DOES putting the economic squeeze on repressive governments ever make them change their conduct?
That question is being asked anew as the United Nations increasingly turns to sanctions as a diplomatic tool. Five of the UN's seven embargoes have been launched during the last four years.
The latest example is the broader trade embargo on Haiti approved by the 15-member Security Council May 6. Some diplomats admit their governments were more hopeful than convinced that expansion of the UN arms and oil embargo would persuade Haiti's military leaders to resign. And yesterday's swearing in of a new Haitian president indicates military leaders are not readily bowing to UN pressure.
Skepticism is widespread that anything short of military force, which the US technically has not ruled out, can restore democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Yet the Council's first sanctions on Haiti, imposed last June, were considered a major factor in persuading Haiti's commander in chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, to come to New York and sign the Governors Island agreement, which remains the framework for the new sanctions. General Cedras had agreed in that accord to step down in October, but later reneged.
The degree to which economic sanctions work depends in part on their aim. Sanctions have not in the short term led to the overthrow of repressive regimes; sometimes sanctions forge solidarity in the face of a common foe.
Sanctions do succeed over time
Yet the pressure and isolation of global sanctions often do succeed over time in changing government conduct. UN sanctions imposed both on the former Rhodesia and on South Africa helped significantly in paving the way for the end of white rule there.
Sanctions are a useful ``way station'' for the UN between doing nothing and the actual launching of a war, says Edward Luck, president of the UN Association of the USA. He calls the 1990 Iraq sanctions an important transition between Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the allied military response: ``You need steps along the way to show the international community that you're making a real effort to bring pressure to bear, to give diplomacy more time to work, and to show the targeted regime the international community is serious.''
In his view, sanctions on Iraq helped persuade Saddam Hussein to cooperate with UN efforts to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and agree to long-term UN weapons monitoring. Similarly, he says that while UN sanctions on Libya have not resolved its role in the downing of an airliner or in bringing suspects to justice, the economic pressure has helped curtail Libya's support for terrorism.
Sanctions hit citizens hardest
Despite embargo exemptions for food and medicine and stepped-up UN efforts to increase humanitarian aid, sanctions often hit ordinary citizens the hardest. Still, Hurst Hannum, a UN expert with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., considers it significant that black citizens and leaders in the former Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as Haiti's President Aristide, have been strong supporters of tighter UN sanctions. They knew the score yet indicated they were willing to pay the price, he says.
Mr. Hannum says the positive prospect of lifting sanctions may be more influential in prodding repressive governments to change than the original negative impact of facing new sanctions. He says the fact that the overall political settlement in Bosnia-Herzegovina is considered a precondition for lifting UN sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro serves as an incentive for Serbs to push for an accord.
The effectiveness of sanctions also depends on their scope and enforcement. Mark Falcoff, a Latin American expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, agrees that the UN's newly tightened embargo on Haiti was a logical next step, but says that much will depend on whether all governments respect the embargo and on the Dominican Republic's willingness to stop the smuggling of oil. Though Dominican officials have agreed to a UN border monitoring operation, Dr. Falcoff says the border has been as ``porous as a sieve.''
Diplomats agree that setting clearer goals for sanctions and targeting them more precisely can make them more effective. The newest Haiti sanctions attempt to freeze the overseas assets of and bar any travel by some 600 top supporters of the current de facto government.
Yet experts say the UN badly needs better analytical information on design, implementation, and monitoring of sanctions. Also needed is a compensatory mechanism for nations that trade heavily with the embargoed country and are particularly hard hit. Many have gone to the Security Council seeking compensation.
``I can't count how many conferences ... where someone gets up and says, `Economic sanctions never work,' Luck says. ``[But] nothing works if you don't make the effort. What other tools do we have...?''