Sanctions and Collective Guilt

By Hayden, Robert M. | UN Chronicle, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Sanctions and Collective Guilt


Hayden, Robert M., UN Chronicle


Economic sanctions are a favourite tool of some international political actors. Most of the debate surrounding them centres on their effectiveness in producing the political actions demanded by the targeted country. Yet, such debates miss the real effects of a generalized sanctions regime, such as those imposed against Iraq or the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. They overwhelmingly caused increased poverty, disease and death among the most vulnerable parts of the population: children, the elderly and the sick.

The catastrophic effects of sanctions should come as no surprise. While many writers seem to think of sanctions as an alternative to war, in international law a blockade has always been recognized as an act of war. Since the military, police and ruling political elites will always get the first and best access to whatever goods that still reach the targeted country, sanctions are a form of warfare aimed primarily at the civilian population and, among them, at those least well connected to the political leadership.

This harsh truth about the effects of sanctions is often hidden by rhetoric that claims that the sanctions punish the regime or its leader. Thus, an editorial in The New York Times had earlier called for maintaining sanctions on Serbia, saying that "sanctions are targeting Mr. Milosevic, not ordinary Serbs". This assertion, however, was clearly wrong: economic sanctions targeted only ordinary Serbs, enriching Milosevic and the members of his ruling elite.

Of course, the terrible effects of sanctions on the civilian population are sometimes desired by those who impose them. In October 1999, it was reported that American officials opposed easing sanctions on Serbia because they believed that a catastrophic winter there would lead the Serbs to overthrow Milosevic. Apart from the questionable morality of sacrificing children, the elderly and the sick in an attempt to get rid of a leader, this position is contrary to historical experience. Few serious analysts have ever suggested that poverty and economic crises produce democratic change. Quite to the contrary, dire conditions produce extremist politics. Those who advocate economic sanctions might ponder the role of the Versailles settlement's economic punishment of Germany in producing Hitler.

Mentioning Germany, however, whether the Kaiser's or Hitler's, raises the question of collective guilt. In 1919, French and British politicians justified their efforts to cripple Germany for generations on the supposed grounds of justice.

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