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Sanctions will kill and rarely win when implemented with ‘full force’

One expert’s recent claim that ‘nobody is killed’ when indiscriminate sanctions become economic warfare flies in the face of all evidence.

Andres Aslund, a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum, recently presented a dangerous set of assertions about the efficacy of sanctions that are neither historically accurate nor based in logic. First, he says, “Nobody is killed by sanctions,” and second, his bottom line advises that “[w]e need to hit hard early on with full force to win, not try to keep reserves for a second, third and fourth blow.” Each claim is refuted by the empirical evidence on sanctions currently available.

Devastating social, economic, and medical harm to civilians has characterized sanctions episodes since the Iraq case two decades ago, when hundreds of thousands of children died from direct and indirect impacts of sanctions. In the current era of more targeted, financial sanctions imposed as unilateral coercive measures by powerful states like United States, civilian harm results continue, and too often by design.

The current data about U.S. unilateral sanctions is overwhelming regarding disastrous impacts on the food and medical security of citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran. The Trump administration’s unwillingness to suspend sanctions strangulation on these nations during the global COVID pandemic denied medical relief products to people who have no responsibility for the policies of their government. This draconian refusal differed significantly from the sanctions suspension undertaken by the Bush and then the Obama administrations after each targeted nation experienced paralyzing natural disasters.

Beyond the naïveté or neglected attention to how sanctions lead to death and disaster in targeted countries, a greater inaccuracy is Aslund’s hitting hard with full force approach, which was operationalized in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaigns. Rather than bringing North Korea to the table to negotiate denuclearization, the evidence is clear that during maximum pressure sanctions, North Korea more than doubled its weapons force. And its short-range missile testing, jeopardizing our allies in the region, resumed without even a U.S. critique.

And while punishing sanctions did send the Iranian economy into a tailspin, the political and military results were negative at every level. Iran moved from compliance with an internationally monitored agreement that ensured very little uranium enrichment, to new and dangerous levels of such material, increased regional and political hostility to the United States, and now, reluctance to trust the United States in reinstituting the agreement.

While I have a great sympathy for Aslund’s hope that sanctions could end the political fraud and human rights abuses of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, his confidence in the massive and immediate application of sanctions to overthrow him, also is out of sync with research findings about successful sanctions.

Neither unilateral nor multilateral sanctions have ever toppled a targeted regime, including dictators engaged in atrocities against their own people. In fact, sanctions seldom force improvement in the human rights behavior of leaders, unless they are accompanied by multiple forms of social and political persuasion and coercion from internal and external actors, and sustained diplomatic engagement of the latter.

In sum, for sanctions to be a successful U.S. policy, the imitation of unrestrained military action, as Aslund asserts is not the best approach when imposing sanctions. Under the right conditions, and despite U.S. power to cripple a nation’s economy, sanctions produce their desired political outcome no more than 25 percent of the time. To attain that success zone, we need an astute, restrained, and adaptable application of the variety of targeted sanctions deployed with engaged diplomacy. This strategy, which is most useful in nonproliferation cases like Libya and Iran, yields step-by-step results, which necessitate incremental sanctions responses, including employing the flip-side of sanctions – economic incentives.

Further, recent humanitarian disasters caused by sanctions illustrate the need for the United States and other powerful nations to recognize that they incur an immediate obligation to mitigate unintended consequences on the innocent, and an on-going responsibility to remedy the harm that cannot be mitigated during a sanctions episode.

If sanctions planning and structure cannot meet these operational and humanitarian evidence-based standards, then forgoing the application of sanctions is the appropriate policy choice. Only with such foresight, critical analysis, and ethical commitment to the innocent will sanctions imposition be more restrained, as it should, within the U.S. economic foreign policy arsenal.

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