Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Proving Impoverishment: Child Mortality Rates and the Problem of Moral Recognition

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Proving Impoverishment: Child Mortality Rates and the Problem of Moral Recognition

Article excerpt

Economic sanctions, imposed for political purposes or viewed as a middle route: they seem more substantial than "mere diplomacy," but they do not entail the risks of military intervention. Under this view, sanctions offer an attractive policy option. They do not seem inhumane or costly, and consequently there may be little opposition, at least from the political constituency of the state imposing them. These assumptions changed in the early 1990s, when the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq that were so severe that they triggered a massive humanitarian crisis, including the collapse of Iraq's ability to provide adequate potable water, electricity, health care, or education to its population.

What had been regarded as a valuable tool for foreign policy and global security abruptly came to be seen in a different light--as itself a human rights violation, ineffective in its goal of achieving compliance by the Iraqi state (or alternatively, regime change), while raising a host of moral and legal objections.

The Security Council, as well as scholars and practitioners, responded in part by formulating targeted sanctions, intended to impact the political and military leaders of the offending state directly, without causing harm to the civilian population. These targeted sanctions included arms embargoes, asset freezes, and visa denials. However, a second policy response emerged as well: a set of recommendations to 1) assess prior to the imposition of sanctions the humanitarian damage they may cause, and 2) monitor the humanitarian effects of sanctions throughout the period in which they are in place.

The Monitoring Role of the United Nations

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the UN put in place an elaborate system for observing the humanitarian consequences of the Security Council sanctions on Iraq. Representatives of UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, and other UN agencies were present in Iraq to monitor the goods arriving under the Oil for Food Program and to assess their adequacy and to monitor whether they were distributed efficiently and equitably. (1) By the late 1990s, consultants and commentators began to offer recommendations about how to assess and monitor the humanitarian impact of sanctions in general. One group of consultants to the United Nations suggested a process that would monitor 1) public health indicators, such as malnutrition and child mortality; 2) economic indicators, such as the availability of essential goods and the prevalence of refugees; 3) political and other indicators, such as the impact on governance and civil society as expressed, for example, in increased crime or political repression. (2)

Similarly, a set of conferences based in Stockholm in 2003 recommended periodic humanitarian assessments of economic sanctions, to determine the impact of the sanctions and distinguish the harm caused by the sanctions from that caused by other factors. (3) A United Nations handbook published in 2004 provides the clearest methodology for determining whether sanctions have resulted in increased threats to core components of human security: health; food and nutrition; water and sanitation; and education. (4)

The sanctions handbook offers trade sanctions as an example to illustrate the process that leads from sanctions to the deterioration of humanitarian conditions. Restrictions on trade lead to 1) increased unemployment in the affected sector, which leads to 2) reduced household income for displaced workers, which leads to 3) reduced nutritional intake for workers' dependents, which leads to 4) increased malnutrition. (5)

This succession of events leading to malnutrition (or even famine) makes intuitive sense but leaves us with two questions. First, if there is intervention to protect the most vulnerable--by the state, the family, aid agencies, or others--then the suffering of the most vulnerable, children, for example, will not indicate the humanitarian consequences of sanctions. …

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