Sanctions a blunt tool that often hurt the most vulnerable


Sanctions a blunt tool that often hurt the most vulnerable

Sanctions a blunt tool that often hurt the most vulnerable
Diplomats participate in a United Nations (UN) meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC). (File/AFP)
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Most weeks, a fresh round of sanctions announcements emanate from Western capitals. It is the favorite diplomatic coercive tool, not least of the US government, with most of its allies, including the EU, only just behind. The sanctions industry has developed a highly sophisticated and complex array of mechanisms to battle sanctioned entities and people, who deploy an equally creative mix of evasive and fraudulent tools to bypass these punitive measures.

The scale of this can be seen with the US and EU sanctions on Russia. More than 1,000 Russian businesses and individuals have been sanctioned by the US, EU, UK and other countries. But do sanctions truly work? Do the sanctioned entities alter their behavior and, if so, is it in the desired direction? Are there proper impact assessments, including on the humanitarian level? Have they become a lazy tool of international diplomacy — a cost-free tick-box exercise to show that a government disapproves of a state or a person’s record?

Sanctions are no new tool. In their crudest form, economic warfare was conducted through sieges and blockades. The Catholic Church used a highly punitive measure of excommunication for centuries, perhaps the medieval equivalent of being banned from all social media sites. One German study from 2021 determined that, since the Second World War, there had been more than 1,400 cases of nations being hit by sanctions or threatened with them. Most of these sanctions regimes had checkered results, the notable exception being the sanctions against the South African apartheid regime, which were widely deemed a success.

The sanctioned entity should know why they are sanctioned and what they have to do to get them lifted

Chris Doyle

The most devastating UN-imposed sanctions were only possible with the fall of the Soviet Union, when the US became the world’s sole hegemon. UN sanctions suddenly increased massively. The sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1990 to 2003 were the severest ever imposed on a nation state. They crushed the very DNA of Iraqi society. Other sanctions regimes on Iran and Libya have had debatable impacts. Forty years of US sanctions hardly budged the Tehran regime. Did Iran enter the 2015 nuclear deal because of its desire for sanctions relief? It is questionable. What have 60 years of a US embargo on Cuba achieved? The Cuban economy collapsed and poverty spread, but it saw no regime change. North Korea has endured tough sanctions with zero political impact.

Sadly, the lessons of the Iraq sanctions were never learned. Many excellent assessments were conducted and powerful recommendations made, few of which have been followed in subsequent sanctions regimes.

The aim of sanctions must be crystal clear. The sanctioned entity should know why they are sanctioned and what they have to do to get them lifted. Many sanctioned states and leaderships soon calculate that the sanctioning authorities have no intention of easing, let alone lifting, their sanctions. That certainly was the case with Saddam Hussein, and probably with Bashar Assad. Is anyone sure exactly what the Syrian government would have to do to get US and EU sanctions lifted?

None of this is to suggest that those regimes do not deserve to be isolated. The crimes committed in Iraq and Syria are well documented.

The real question arises when one looks at the sanctions’ impact on civilians, but where are the proper assessments? Regimes adapt and develop new streams of income in a way that non-elites cannot. At what point do sanctions start serving the interests of the regime and become used as a tool to increase the repression of that regime’s population? In sanctioned Iraq, the Saddam regime used ration cards as an additional mechanism of control. If Iraqis did not behave, their ration cards would be confiscated and they would lose vital food aid. Today, the Syrian population is highly dependent on international aid, the majority of it coming through the UN via Damascus. The Syrian regime ensures that the UN has to use the official exchange rate, making this one of its most lucrative sources of hard currency.

Smart or targeted sanctions are meant to be the cure. They make more sense as they pinpoint those responsible for particular crimes and penalize them. Many Syrian officials cannot go to Europe or the US. Many of their Russian counterparts can no longer holiday in some of their favored hot spots. Banking services are denied. A very strong case should be made to maintain this form of sanction. But there is a caveat. Do they work? Once sanctioned, those targeted may feel there is no way of getting them lifted and adapt accordingly.

The unintended consequences of sanctions are myriad. Sanctions can drive countries into the arms of other powers. Syria has become closer to Iran and Russia. Chinese lenders extended billions of dollars to Russian banks after Western sanctions. Russia is also trying to adopt the renminbi as its reserve currency, away from any dependency on the dollar or euro. As US economic power declines and other powers like China and India rise, the threat posed by American embargoes arguably recedes.

Typically, sanctioned regimes have enabled lucrative smuggling networks and war economies

Chris Doyle

The creative fashion in which targeted entities bypass sanctions regimes is highly advanced. Typically, sanctioned regimes have enabled lucrative smuggling networks and war economies. The Syrian regime has profited from producing fake documentation.

Above all, the sanctioning of Syria has compelled it to invest in less constructive economic activity. Syria has become the Captagon capital of the world, a narco-state that sells billions of dollars-worth of this highly addictive amphetamine. This has hit Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors in particular. While the Syrian authorities have pledged to stop this dangerous trade, the jury is still out as to how much it will do, considering the involvement of key linchpins of the regime.

Debate rages about the sanctions on Russia. Everyone ponders their impact. Do they have any influence over the Russian leadership’s decisions? Who else could be targeted? More could be made about the impact on Russian civilians who have no links to the war.

Where is the debate on sanctions on Syria? There is little debate on Syria outside the Middle East. Should European and American authorities not be concerned about the destructive repercussions of their efforts? Are these sanctions hurting those they hold responsible for the crimes against humanity in Syria or the people?

The evidence that the sanctions hit the regime is limited. The Instagram accounts of regime cronies suggest their lifestyles are still bathed in luxury. Yet, talk to any Syrian civilian not in this privileged echelon and the story is one of rampant despair and economic meltdown.

What sanctions research has shown is that broad-based sanctions particularly hit the most vulnerable. This has been the case in Iraq and in Syria. Sanctioning powers must assess their humanitarian impact and adapt more swiftly to limit any negative impact on civilians. Ultimately, the focus must remain strictly on those who commit the crimes, not their primary victims. Sanctions remain a largely blunt and rarely smart tool.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech
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