Saturday, September 2, 2017


How do sanctions work?
They are a means of squeezing countries or individuals economically in order to coerce them into changing their behavior. Imposed by individual governments such as the U.S. and by multinational bodies like the United Nations and European Union, sanctions take several different forms, including travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, foreign aid reductions, and trade restrictions.

They generally target rogue nations or individuals for destabilizing behavior: building a nuclear program (Iran, North Korea); invading a foreign country (Russia); or committing gross human rights abuses (Sudan). Countries or firms that violate these sanctions—by selling weapons to a nation under an arms embargo, for example—are fined or sometimes even sanctioned themselves. These diplomatic tools do cause significant economic damage to the targeted nation, especially to its citizens, but they rarely succeed in forcing authoritarian leaders to make lasting policy or behavior changes. “All too often,” says Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, “the economic, humanitarian, and foreign policy costs of U.S. sanctions far outweigh any benefits.”

Do sanctions actually work?

Sometimes. U.N. and U.S. sanctions were definitely a factor in Libyan leader Moammar al-Qaddafi’s decision to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction program in 2003. More recently, the multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S., U.N., and EU helped bring Tehran to the negotiating table over the country’s nuclear program—albeit in conjunction with the overhanging threat of military action. But these relative successes have been the exception rather than the rule. Nicholas Burns, a senior diplomat under President George W. Bush, says that over the past 25 to 30 years there have been “very few examples where sanctions have actually succeeded”—that is, forced a country to change an objectionable policy.

Why is that?

In large part because sanctions rarely result in real personal pain for the targeted country’s leaders and top officials.

How do countries get around sanctions?

Primarily by taking their trade or assets elsewhere. When sanctions are imposed only by the U.S. or the EU—and not the U.N.—the targeted country or individual can still deal with other nations. North Korea has even found a number of ways to circumvent U.N. sanctions, such as using front companies to bypass arms embargoes, and exploiting a loophole to export coal to China. Besides, sanctions are only effective if they are rigorously enforced. For some of the U.N.’s more impoverished members, selling goods to sanctioned countries can be a risk worth taking; for developed nations, enforcement often butts up against other geopolitical considerations. The U.S. has fined European banks $12 billion for laundering money for Iran, for example, but hasn’t demanded a cent from Chinese institutions doing the same for North Korea. Despite the strategy’s shortcomings, diplomats still consider imposing sanctions better than doing nothing. “Military action is increasingly unpopular, and words don’t work with hard regimes,” says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the U.N. “So something in between these is necessary. What else is there?”
--The Week

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