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The deadly mechanism of economic sanctions: Euphemisms and obfuscation

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"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"[1], 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"[2].

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"[3].

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.

The implied theory of economic sanctions is that by crippling the economy within a territory, the authorities of that territory are prevented from satisfying popular needs such as the supply of commodities, services and work. Massive shortages that ensue are supposed to cause popular discontent, which would translate into a call for the removal of the authorities or a pressure on the authorities to comply with external demands. The theory is thus predicated on the principle that causing civilian pain is legitimate to achieve political gain, the principle underpinning both torture and terrorism.

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?

While individuals and groups around the world have successfully exposed the grave humanitarian consequences of past sanctions regimes, they did not succeed in exposing the incompatibility between such measures and human rights. Nor has the international community yet recognized that it owes a moral and material debt to surviving innocent victims of economic sanctions.

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)

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Elias Davidsson was born in Palestine in 1941. His parents were born in Germany but had to emigrate to Palestine due to the Nazi persecution of Jews. Elias lived his first years Baq'aa, a neighborhood of Jerusalem, where Jews, Christians and (more...)
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