Sanctions and the search for peace in Yugoslavia

With Slobodan Milosevic's offer to withdraw some military troops from Kosovo, and NATO's unfortunate bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the need for alternatives to continued bombing of Yugoslavia is growing. The best solution would come through diplomacy and well-conceived sanctions.

The Clinton administration's decision to impose trade and oil sanctions against Yugoslavia after the outbreak of the war is a backward approach that puts the horse behind the cart. Sanctions are usually intended to be a prelude or alternative to war, not an afterthought in the midst of war. They work best as instruments of persuasion, not punishment. They are most effective when they have multilateral support and the backing of the UN Security Council, neither of which exist in the present case.

The imposition of comprehensive trade sanctions is likely to compound human suffering in Yugoslavia. Sanctions may also further destabilize the region and hurt the very countries NATO wishes to befriend. Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Macedonia all have significant trade relations with Serbia and will suffer hardships from the sanctions.

Russia has condemned the proposed oil embargo and vowed to ignore it. This will not only weaken the effectiveness of the sanctions but further complicate already troubled relations with Moscow. If Washington carries through with its threat to "visit and search" cargo ships bound for Yugoslavia, it could provoke armed confrontation with Russia. Even some of our NATO allies have questioned the legality of establishing a naval blockade without Security Council approval.

The irony of the current misdirected sanctions policy is that economic pressures were applied effectively in the earlier Bosnian war.

The UN sanctions imposed against Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995 were described in a report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as "the single most important reason for the government of Belgrade changing its policies and accepting a negotiated peace agreement." Military analyst Edward Luttwak has written that "sanctions moderated the conduct of Belgrade's most immoderate leadership."

UN sanctions were employed again at the beginning of the Kosovo crisis, but the effort was half-hearted. In March 1998, as fighting in Kosovo intensified, the Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia. No effort was made to enforce the embargo, however, and no further steps were taken to increase sanctions pressure. Nor were efforts made to develop the kind of elaborate monitoring and enforcement that were so effectively employed by European nations during the earlier episode.

Sanctions could yet contribute to a resolution of the Kosovo crisis, as part of a diplomatic settlement based on the terms of the recent G-8 agreement. If Serbia withdraws forces from Kosovo, NATO should halt its air strikes and begin implementing the peace process. Working through the UN, the United States and its partners should bring to the table a credible package of sanctions and incentives to help enforce the terms of the diplomatic settlement.

The sanctions package might include the threat to go beyond the present arms embargo to a tightly enforced aviation and travel ban, the freezing of financial assets, and the blocking of all government and leadership financial transactions. The prospect of a selective oil embargo, targeted against refined petroleum products, should also be included.

NATO has attempted to halt Yugoslav oil deliveries through bombing. If this effort were directed instead through well-enforced multilateral sanctions, the political effect on the regime would be greater. The offer to remove sanctions and reopen oil supplies could be used as an incentive to encourage a political settlement. That option is foreclosed when facilities are destroyed through military action.

The incentives package could include the progressive lifting of sanctions, the encouragement of investment and trade, and a massive aid and reconstruction program for Yugoslavia's battered cities and crippled economy. Economic assistance and development aid would be contingent on Serbian compliance with the peace settlement.

Major economic assistance would be needed for returning Kosovar refugees and for vulnerable populations in Yugoslavia and surrounding countries. The price of such assistance and the proposed incentives package would be huge, but it would be less than the costs of continuing the bombing campaign or launching a ground war. The price of peace is surely less than the cost of war.

Rather than intensifying the conflict, let's give diplomacy and economic statecraft a chance.

*David Cortright is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, in Goshen, Ind., and co-editor of 'Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World?' (Westview Press, 1995).

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