The Silent, Deadly Remedy: In the New World Order, Economic Sanctions May Leave No Dead Soldiers, Just Civilian Casualties

By Garfield, Richard | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Silent, Deadly Remedy: In the New World Order, Economic Sanctions May Leave No Dead Soldiers, Just Civilian Casualties


Garfield, Richard, Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


Since the end of the Cold War, economic sanctions have become a common instrument of diplomacy. (1) As tools of international pressure, sanctions--the interruption of some or all economic relations--fall between diplomacy arid armed force and usually aim to achieve political ends while avoiding the costs and destruction of war. (2)

In a two-superpower world, few states were not aligned with one of these powers; therefore, sanctions were ineffective since either the United States or the U.S.S.R. could build an alliance with any country cut off by the other. In the last decade of the 20th century, however, economic sanctions have become a more potent arid frequent tool of hostile foreign policy. Growing reluctance to use U.S. ground troops to settle international disputes has made the search for alternative weapons of hostile foreign policy of paramount importance.

Additionally, consensus among nations on the appropriate use of military force in international diplomacy is increasingly rare. Generating such consensus requires shared values, international treaties, and international law, focused increasingly on human rights. War is usually justified only as a last resort in cases of grave domestic rights violations or territorial aggression by an offending state. Even in such cases, international wars are increasingly limited to expelling invading forces; there is little consensus that any one nation's government should overthrow the government of another, demand unconditional surrender, or create occupied states. These limitations on engaging in full-scale, conventional warfare create pressure to find other means to negotiate hostilities between stares. (3) Thus, in the post-Cold War, one-superpower world, sanctions have become the weapon of choice prior to, instead of, or after limited wars. (4)

From 1993 to 1996, 35 new sanction regimes were initiated by the United States. U.S. sanctions now have been instituted or legislated against countries containing 68 percent of the world's population. (5) Most of those sanctions limit commercial relations or military cooperation; comprehensive sanctions that attempt to halt all commerce are far rarer.

The United Nations has also increased its use of sanctions in recent years. Prior to 1991, the United Nations instituted sanctions only twice, against Southern Rhodesia in 1966 and against South Africa in 1977. Since 1991, the UN and other regional organizations have instituted sanctions against Iraq, the Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro, Libya, Rwanda, Angola, Somalia, Liberia, Burundi, and Haiti. In 1998 and 1999, further U.S. sanctions were considered or legislated against Pakistan, India, China, Yugoslavia, and Nigeria.

Civilian Casualties

Sanctions are popular because they quickly demonstrate determination and action on the part of leaders. Interest groups in developed countries can exert great pressure to take rapid action in this way with little opposition from the countries' citizens. Often the only opposition against sanctions is voiced by the U.S. business community, whose major concern is lost sales and markets. Finally, sanctions appear cheap--at least compared to expensive military interventions. For example, during the 1994 international military operation in Haiti to return exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, the $8 billion cost of military intervention dwarfed the $250 million spent by all parties for humanitarian relief. (6)

It appears that the sanctioned country bears the full cost of sanctions. But many of those costs are borne solely by the civilian population. Most sanctions increase suffering among civilians, particularly among the most disadvantaged. (7) The cases of Iraq, Haiti, and Cuba show how damaging sanctions can be, especially in terms of human suffering. Increasingly, reports of human suffering have made the subject of sanctions a volatile issue in the mind of the American public. …

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