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UN: Security Council To Consider 'Smarter' Sanctions

  • Robert McMahon

Is it possible to make sanctions both more effective and more humane? A new study reviewing the past 10 years of UN sanctions says that both political and humanitarian questions can and must be considered together to make sanctions a more useful diplomatic tool. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reviews the issue, which will dominate Security Council debate today.

United Nations, 17 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations imposed more sanctions in the 1990s than at any other time. But the sanctions face growing criticism from humanitarian groups, non-governmental organizations and some UN Security Council members for being too blunt an instrument of diplomacy.

The current president of the Security Council, Canada, has commissioned a study that assesses the UN's record of sanctions and recommends ways of making them both more humane and more effective. Canada has arranged for a day-long discussion today on the study's findings and the issue of sanctions reform.

The debate occurs at a time when the UN's longest, most comprehensive and most controversial sanctions program -- against Iraq -- is provoking calls for a change in the ways sanctions are handled.

Respected international organizations say that 10 years of virtual embargo against Iraq have destroyed a large portion of its infrastructure, created a public health emergency and done more harm to its civilians than its ruling elite.

The Security Council is moving carefully ahead on a new weapons inspections mission that is designed to lead to the early lifting of sanctions. But the process is being slowed by divisions on the council and lack of cooperation from the Iraqi regime.

The study commissioned by Canada and carried out by the New York-based International Peace Academy noted that sanctions at first worked well against Iraq because they helped disarm the country. But the president of the Peace Academy, David Malone, tells RFE/RL that the humanitarian toll on Iraqis has eroded support for the sanctions program.

"The problem in large part was that when the sanctions were first instituted they enjoyed overwhelming international support. But as the years went on and the humanitarian costs of the sanctions regime became apparent -- whatever the role of the Iraqi regime diverting resources from the population -- international support for the sanctions regime diminished sharply to a point today where there is in fact very little support in the UN for the Iraqi sanctions regime."

One of the Peace Academy's findings is that the Security Council's sanctions policy against Iraq was undermined by its failure to reward some early instances of Iraqi compliance. An easing of the embargo, the study says, would have encouraged future cooperation.

"Compliance with Security Council decisions, even partial compliance, needs to be rewarded to some extent if you want to induce targeted countries to continue to comply with sanctions regimes. If there is no carrot and only a stick, over time what countries will learn to do is to subvert the stick. "

The approach now being urged against Iraq is the policy of "smart sanctions" in which the ruling elite are specifically targeted with punitive measures, such as the freezing of bank accounts or travel restrictions.

Targeted sanctions have been employed by the United Nations with mixed success in the past 10 years. The Peace Academy says a key challenge is enforcement and coordination of sanction efforts. An example of a targeted approach, the academy says, is the ban on diamond exports by Angolan rebels, who rely on the diamonds to finance their military campaign. But the report notes that the ban was never properly enforced.

The Security Council will be studying the major violations of the sanctions against Angolan rebels in a separate session on April 18.

The study also cited the sanctions against Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, which froze Yugoslav government financial assets and strictly limited the trans-shipment of goods through Yugoslavia. The report said the collaboration of a number of international bodies, in particular NATO and the European Union, made the Yugoslav sanctions very effective. They also served as a bargaining tool in negotiations leading to the Dayton peace accords.

But international policy experts also point to the major role played in 1995 by NATO warplane actions against Bosnian Serb positions and the Croat and Bosnian Muslim military offensives against Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.

Ruth Wedgwood is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who monitors UN activities. She is skeptical about the effectiveness of sweeping sanctions as deployed by the United Nations.

"At the moment, they're funny kind of instruments because no one's persuaded of their coercive impact. It's just that it's easier to use them than to use force."

Wedgwood says there appears to be a new desire in the international community to enlist international corporations and smaller merchants who do business with warring parties under sanction or facing sanctions.

She says this would amount to a secondary boycott in which those doing business with warring sides could face sanctions themselves. This is the situation facing some African nations and Bulgaria, which were cited in a recent Security Council report on sanctions violations in Angola.

For human rights organizations, the Security Council debate is coming at a crucial time. A senior official with Human Rights Watch, Reed Brody, says sanctions are starting to evoke negative connotations because of the impact of the Iraqi sanctions on the civilian population. He supports the notion of targeted sanctions and says they can be an effective part of a balanced international approach to changing the behavior of regimes.

"Sanctions can be very effective if they're targeted right. We've seen in the past where the multilateral imposition of sanctions contributed to the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. We've seen when U.S. sanctions helped build pressure and hasten the downfall of the Argentine military junta in the 80s."