No Respite, No Relief: The Toll of Sanctions

Written by: Riley Fink

In this post-Cold War world, economic sanctions have in many ways become the weapon of choice for defending American interests and sensibilities. As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, there has been much discussion about how sanctions have impacted the ability of some countries to adequately handle the disaster it has wrought. A lack of access to medical supplies and restrictions on the transfer of goods has kneecapped responses to the virus, nevermind the undue pressure sanctions placed on a nation’s economy in comparatively normal times.

One would think a global pandemic would inspire some sort of international solidarity, but the United States in these times of crisis has not relented on maintaining sanctions on “unruly” countries. Look to Iran, where U.S. sanctions have impeded access to medicines and medical materials. What defensible reason could there ever be for attacking a country’s medical industry? U.N. experts have warned the medical systems of North Korea and Venezuela could face similar strain without relief from sanctions. As stated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet:

“The majority of these states have frail or weak health systems. Progress in upholding human rights is essential to improve those systems – but obstacles to the import of vital medical supplies, including over-compliance with sanctions by banks, will create long-lasting harm to vulnerable communities. The populations in these countries are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions, and to varying degrees have already been living in a precarious situation for prolonged periods.”

And now there’s already talk of punishing China for their handling of the coronavirus, which is astounding. That’s what we’re worried about?

Since 2007, American support for Israel and Egypt’s blockade of Gaza has prevented drinkable water, food, and medical supplies from reaching Palestinians, and the current crisis brings the region to the border of livable and unlivable; Gaza’s capacity to sustain itself could collapse. Its healthcare system is simply not equipped to handle the virus, with only 1.3 hospital beds per thousand people and a severe ventilator deficit.

Even if there wasn’t a pandemic, sanctions are still hard to justify. The claim that sanctions of any kind are a peaceful and effective way to enforce international law is a deadly lie. It represents the idea that “justice” can only be given after the fact and taken to an extreme. Punishment is most devastating when it’s drawn out and inflicts lasting damage on a populace for decades to come. Many of the countries sanctioned by the United States were already dealing with enough strife. The United Nations predicted Gaza would be near-uninhabitable by 2020, and that’s without factoring in a pandemic. 

So why are they used? Why are ordinary people punished for the actions of their leaders? It’s all about coercing change and imposing penalties after unwanted military or political action. The United States adheres to a punitive mindset in every aspect of its operation. The power of single-issue constituencies, which greatly influence Congress and often have few opposing forces, is perhaps one explanation for why sanctions appear so attractive. Many cite the “CNN effect”—that is, nonstop media coverage resulting in countries’ problems becoming far more visible worldwide—as another reason that it is almost impossible to not respond in some way to most international issues. Sanctions thus provide an easy, publicized response that, by viewing the lives affected only in quantitative terms, comes off as a perfectly proportional response. Israel receives massive subsidies from the U.S.—the exact opposite of sanctions—as a reward for playing nice, and Saudi Arabia has no sanctions because they are our friends in oil and industry. Usually, sanctions are little more than the expression of American preferences. Aside from the fact that characterizing a nation as “hostile,” “rogue,” or “uncooperative” is entirely too simplistic and only frames matters from a single, American perspective, ordinary citizens should not be held responsible for the actions of their government.

Rarely do sanctions result in meaningful policy change, particularly if the goals are large and time is short. In fact, they regularly encourage more extensive intervention on behalf of the United States. Sanctions on Iraq failed to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Iraq, and instead prompted Operation Desert Storm in their place. Saddam’s regime profited while ordinary Iraqis became impoverished. India and Pakistan were in no way deterred from continuing their nuclear arms race. Sanctions imposed on Haiti affected leadership very little, and only deepened its economic distress and humanitarian crisis. 

Results like the end of apartheid in South Africa or the formation of the Iran nuclear deal are outliers, not the norm, and even those only came in conjunction with other policies. Now that the United States withdrew from the latter and sanctions unilaterally reimposed on Iran despite their compliance, goodwill between the two countries has completely evaporated. Moreover, European allies have created a special-purpose vehicle for trade to weaken U.S. sanctions, and Iran has only been pushed closer to developing a nuclear arsenal. And maybe it’s good that they do so; having nuclear weapons seems to be one of the only things that command American respect. 

Even though they were one of the main political weapons of the Obama administration, sanctions during this time have arguably only resulted in greater strife than existed previously. Under the Clinton administration, the Helms-Burton Act seemed to have been written with the intention of damning Cuba to eternal misery; the normalization of relations with Cuba under Obama was a rare recognition of the ineffectiveness of sanctions long-term. Of course, the subsequent reimposition of restrictions on Cuba under the Trump administration erased any diplomatic gains in that regard. Pressure from sanctions has been credited by some as helping to broker the Minsk agreement cease-fire in Ukraine in 2014, but that has now essentially crumbled and given way to war in the country’s Donbass region. At the time, those sanctions leveraged against Russia and Ukrainian separatists only resulted in division among European allies; Italian lawmakers lamented the billions of euros lost from decreased trade since European Union sanctions were imposed on Russia in tandem with American ones in 2014. The United States may be able to weather shutting off or reducing trade with a handful of countries, but European nations may not be able to do the same. If sanctions effectively shut out countries from the American market and interrupt the flow of trade and funds, they will only drive them to seek out strong alliances elsewhere, likely with American allies. 

Targeted sanctions that penalize specific actors are a lesser evil and are meant to move away from the type of damage done to a populace like those against Iraq in the 1990s, but targeted regimes still protect their own cronies at the expense of their citizens. Those sanctions which target entire industries or sectors of a nation’s economy inflict long-lasting damage. Sanctions on Russia have led to healthcare cuts, food shortages, and credit crunches for its citizens. A recent New York Times article derides Venezuela’s health crisis without mentioning the U.S.-imposed sanctions, which block citizens from obtaining medicine and parts for clean drinking water. Financial and visa sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe in 2002, and the current incarnation of U.S. and E.U. sanctions on the country are contributing to what has been called a “man-made starvation” of its people, with 60 percent of the population living food-insecure lives. 

Many probably coldly question why we as a country should even care how great the suffering of a “wicked” nation is. But what sanctions commonly result in is the suffering of a nation’s people. Those already suffering will suffer more. They only make the current crisis all the more deadly and put a stranglehold on the flow of necessary supplies. Continuation of these policies will only force more and more people to sacrifice themselves upon the altar of the pandemic and will debilitate those countries for decades thereafter.