Do Economic Sanctions Work? The Jury Comes In.

But targeted nations say sanctions can go too far

In another world it could have been a TV talk-show: "Sanctioned countries: Loathe us, love us, but please don't ignore us."

While officials from Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Cuba turned a recent conference on international sanctions, hosted by the Institute for Global Leadership, into a bit of a complaint forum, officials from once-sanctioned countries, such as the former Yugoslavia, said they can work.

Sanctions are most often trade embargoes applied to nations that appear to have violated international law. They are one of the many tools the United Nations uses to try to curb the behavior of rogue states.

"Sanctions were successful against the former Yugoslavia ... and that is encouraging," says Joseph Stephanides, head of the UN Security Council's sanctions branch. "But the adverse effects of sanctions in Iraq are worrisome."

Iraq has been prohibited from selling its oil in the international market since it invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990. In addition, a UN-sponsored comprehensive trade embargo has been in effect against the country for more than six years. Many observers say that instead of ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the sanctions have only led to widespread suffering and privation for Iraqi citizens.

"Sanctions should be a measure of last resort," says Abdul Amir Al-Anbari, Iraq's ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. "Sanctions can be as bloody as any conflict. When you starve children day after day by the thousands, you can't say it's peaceful."

Mr. Al-Anbari said his country has disintegrated economically during six years of sanctions.

Al-Anbari was one of more than 200 delegates attending the conference. Due to unresolved diplomatic disputes with several of the nations attending the conference, the US chose not to send a representative.

Hitler's invasion of Poland

In the Iraqi case, sanctions correspond directly to the intentions of the architects of the UN charter, said Christian Dominice, a law professor at the University of Geneva. "Hitler's [1939] invasion of Poland is what the framers had in mind when they wrote the article about sanctions. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was in this vein."

However, it is important to remember that sanctions are supposed to restore law and order, to hurt the leadership and not the people, says Mr. Dominice. To that end, he suggests a better monitoring system to decide when to lift sanctions.

"Sanctions should be used to excommunicate a nation, isolate a country, cut it off in part or in whole," he says. "We should envisage more of a diplomatic quarantine, suspension of rights of government in international organizations."

In 1986 the UN imposed sanctions on Libya after it refused to extradite two suspects in the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. Sanctions include an arms and air embargo, reduction of Libyan diplomatic personnel serving abroad, and frozen funds and financial resources. Libya also cannot receive equipment for oil refining and transformation.

"There is no common understanding on the notion of terrorism," said Muftah Al-Mesuri, adviser to Libya's Foreign Minister. "The international community should set up standards of international codes to define terrorism. The US looks at certain actions as a terrorist movement, but Libya looks at them as liberation movements."

Despite strong views expressed against sanctions, the Libyan delegation would not discuss the long-standing Arab economic boycott against Israel.

Sanctions affect neighbors too

However, sanctions don't only affect the target country, as Bosnia-Herzegovina's ambassador to the UN pointed out. "There is a general theory that my neighbor's misfortune is my gain. Well, when one neighbor suffers so does the whole region," said Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey.

Sanctions were imposed on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992 as an attempt by the international community to hold the Balkan war in check. But Romania and Ukraine were among countries who also suffered economically.

"We paid an unbearable price for sanctions against the former Yugoslavia," said Volodymyr Khandogy, deputy minister of foreign affairs for Ukraine. Direct losses during the embargo, which ended in October, amounted to $4.5 billion, said Mr. Khandogy. More than 1,000 vessels and 2,500 workers depended on shipments to the former Yugoslavia, all of which came to a virtual standstill.

To prevent such future losses, Khandogy made several suggestions, including special credit lines to support technical projects for those economic sectors most affected by the sanctions, trade preferences for the non-targeted neighboring countries, and partial compensation for losses as a result of sanctions.

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