"Economic sanctions", a mode of coercion in international relations resuscitated in recent years by the Western Alliance against Iran, Syria and Russia requires a critical examination of this tool. Why have such measures become so popular in the West? One answer is that "they engage comparatively less internal political resistance than other candidate strategies [...]. They do not generate sombre processions of body bags bringing home the mortal remains of the sons and daughters of constituents", i.e. they cost little to the side imposing the sanctions. The notable predilection by the United States for economic sanctions, suggests that this tool is particularly useful for economically powerful states immune to such measures.
Economic sanctions are defined herein as "coordinated restrictions on trade and/or financial transactions intended to impair economic life within a given territory".
The devastating consequences of the U.N. sanctions against Iraq and Haiti in the 1990s, and of U.S. sanctions against Panama and Cuba, demonstrate the deadly nature of the economic weapon, acknowledged by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson a century ago, when he described such measures as a "peaceful, silent [and] deadly" pressure that "no modern nation could resist".
In order to hide the mechanism by which economic sanctions measures are expected to achieve their declared purposes, policy-makers resort frequently to euphemisms and obfuscation.
To obfuscate the real target of economic sanctions authors use euphemisms as such "target state", "offending nation" or that the sanctions are leveled at the country's vilified leader: "We would isolate Iraq from the international economic system, with sanctions to deny him markets for his export, oil, to freeze his foreign financial assets, and to deny his access to spare parts and supplies on which his military machine depends." (emphasis added).
It is sometimes claimed that while harm to the economy is certainly intended by sanctions, no harm is intended to the "vulnerable segments" of that population (children, pregnant women, the elderly, the sick): Adverse consequences to these groups are merely "unintended" or "collateral." The very expression "vulnerable populations" is however inappropriate in the context of economic sanctions. Are not all civilians, without distinction, "vulnerable population" protected by the principles of international humanitarian law? Is it ethical, or even lawful, to coerce or impoverish innocent people? How can measures that knowingly infringe the human rights of healthy, but innocent, adults, such as the right to live in dignity, study, work and travel be justified on the account that the individual in question happens to live in a particular country?
The peace movement is well advised to place the demand for the prohibition of economic sanctions (as distinct from sanctions imposed under due process) on the par with demands for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Economic sanctions on Iraq alone have led to more deaths than the Atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
(1) W. Michael Reisman, Assessing the Lawfulness of Nonmilitary Enforcement: The Case of Economic Sanctions, ASIL Proceedings 1995, p. 354 "(2) Elias Davidsson, Towards a Definition of Economic Sanction (2003), click here
(3) Cited by Barry E. Carter, International economic sanctions: improving the haphazard U.S. legal regime (1988)