Economic Sanctions, Humanitarianism, and Conflict after the Cold War

By Garfield, Richard | Social Justice, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Economic Sanctions, Humanitarianism, and Conflict after the Cold War


Garfield, Richard, Social Justice


Introduction

SANCTIONS ARE CHARACTERIZED BY THE INTERRUPTION OF COMMUNICATIONS, diplomacy, and/or economic relations (Losman, 1979). Economic sanctions have become an increasingly common tool of diplomacy since the end of the Cold War (Cortright et al., 1998). As tools of international pressure that fall between diplomacy and armed force, sanctions usually aim to achieve political ends while avoiding the costs and destruction of war. In a two-superpower world, there were few nonaligned states against which sanctions might be effective. Either bloc could build an alliance with any country cut off by the other. Economic sanctions became a more potent and frequent tool of hostile foreign policy after the Cold War, in the last decade of the 20th century. Especially after U.S. troops pulled out of Sudan and became mired in Bosnia, the search for weapons of hostile foreign policy that didn't depend on committing U.S. troops became paramount.

Additionally, consensus among nations on the appropriate use of military force in international diplomacy is increasingly rare. Generating such consensus depends on shared values, international treaties, and customary law focused increasingly on the rhetoric of human rights. Perhaps most important, it also requires some parity among partners to conflict. When one's opponent can inflict harm on us just as we can on them, there is clear self-interest in following rules of engagement that avoid unnecessary destruction.

War is usually justified only as a last resort in cases of grave domestic rights violations or international aggression by an offending state. Even in such cases, international wars are increasingly limited to the expulsion of invading forces; there is little consensus on the role of one government or international force overthrowing the offending government, demanding unconditional surrender, or creating occupied states. Such rights-based limitations on engaging in war create increasing pressure to find other forms of negotiating hostilities between states (Walzer, 1997). Sanctions, thus, have become the weapon of choice prior to, instead of, or after limited wars in the one-superpower world that emerged in the 1990s (Buergenthal, 1995).

Other options, including negotiation and nonviolent public appeals, are outside the scope of this article. I will address the narrower range of policy options focused on unilateral or multilateral hostile foreign policy involving war, economic sanctions, or both. Indeed, it will be shown that when done poorly, the outcome of war and sanctions may be largely indistinguishable for the civilian population.

U.S. sanctions in the 1990s were instituted or legislated against countries containing 68% of the world's population (Weiss et al., 1997). Most of those sanctions limit commercial relations or military cooperation; comprehensive sanctions that attempt to halt general commerce are far more rare. The United Nations (U.N.) instituted sanctions only against Southern Rhodesia (1966) and South Africa (1977) before 1991; since then, the U.N. or associated regional organizations instituted sanctions against Iraq, the Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro, Libya, Rwanda, Angola, Somalia, Liberia, Burundi, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Haiti (Garfield, 1999).

When Do Sanctions Harm Civilians?

Sanctions are popular because they quickly demonstrate determination and action on the part of leaders. There is often great pressure by interest groups in developed countries to take rapid action in this way, while there are few to oppose them in their own country. Often the most potent opposition to sanctions is found in the business community, where concerns over lost sales and markets predominate. Other opposition by the governments of third countries, humanitarian and development groups, and religious organizations may also influence policy choices. …

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