Decades Of Failed Sanctions: Examining Ineffective U.S. Foreign Policy
(MintPress) – “The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” said Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor, last week. “Nor will we stand by while it seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States.” As the U.S. tightens the noose around Pyongyang, North Korean civilians continue to suffer widespread famine that has killed as many as 10,000 in recent years.
Washington continues to escalate hostile rhetoric and threatens war with Iran and North Korea, preferring the use of sanctions over diplomacy — a policy inflicting a collective punishment against innocent civilian populations deprived of food and medicine. Sanctions targeting civilian populations are expressly forbidden under international law, specifically, the 1949 Geneva Convention.
Historically, U.S. sanctions have been mostly ineffective. Since 1970, U.S. sanctions have achieved policy goals a paltry 13 percent of the time, costing U.S. businesses $15-$19 billion in lost revenue, according to a study by the Institute for International Economics. Worse has been the physical toll that sanctions have had, leading to the deaths of at least 170,000 Iraqi children during the first Gulf War alone.
Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has applied economic sanctions to dozens of countries including: Iraq, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, North Korea, Myanmar and Iran, among others, all in hopes of changing regimes or policies seen as unfavorable to U.S. security and economic interests.
Decades of disastrous sanctions: Cuba and Iran
Reports surfaced in late January showing that cannibalism is on the rise in North Korea, as sanctions cut off food supplies to civilians. Unconfirmed reports by citizen journalists working covertly for Asia Press estimate that as many as 10,000 in North and South Hwanghae have died as a result of recent famine.
Economic sanctions vary in their application but usually include restrictions on the trade of goods, services and the transfer of funds among banks. In some cases, travel restrictions are applied to key individuals connected with regimes considered to be “state sponsors of terror.”
This did not slow the onslaught of economic restrictions against Pyongyang after nuclear tests earlier this month as the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a new round of sanctions against North Korea. “These sanctions will bite, and bite hard,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said after the vote.
For more than 50 years, the U.S. has pursued a similarly tight set of sanctions against Cuba, creating the longest economic blockade in modern history. Long after Cuba removed Soviet nuclear weapons from its territory, Washington continues inflicting what human rights groups call, a “collective punishment” against Cuba’s 11 million citizens.
“We are 100 percent against the U.S. blockade and all U.S. aggression. We call it a blockade because the U.S. threatens other countries by canceling trade agreements,” said Joe Callahan, a Minnesota Cuba Committee activist to Mint Press News.
As an organization representing roughly 600 activists, the Minnesota Cuba Committee has advocated for a full normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba since its founding in 1994.
Callahan observed the effects of sanctions first hand during eight separate aid trips to the island over the past 15 years. “The blockade has had a big impact on the people. There are shortages of important goods. In the early 90s, there were shortages of food.” Even basic supplies like soap and cement have reportedly become scarce in recent years.
The international community has also condemned the 53-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. In an almost unanimous vote, 188 members of the 193 member U.N. General Assembly voted to denounce the U.S. trade embargo, calling upon Washington to immediately lift the blockade.
“No persons may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Pillage is prohibited. Reprisals against persons and their property are prohibited.”
Despite economic pressures, Havana maintains a centrally planned semi-Socialist economy. Because of strong trade relations with Venezuela and other leftist states in Latin America, Cuba has been able to avoid food and medicine shortages currently affecting Iran — another target of U.S. sanctions.
Sanctions against Iran
“These sanctions will likely have catastrophic humanitarian consequences,” said Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University August 2009 after the United States instituted new sanctions against the Ahmadinejad government. Almost four years later, his predictions have become reality.
“People are having a really hard time to just buy things. Everything is super expensive. All Iranians know is that these sanctions are because of what is going on in the U.S — they want to know about the nuclear program,” said Miranda Kadkhodayan, an Iranian-American, to Mint Press News. “It is something that is not in control of the people. People are going through hardships.”
Kadkhodayan traveled to Iran to visit relatives last year, remarking, “The prices are unbelievable and they change daily. People have to pay three to four times what they normally would. Some stores stockpile supplies because they don’t know what access to goods will be.”
Kadkhodayan continued: “Life has become so hard for some people. They cannot force people in government to be honest and talk about the nuclear program.”
Kadkhodayan immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and like many Iranians, remains hopeful for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff. “I just think that maybe different ways can help the situation, like diplomacy, not just putting pressure or threatening that government. Sanctions are not in the benefit of the U.S. or Iran.”
Doctors report that 85,000 new cancer patients are diagnosed in Iran each year, requiring chemotherapy and radiotherapy which are now scarce. Iranian health experts say that the annual figure has doubled in just five years, creating a “cancer tsunami” most likely caused by pollution and limited access to medicine.
Additionally, there are more than 8,000 hemophiliacs who are finding it harder to get blood clotting agents for treatment. In 2012, the Iranian Hemophilia Society informed the World Federation of Hemophilia that the lives of tens of thousands of children are being endangered by the lack of proper drugs, as a consequence of international sanctions.
Experts posit that market scarcities, particularly for essential goods like medicine and food, can play to the favor of foreign governments, or can create blackmarket crime. Like Cuba, the clerical regime in Iran remains firmly entrenched as U.S. sanctions have likely bolstered public support for the hardline religious leadership that has ruled the country since the 1979 revolution.
Amidst the poor history of U.S. sanctions are a handful of success stories — showing that well-planned U.S. sanctions against governments or corporate entities can achieve their desired ends.
U.S. sanctions against South Africa played a critical role in the global refusal to deal with the racist, apartheid government. The U.S. Senate and Congress presented then-President Ronald Reagan with the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986. Members of Congress showed robust bi-partisan support for the measure.
President Reagan vetoed the proposal, insisting that sanctions would cause more violence in South Africa. In an unprecedented move, the Republican-controlled Senate overrode his veto showing the strength of the anti-apartheid movement.
The resulting sanctions prohibiting most U.S. imports from South Africa resulted in a 35 percent decline on imports from 1985-1987. South African Airways flights were banned from flying into U.S. airports and certain travel restrictions were placed on members of the apartheid government.
Congressional sanctions against South African apartheid followed robust boycotts by U.S. academia including Harvard, Michigan State University and Stanford, among others. By 1988, 155-plus colleges and universities have divested more than $10 billion from South Africa.
Unlike sanctions against Iran, the U.S. offered a clear set of targeted demands, including establishing a timetable for the elimination of apartheid laws and the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela. These sanctions, supported by a bevy of countries, academic institutions and human rights organizations, led to the end of the apartheid rule in 1994.
In another example, U.S. officials threatened to apply sanctions against several Swiss banks for failing to settle claims related to funds stolen from Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The threat of penalties by city and state officials in America in 1998 forced a group of Swiss banks to return some $1.25 billion in stolen funds to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Initially, the Swiss government claimed that all assets stolen by Nazis from Jews and then sold to the Swiss National Bank were resolved by a 1946 agreement reached in Washington and signed by World War II Allies.
In these cases, U.S. sanctions targeted a bank or a government, not a civilian population. Additionally, there was a clear directions and demands set forth by Washington that allowed belligerents to change policies.
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