on the question: ``When can sanctions be lifted?''

Sanctions are easy to impose; they represent, at the time, a welcome alternative to a possible use of force. Lifting them is more difficult, for the pressures created lead inevitably to today's dilemma: Can sanctions in place be used as inducements for better behavior by those in power or must they be continued until the offending regimes have been replaced?

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