The devastation of an atom bomb displayed in the closing moments of the Second World War in Japan, was an indicator of the monstrosity of modern warfare and its indiscriminate effects on civilians. The ferocity of modern warfare has thus prompted states to settle differences through negotiations and peace accords to avoid unnecessary devastation to human life. A foreign policy tool that has been used frequently in recent years, is the application of economic sanctions to states that break international laws. Economic sanctions suppresses or excludes national economies from participating in the global trade system, where states trade with each other to increase their relative gains. However, the application of sanctions directly threatens the well-being of poor people in the sanction receiving country. In this article I explore the morality of applying economic sanctions to countries which are deemed a security risk for the world.
The most recent and ongoing economic sanctions are those that have been imposed on Russia by the US and the European Union. The sanctions targeted Russia’s state finances, energy and arms sectors which are mostly controlled by President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle on Russia’s alleged proxy war in Ukraine. In 2002, the EU imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe for electoral fraud and human rights abuses under the watch of President Robert Mugabe. However, the EU has since eased some restrictions of the sanctions but have maintained an assets freeze and travel ban for Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace for another year.
The most long running examples of economic sanctions are Cuba, North Korea and Iran. North Korea after signing the armistice which halted the Korean War in 1953, is possibly the most economically and politically isolated country in the world. In 1979 after the Islamic revolution in Iraq, the US imposed sanctions on Iran and in 1984 the US altogether broke off diplomatic relations due to a hostage crisis which ensued that year between the two nations. Cuba was also hit with sanctions by the US and they have been operational for about 53 years. Other countries that have been sanctioned are Syria and Sudan just to name a few.
Economic sanctions can be applied in two forms which are selective or comprehensive. The selective form of sanctions targets certain elements of an economy, to try and force the intended resolution out of countries. The comprehensive form of sanctions cuts of a country’s economy from participating in international trade.
How are economic sanctions relatable to human rights?
The United Nations website briefly summarises the principle tenets of human rights:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1948, sets out basic rights and freedoms to which all women and men are entitled — among them the right to life, liberty and nationality; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to work and to be educated; the right to food and housing; and the right to take part in government.
The Universal Declaration of Human rights is built on the concept of individualism where each and every individual is granted the right to live a quality life. In this theory, no human being is to be discriminated against on the grounds of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or any other differences a human being inhibits.
The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights a think tank for the United Nations Commisions on Human Rights ceased to exist in 2006. However, The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights In its resolution 1997/35 of 28 August 1997, entitled “Adverse consequences of economic sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights”, criticised the effects of applying economic sanctions to countries. In this discussion, four major points were made in relation to the application of economic sanctions:
They should always be limited in time, (1) (fourth preambular paragraph);
(ii) They most seriously affect the innocent population, especially the most vulnerable (fifth preambular paragraph);
(iii) They aggravate imbalances in income distribution (sixth preambular paragraph);
(iv) They generate illegal and unethical business practices (seventh preambular paragraph).
The main aim of sanctions are to force a halt to the actions of unscrupulous leaders and governments, who are deemed to have flouted international laws, or are a risk to global peace and security. Arguably, whether sanctions are selective or comprehensive, the effects of such actions usually do not deter the political elite of a country because in most cases, the elite have the means to survive an economic meltdown. For example, the leaders of Iran, Cuba and North Korea, who have for decades been under economic sanctions, have still managed to be in power for decades with comprehensive sanctions put in place. Zimbabwe which was sanctioned in 2002 has still maintained Robert Mugabe as its leader, despite the economic meltdown which has lowered the quality of life in a country, which was once called the bread basket of Africa. Russia which is the recently sanctioned country has seen Putin’s popularity ratings in opinion polls surge to an all-time high despite the fall in value of the Russian rouble. Then one asks the question that if the economic sanctions do no dent the political elite of a country, why punish the poor who are the most vulnerable to economic shocks cause by economic sanctions?
Economic sanctions usually punish the wrong people who are powerless or voiceless in the face of their unscrupulous leaders or governments. In North Korea, there have been allegations that poverty has induced people to resort to cannibalism because of the comprehensive sanctions imposed on them. In 2012, 230 defectors who were interviewed by the Korean Institute for National Unification, claimed that scores of people were arrested for selling or having eaten human flesh. Reports of cannibalism in North Korea spread during the early 1990s when an estimated 2 million people died due to famine. It then becomes problematic to defend the application of sanctions when they directly threaten the existence of individual human rights which are applicable to all the members of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
It becomes difficult to defend economic sanctions because the primary intended objectives as in the case of the aforementioned countries, have failed. If leaders of a country decide to take the course which violates international laws, the citizens of a country usually have no influence on such matters more especially in authoritarian regimes. The citizens of a country are usually defenceless in the face of a government which has the monopoly of physical coercion and total power. Why should the general populace be punished for Mugabe, Putin, Kim Jong Un and Fidel Castro’s mistakes?
Human rights are a contested concept but the Universal Declaration of 1948 argues that all human beings are to be treated fairly, without discriminating them on the grounds of race, nationality, sexual orientation or gender. The application of economic sanctions targets certain nationalities who are bundled under one umbrella over the mistakes of unscrupulous leaders who have the wealth to survive a closed economy. To generalise a group of people together can be seen as a violation of human rights because most citizens of the aggrieved country are innocent of their leaders’ policies towards other states.
In conclusion, many states are members of the United Nations and have signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The Declaration embodies a common language for states that gives emphasis on upholding individual rights, promoting equality for all, regardless of their race, gender, creed, colour or mental capacity. The use of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool which tries to subjugate or deter unscrupulous leaders from breaking international laws can be seen as a violation of human rights. When national economies are sabotaged by other nations, it is the poorest of a country who are vulnerable to economic meltdowns induced by sanctions. In most cases, the leaders of countries like North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Zimbabwe are still functional today, and this questions the morality of applying economic sanctions which rarely achieve the intended effects. Looked at from this angle, I argue that economic sanctions are a violation of human rights because individual rights of people in a country are disregarded by grouping a whole nation together for the mistakes of a few leaders.
At the time of writing, the US under the presidency of Barack Obama has taken Cuba off their list of countries which sponsor terrorism. This is an attempt by Obama’s administration to normalise relations between the US and Cuba.
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