Are Sanctions Just? the Problematic Case of Iraq

By Cortright, David; Lopez, George A. | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Are Sanctions Just? the Problematic Case of Iraq


Cortright, David, Lopez, George A., Journal of International Affairs


When seeking to uphold the norms of justice, the international community often utilizes the instrument of economic sanctions. Since the end of the Cold War, sanctions have become a frequent instrument of United Nations authority. The U.N. Security Council has imposed partial or comprehensive multilateral sanctions against Iraq (1990), the former Yugoslavia (1991), Libya (1992), Liberia (1992), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1993), parts of Angola (1993), Rwanda (1994), Sudan (1996) and Sierra Leone (1997). Although sanctions traditionally have been considered tools of international policy, many of the recent uses of the instrument have involved intranational disputes. Nations have shown an increased willingness to accept U.N. action to prevent internal violence, promote human rights, restore democracy and, as in the case of Iraq, enforce disarmament.(1)

Although often intended to protect human rights, sanctions may contribute to the further deterioration of the human rights situation in a target nation.(2) Those most likely to suffer from general trade sanctions are the vulnerable: women, children and those heavily dependent on the societal "safety net" provided by international relief agencies. These concerns have led some to question whether the negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions sometimes outweigh their intended political benefits.(3) In his January 1995 report, Supplement to an Agenda for Peace, former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali asked "whether suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups in the target country is a legitimate means of exerting pressure on political leaders."(4) Current U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also expressed concern that "the hardship imposed on the civilian population is greatly disproportionate to the likely impact of the sanctions on the behavior of the protagonists."(5)

These concerns about sanctions point to three different areas of contention regarding sanctions and their role in enhancing global justice:

* The authority of sanctions: their imposition as a means of international enforcement, implemented by the decisions of the Security Council under the authority of the U.N. Charter;

* The effectiveness of sanctions: their capacity and limitations as instruments for attaining intended objectives;

* The morality of sanctions: their humanitarian impact on innocent, disempowered people within targeted states.

In this essay we explore each of these areas. We begin by outlining the differing views about the authority, effectiveness and morality of sanctions that make their use so contentious. We emphasize the importance of mixing sanctions with incentives as part of a carrot-and-stick diplomacy designed to persuade rather than punish. We then examine the prolonged sanctions against Iraq as the crucible in which each of these tensions has been most sharply magnified. We conclude by offering an alternative strategy for U.N. policy in Iraq that we believe better serves the competing claims of justice in this case.

THE CONTENDING VIEWS OF THE JUSTICE OF SANCTIONS

A principle of just authority would claim that sanctions must be multilateral and have the approval of the United Nations. Under this definition, the only sanctions that could be considered just (or even be candidates for ethical assessment) would be those authorized by the Security Council under the principles of international law and the U.N. Charter. Unilateral sanctions such as the U.S. embargo against Cuba would be dismissed as illegitimate. Regional sanctions could be judged on a case-by-case basis according to their universality and compliance with international norms. For many, the legitimacy of U.N.-imposed sanctions flows from their role as a nonmilitary means of enforcing international norms. Sanctions can serve as a middle ground between mere diplomatic protest and ultimate military force. As such, they offer the United Nations a means of addressing threats to peace without resorting to the use of armed force. …

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