Smart Sanctions Work

By Lopez, George A. | Commonweal, February 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Smart Sanctions Work


Lopez, George A., Commonweal


The ink was hardly dry on Security Council Resolution 1970, adopted last February 26, when the first criticisms of the sanctions it authorized started to appear. Some critics questioned the sanctions' likely effectiveness: how could a set of asset freezes and travel bans on Muammar Qaddafi's family and a few cronies end the tyrant's assault on the Libyan people who were rebelling against his forty-year rule? Others doubted the precision of these so-called smart sanctions: could they really reach Qaddafi's inner circle while sparing ordinary Libyans, who had already suffered so much? These humanitarian concerns intensified as the United States and the European Union passed even more severe sanctions. When the UN Security Council imposed the no-fly zone on March 17 (Resolution 1973), it expanded the individuals and entities exposed to financial sanctions and declared an arms embargo.

Six months later the Qaddafi regime fell, in part due to the success of those smart sanctions. The humanitarian impact of the sanctions was negligible. According to current estimates, $36 billion in Libyan funds were locked down in the first week of sanctions. By cutting off nearly half of Qaddafi's usable funds, the international community immediately denied the dictator the money he needed to import heavy weapons, hire mercenary soldiers, or contract with elite commando units. It was because of those funding constraints that Tripoli was not destroyed in an all-out battle.

Undoubtedly the fall of the Libyan regime would not have occurred without an armed rebellion and NATO's military support. But sanctions played a considerable role in degrading both the regime's firepower and its support among Libyan elites. The conflict between Qaddafi's forces and the rebels would have been longer and deadlier without the sanctions.

Joy Gordon has argued, here and elsewhere, that both the design and the implementation of sanctions are seldom aimed at an equitable peace based in justice. I think her scholarship regarding the political manipulation of the UN Iraqi sanctions-is well as her writing on the humanitarian crisis created by those sanctions-or first-rate. But the power of her argument about that particular case can easily skew considerations of the ethics and efficacy of the kind of sanctions imposed on the Qaddafi regime.

Academics and activists are not alone in extending the Iraq example further than it really reaches. The diplomats who staff the national missions at the United Nations often evince little knowledge of the success of recent sanctions, or of the relationship between sanctions and other instruments used by the United Nations to maintain peace and protect civilians. Just as disturbing, they seem largely unaware of the dramatic changes--in design, implementation, and monitoring--that have made sanctions both more humane and more successful during the past decade.

Rather than recognize that it was precisely the Iraqi case that led to smarter sanctions--or that their real complaint about what happened in Libya has to do with NATO bombing, not UN sanctions--a number of influential states have become openly critical of sanctions in the past year.

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